A few weeks ago, I met my best DC friends for an outdoor dinner at a new trendy restaurant in a neighborhood of DC I’d never heard of. (Amazing how the DC of my 30s is about four times the size of the DC of my 20s). As these were some of my very best friends who I don’t see all that often, I wanted to tuck in, get that wine flowing, and laugh and talk until we hit that sweet spot between living in the present day and reliving the time a decade ago when we were all so close and had endless youthful adventures. Back in those days, my one girlfriend would practically ban our group from going out to to dinner before going out out. “I know you’ll all eat dinner and then not want to go to the bar,” she’d say and we promised that wouldn’t happen and inevitably we would stuff ourselves with shared truffle pizzas or baskets of warm chips and salsa and I’d say “Hey, what if we all went back to mine and put jammies on and watched something?” And aforementioned friend would be like “Ugh. I knew this would happen.” Anyways, times have changed. The friends all have several kids whom they’d gotten sitters for and there was no (ultimately abandoned) plan to hit up the bars after. Our group dinner was the evening.
We were led to our table by a real live human who reappeared at infrequent intervals to refill steel pitchers of water. This restaurant is entirely outdoors with dozens of metal tables spaced out on a large pea gravel yard with lots of toasty heat lamps and string lights. Cozy for sure, but I wonder if DC folks will be dining al fresco come February? Upon sitting down everyone but me seemed to recognize a small wooden sculpture on our table as being a QR code. Five phones scanned the QR code and suddenly we were each transported to our individual worlds of menu perusing, nary a comment about the offerings except to say who was selecting what for the table. I selected two bottles of wine on my phone – a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sauvignon Blanc, which are my two faves, and everyone else was so engrossed in ordering food that I didn’t ask if others liked those wines. I was surprised to see the wines were in my “cart” and I had to pay for them immediately. I’m coming from a country that doesn’t even use credit cards. It didn’t take me long after returning to America to learn how a QR code is often the start of many a sale in this post COVID panic America. What I did not know, however, was that the new thing is you must immediately pay for things at a restaurant in order for them to appear on your table. I tried to pay for the wines plus the 20 percent tip that was automatically added to my bill (with a disclaimer that additional tips are appreciated. Tips for what, I wondered? Rosie from the Jetsons who would likely be delivering my two bottles of wine?) but turns out I didn’t have the right app installed on my phone so my payment method was rejected, which meant another friend added the wine to the many things she’d already ordered, which immediately caused me to think of how inequitable this ordering system was and making a note to try and balance what everyone had spent and Venmo as appropriate the next day.
So we’d been at dinner for 15 minutes, we’d used multiple electronic devices (iPhones) multiple new technologies (QR codes, some app I didn’t have, the promise of the next day’s Venmo) and we’d yet to talk with each other. Wine came and was set on the table. A waiter did not pour the wine nor did they stick around to see if it was any good. Food was deposited by humans who darted off the second the plates hit the table and they never came back to see how it tasted. When we ate through the paltry number of pita points that accompanied our warm feta dip with olives and we asked the guy refilling our water for more bread, he shrugged and and said “The QR code.” So we had to rescan the QR code, and scroll for “add on bread” which was an additional charge of course. Which is when it occurred to me that if you remove waiters from the equation, one of the things you’re eliminating is any chance of getting a few cheeky add-ons. A larger pour on your drink, a few more fucking pieces of bread for a party of five. You know, those things that make you feel a little special and might make you want to return to a place.
At one point during dinner, our water human stopped coming to our table and I made a whole show, wobbling in my heels across the pea gravel, to refill our steel pitcher. “See, when we allow the robots to take over, we could eventually lose water.” I was feeling like a foreigner and my friends and husband were like “Emily, get over it. This is how it is now.” My one friend immigrated from then Czechoslovakia when she was 13 and I see her as such a fast-talking, fast-moving American so I’m always surprised when there is an American cultural thing she doesn’t know, like who played Screech on Saved by the Bell or what a Lite-Brite is. But in recent years, she’s been the one telling me “Okay, I cannot believe you don’t know this.” But I couldn’t get over it. We only eat outside now and have QR codes instead of waiters? On my third retelling of the “robot restaurant” experience, Adam said he couldn’t hear the story anymore and I said that was fine because I’d stop telling it in person soon and instead blog about it and then link to the blog via a QR code that I’d post around Washington DC restaurants.
I know I’m on to something, because I just heard this NPR story detailing how a chain of healthy fast food restaurants in Canada are employing people in South America to take orders. One woman in South America, who works for the company that provides ordering services to a number of restaurants around the world, said she had never eaten anything on the menu, especially not the smoothie with avocado.
The service industry has been trying to find ways to automate processes for years. Self-checkout lines (which, at least for me at CVS, require human intervention 100 percent of the time), EZ pass in lieu of toll workers, self check-in kiosks at airports, ordering screens at fast food restaurants like McDonalds, workers in foreign countries fixing your technology problems and placing the order for your smoothie bowl (which is the same thing as a smoothie, but served in a bowl, which was news to me). These automations are always, always, a move to save money. Computerized processes and off-shore workers cost less than an American. Don’t try and tell me that QR code ordering and paying ahead for my meal plus 20 percent for service that I have yet to receive, and won’t receive at all, keeps me safe from COVID. And while we’re at it, don’t try to tell me that I’ll save a rainforest if I don’t request a fresh dry towel from my $300 a night hotel.
There were moments at dinner when I could get past the new restaurant world order, stop plotting this blog post, and just enjoy being with my friends like the old days until we all went home and changed into comfy pants, which truthfully is what we did a lot of the times back then. The food was actually quite good presumably because it was made by a human. Although perhaps the next time we come back from a long stint abroad, in the year 2027 following our tour in Istanbul, robot chefs will have taken over.