Will Pay-At-The-Table Apps Ruin Dining Out?

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Fine dining is, to some degree, all about the experience. You come in, you sit down with your group, you talk, you laugh, you have a cocktail and an appetizer, you’re served a great entree, you share a dessert and coffee, and then you chat as the waiter takes care of the bill. But that experience can always be improved — by all parties involved. Diners want ease and a nice flow, and restaurants want to turn tables.

Credit card companies understand these twin desires and want to speed up and smoothen the whole billing process by ensuring your check is paid without any wait. How that manifests is still up for conversation — it might be an app that takes your credit card once you walk in the door or a device that you place your phone on after eating. The one getting the most attention at the moment is Barclaycard’s perhaps inelegantly named “Dine And Dash,” but all of these “pay at the table” systems are roughly what they sound like. You fire up an app, a device on the table interacts with it, and you just order, eat, and when you’re done, leave. You can split the bill, leave a tip, and do all the other financial bits involved in hitting a restaurant.

In terms of execution, this whole idea is pretty neat and it makes a lot of sense in many restaurant situations. If you’re in an airport, or grabbing a quick bite before a movie, of course you don’t want to wait around for a waiter. The appeal to restaurants, beyond nabbing would-be check-ditchers, is, as we mentioned: Turnover. The restaurant game is ultimately about getting butts into and out of seats as quickly as reasonably possible. Anything that shaves a few minutes off your turnover time, or for that matter leaves waitstaff free to do their jobs instead of poking at a POS system (where often POS has a dual meaning) is welcome, at least on the surface.

But the flipside is that these apps — which are surely inevitiable — also speed up a relatively unhurried island of time in our days. There are places that you can eat that are little more than biological gas stations, of course. And it’s fair to argue nobody goes to some chain restaurants looking for an exquisite dining experience, no matter how you feel about endless apps and margaritas. But at the same time, part of the fun of sitting down to eat is spending time with friends, talking about the day, and stepping away from the endless flow of information and demands on our time. Lingering a little is nice and who wouldn’t feel pressure to get moving once the light goes green? (Yes, there’s literally a beacon on the table announcing that you’re done with your meal.)

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As a rule, more efficiency is a good thing. We want to be able to square away that urgent email while on the go, to know what the weather is just by asking a talking hockey puck, to have the things that don’t matter automated out of our lives so we can focus on the things that do. But efficiency isn’t always a good thing. Not everything needs to have the bare minimum of time and attention dedicated to it. We need to ask ourselves what we value when we go out.

If we know going to a restaurant that we’ll just end with us being rushed out the door, why bother in the first place?

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