Leftovers: Miss your paper menu? Get used to it

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The first website was published 30 years ago this month.

Without much to do, a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee, who worked for a particle physics lab in Switzerland, was on a mission to consolidate technical information. In those days, he had to log on to several cumbersome computers, each utilizing different programs and codes to gain access to data about one topic.

So Berners-Lee proposed a management consolidation information system to his boss, and his efforts eventually resulted in what we now know as websites. He considered names for the virtual place where websites could be accessed, such as Mine of Information and Information Mesh, before deciding upon World Wide Web. 

I came to understand websites from a nerdy work friend who patiently made comparisons to different publishers of encyclopedias and reference resources in the library. 

“There’s Encyclopedia Britannica, World Book Encyclopedia, and Childcraft Encyclopedia for kids,” he explained. “Every year, we get addendum books with updated information of what’s changed in each volume. On the World Wide Web, they can update and change the websites on the spot.”

Unable to comprehend the magnitude of this life-altering technology, I was mildly skeptical and firmly resistant. 

And so it goes with Quick Response or QR codes. The small information matrix barcodes were invented in 1994, three years after the web, by Denso, a Japanese industrial powerhouse associated with Toyota. Originally designed for manufacturing functions such as parts inventory and service date tracking, their potential was quickly recognized by other sectors. Marketing and advertising agencies, for example, saw them as an excellent way to monitor consumer trends. 

Because they are readable by smartphones, perusing menus on our tiny phone screens via QR codes became the norm when restaurants reopened during the coronavirus pandemic. And predictably, not everyone is happy about it. 

Having briefly touched upon QR codes from the diner’s perspective in June, I was surprised at how many server and bartender friends agree with their many customers who dislike the nose-in-a-phone ordering process.

“I detest, no I actually hate, when people look at their phones when I’m talking to them,” said my friend Lisa, who works in Portland. “Now, it’s the way to read the menu. I don’t know if someone is texting a friend or watching porn when I approach a table and introduce myself. People can’t read the small words most of the time and ask questions that are answered right there – like about the side choices, or salad dressings, or preparation descriptions. In my opinion, the QR codes don’t save time or make things easier.”

Longtime bartender and occasional host Billy Mack, of Freeport, agreed. “Aside from reciting the evening specials (if there even are any), people no longer make eye contact when I’m interacting with them,” he said. “Something is missing when a host can’t present the table with the new drink special list. And it’s awful when people ask how much things cost because they can’t see the prices.” 

My research (conducted on the World Wide Web, of course) indicates things boil down to our strong notions of how we want to be served; and for our restaurant people, how they want to provide service. This is especially true when it involves leaving or receiving a tip. Even if the changes are designed to keep us safe and reduce waste, things become confusing. I want to help the environment, but I appreciate a big, wordy menu, too. 

Research also shows that as much as we think QR codes are everywhere, we’re behind other countries in their widespread use of QR codes in restaurants. As an American who loves almost everything about dining out, that doesn’t surprise me. 

I guess the key for our servers and bartenders is to memorize each dish description as if it were a daily special sales contest, with the prize being a bottle of 1979 Opus One. Great ones know them by heart anyway, and I recently had an experience at Saltwater Grille in South Portland, where my server suggested and described a tuna dish. Unable to find the menu item on my phone, I took her advice and was beyond surprised. It exceeded my expectations and was not something I would have otherwise ordered. 

So, to my server and bartender friends, I believe you can all adjust to the change. I’m looking forward to hearing you in action as you ask and answer questions perhaps not found on the tiny screen. To my fellow diners, please, look at your server. Smile with your eyes, and let them do what they do best. Things are changing rapidly and it won’t be long until hand-held menus are a thing of the past. 

I imagine in 30 years, culinary schools will offer a class on the history of menu content and design. Hopefully, the coursework will include examples from those etched in stone in ancient Greece to the most recent with trendy fonts from New York or Paris eateries. 

I’m sure it’ll be tasty information, regardless of how it’s accessed or stored.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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