Before the pandemic, I’d shudder at the sight of a restaurant table full of people all staring at their phones. I was always happy not to be them or be sitting with them. I always kept the lively conversation flowing at my table. I had good boundaries between my on- and offline lives. But now, restaurants around the world have nonconsensually turned us all into the people I used to judge. I hate it. And it’s time for us to go back.
It all started when outdoor dining resumed after initial waves of mandated closures last spring. Wary of wayward coronaviruses lingering on physical menus, restaurants taped QR codes to their tables and outsourced the act of menu delivery to the diner and her smartphone. This might have made sense when it still seemed possible that the coronavirus was largely spreading through surface transmission. But we now know that the risk of infection via a contaminated surface is low. In tons of communities across the U.S., vaccination rates are high and COVID-19 case rates are low. People are attending indoor concerts, grinding at dance clubs, and heading back to the office. And yet, even as we eat and slobber and sneeze in restaurants seated at full capacity, in many of those establishments, we’re still obliged to use our own smartphones to figure out what we want to eat. Why? Why should we be scared to go back to touching a communal piece of paper when we’re already breathing one another’s theoretically more dangerous air?
The obvious pitfalls of the QR code menu were well worth the aggravation as a temporary public health measure, and I truly feel for restaurant owners and workers who’ve been forced to redesign their businesses every few months in response to changing municipal regulations and public health findings. But the QR code’s continued ubiquity well into the era of the low surface transmission consensus and the full reopening of public spaces has me worried that digital-only menus will be one pandemic modification that becomes a permanent element of public life. Maybe restaurant owners will welcome the demise of physical menus as a way to eliminate one small but constant expense. Maybe their employees will relish their newfound freedom from the hassle of reprinting menus every time there’s a new seasonal entree on offer. Maybe it will free servers from patrons who always seem to want to order the one dish that’s out of stock. (It can be easily deleted from a digital menu as soon as it runs out.) Maybe diners who already love scrolling on their phones at restaurants will be more than happy to check out the menu there, too. Other customers may be content to touch one less surface that might be stained with food or invisibly smeared with another person’s snot.
Not I! I’m tired of having to navigate a new digital platform every time I eat out. I despise spending the first 10 minutes of a social engagement on my phone. I never again want to encounter, as I did last week, a QR code that leads to a website where each of the seven menu pages is a separate PDF that must be clicked, zoomed in on, and closed before moving on to the next.
If you think I’m being overdramatic, let me ask you this: Have you gone to a restaurant with your boomer parents during the pandemic? If not, have you ever had to teach your boomer parents how to set up a Roku or connect their printer to Bluetooth? Same tedious, excruciating, relationship-straining thing. One of my family members is in his late 70s, loves dining out, and only owns a flip phone with no internet connectivity. He’s already excluded from much of our increasingly digital society; before the pandemic, the American restaurant was one of the few places left where he was entirely comfortable with the mores and knew exactly what was expected of him when he walked through the door. Now, he never knows what to anticipate or what he’ll be asked to do when he goes out for lunch.
Default-digital menus are alienating for other kinds of customers, too. Critics have rightly noted that the cashless trend in food and retail is prohibitive for customers who don’t have bank accounts. Likewise, for a customer who doesn’t have a smartphone or robust data plan—including about one-quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 per year—a QR code menu means having to ask for special accommodations she never used to need. Ditto foreign travelers, whose smartphones may not work on U.S. soil. QR codes also open the door for easily executed scams, malware, and digital surveillance. There is no good reason to add an exclusionary, risky, socially deadening digital step to an analog system that was working just fine before the pandemic hit.
Some restaurants have taken it even further, digitizing not just the menu but the entire dining experience. Two months ago, I ate outdoors at a Basque restaurant that used to have fantastic service on its outdoor patio. This time, it required diners to page through an extensive website that held its menu options. We had to place food and drink orders on an online platform and punch in our credit card information on our tiny phone keyboards with our big, dumb fingers. Then, we had to wait for a notification on our phones to tell us our drinks were ready to pick up indoors. When we decided to order a second bottle of cider midway through the meal, we had to place a whole new order online. It felt more like ordering takeout or shopping on Amazon than dining out.
It is possible that I socialize in some kind of Luddite bubble, but I’ve only ever heard from one person who loves the new QR code restaurant experience. My colleague, a single woman in her 30s in D.C., said she likes the restaurants that now require customers to view the menu, order, and pay via QR code, fully eliminating most of a server’s responsibilities. (This mode of operation may make sense for restaurants that have faced staffing shortages since reopening. I will happily pay higher prices at an adequately staffed restaurant that pays a living wage.) Since each diner orders and pays on her own, my colleague said, it’s made it easier to dine with groups of friends who might have otherwise struggled with splitting a check, and it’s preempted awkward conversations with guys on dates about who’s getting the bill.
I suppose I can see where she’s coming from. During a bad date or a social interaction that’s reached its natural end, the wait to receive and pay the check can feel interminable. But people don’t visit sit-down restaurants because they want a meal marked by extreme convenience and speed. As several restaurant workers have told me during the pandemic, diners come to restaurants for hospitality. For me, the pleasure of poring over a physical menu is so integral to the experience of dining out that I made my friends mimic it during an early-pandemic dinner over Zoom. We’ve all just had the most isolated, screen-mediated year of our lives. If there’s an opportunity for us to make a familiar social interaction more tangible and human, and less coldly transactional, let’s take it.