The sommelier as endangered species
If you go to the Calafia Cafe, in Palo Alto, you won’t have to wait for a server to take your order. Instead, you just call up the menu on the touch screen mobile pad on your table, look at hi-res digital images of the foods, and then punch in your selections. Let’s say it’s the clams and udon noodles for an appetizer, then the grilled hanger steak for the main course. Your friends do the same thing. Your orders go right to the kitchen. While you’re waiting for the food, you might play a social game on the same tablet; your table’s high scorer at trivia gets $1 off the cost of dessert. Of course, when your food is ready, a real live human being brings it to your table–the tablet can’t do that. But when the meal’s over, you can pay for it with a swipe of your credit card–no waiting for a busy waiter to have to notice you’re ready to leave. You can enter your email and get a digital receipt promptly sent. And, since the night is still young, you can browse the tablet and discover clubs, bars and so on that are right in the neighborhood.
The tablet is called a Presto, and it’s manufactured by E la Carte, which was started up in 2008 out of MIT, and now has offices in Silicon Valley, Boston, Chicago and New York. They’ve raised venture capital from angel investors, and Calafia isn’t the only restaurant that uses Presto and similar devices, both in this country (L.A.’s Umami Burger, for example) and overseas, in Japan and Europe. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “chains across the country are signing on [to Presto]. Creator Rajat Suri expects that soon every mass-market, mid-range restaurant and bar – and even some independent operations – will start using the Presto or similar technology.”
Does it mean actual waiters will soon be anachronisms? It’s hard to envision a time when somebody won’t have to schlep the food from the kitchen to the table. But a busboy (or a robot, for that matter) could do that. And you wouldn’t have to tip a busboy (much less a robot) 20% of the tab just for carrying a few plates of food.
How about wine? Restaurants already are featuring touch screen devices for the wine list, instead of a dirty old booklet with everyone’s germs on it. Barbacco, a trendy trattoria in San Francisco’s Financial District, was the city’s first. “Diners…browse through [wine] selections on screen, and can store a number of possible choices. Ordering will still take place the old-fashioned way — through a real live human being,” the Chronicle’s Jon Bonné reported. But is it so hard to imagine a future generation of tablets that not only list all the wines, but interactively suggest pairings? Maybe you order Barbacco’s paccheri, a pork ragu with plenty of parmigiano reggiano. You’re not sure what to drink with it. But the tablet is. It may suggest a nine-year old Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, from Emidio Pepe, explaining that the wine’s tannins are resolved, and its acidity and extract will stand up to the food’s richness. You look at the price: $110. Ouch. You ask the tablet to suggest something less pricey. Back comes a 2006 Tuscan Sangiovese, from Querceto di Castellina, which the tablet tells you is similarly full-bodied and dry, with acidity to cut through the oiliness. And the price is a more reasonable $48.
Is there any reason this can’t happen, thus eliminating the [sometimes uncomfortable] dance diners are forced to perform with sommeliers? The Chronicle article suggests it will. “Eventually, [Presto] will tell diners what kinds of wines they like based on a personality quiz.” That sounds kind of silly (“Are you the type that hates to ask for directions? Then choose a Pinot Noir”), but there already are rudimentary “computerized sommeliers” on the market. For example, at Hong Kong’s Landmark Oriental Mandarin Hotel, they advertise “a computerised sommelier that will recommend food and wine pairings by region, taste or price.” With advances in A.I. coming fast and furious, who’s to say that in a generation the human sommelier won’t be seen as an charming relic of a bygone era, like trolley conductors, gas lamp lighters and doctors who make house calls?