Tonight I had dinner at a lovely little Mediterranean place in Tampa. Despite being located in a strip mall — you have to get used to things like that in Florida — the Carmel Cafe had a warm feel, soft lighting, better than decent food, and iPad menus. The latter featured an app that according to the restaurant was custom developed for them and is among the “very best restaurant iPad apps out there.” Not that I’ve used many of the others, but this one truly did offer a carefully thought out user experience.
Using the app, you could scan all the items on the menu, from starters and flatbreads, to salads and larger dishes. You could scroll through the entire menu visually or use a search column to access items by category — wines, salads, pasta, fish, meat. There were even listings to direct you toward gluten free items as well as any listing that contained nuts. Accurate images gave you a peek at every dish offered. And one button let you add it to your orders where they remained stored until you hit a send button alerting the kitchen of your request and adding the price to an easily accessible running tab.
Carmel Cafe’s promise is that you’ll get your dish within five minutes of ordering, so you enjoy total control over the tapas-like experience. Order items as you want them rather than in advance. And never end up with too much food on the table at once. Better yet, the app lets you check your total order and running tab at any time. When it comes time to pay, you settle up directly from the iPad. You can split the bill as many ways as you desire, choose from a range of percentages for a gratuity and simply enter your credit card number to complete the transaction.
As far as restaurant menu apps go, this one is among the most perfectly designed real time experiences that I’ve seen. It makes selection and ordering easier. With multiple iPads on the tables that seat large parties, it lets everyone easily organize and coordinate their orders. And by speeding up input to the kitchen it assures dishes get delivered with amazing alacrity.
But there’s another question. The novelty of the app, the clarity of the photos, the ability to aggregate orders before submitting them, and the attraction of the running tab — at least for the Woody Allen neurotics at the table — pretty much assures that there will be less actual conversation, social interaction and human contact than we might want with friends over the course of dinner. We already know what it’s like to have everyone at a restaurant table glancing at their iPhones, communicating with the people who aren’t there rather than those who are. Add to that a really interactive iPad menu and we have yet another reason to engage with a screen instead of a person.
An iPad menu even eliminates some of the welcome chatter we typically share with a really knowledgeable waiter who might be smarter about ingredients and preparations than whoever wrote the descriptions appearing on the app.
Truth be told, I really liked the iPad menu. It gave me a better view of food I was about to eat. It made it easier to order and try different wines by the glass. It assured me total control over the experience. And if I were I to be wondering how much money I was spending it kept me up to speed on that, too.
But I have to admit to having had a bit less conversation with my dinner companions that I might have if had we ordered the old fashioned way and weren’t constantly distracted by four big screens sitting on the table.
Digital dinners. I don’t think we’ll be seeing them as part of the Parisian four hour restaurant experience anytime soon. But here in America? It’s probably the next big thing.
What do you think? iPad menus? Or stick to the old fashioned printed versions?