A TABLET AT THE TABLE

ElaCarteDecades ago, Joy’s brother invested in a restaurant idea. Each table had a big pink phone and you phoned in your order. Joy’s family went to the restaurant to try it out, but the staff ignored the phone calls.

Here’s a different idea: “E la Carte,” from elacarte.com, has provided iPad-like tablets at twenty restaurants in San Francisco and Boston. This is their first step in going national; a former executive from the big restaurant chain, Applebees, is a major investor but not the only one interested. The tablet screen displays the menu and you enter your order there. The tablet also has a slot to swipe your credit card. While you’re waiting you can play video games on the tablet.

Three things make this hi-tech approach appealing to us. One is that people with special dietary needs or preferences sometimes don’t want the whole table to know about it, and this way they can keep it private. Second, lots of people appreciate playing games as a family, rather than seeing everyone turn to their own separate devices. Third, we like the ability to divvy up the check by just pointing to what you’ve ordered.

The tablets cost the restaurants less than $100 per month per device (with nothing up front) and there’s a long waiting list of potential users. A similar device from Tabletop Media is expected to appear in California Pizza Kitchen, Uno’s, and 250 other places by the end of this summer. The E la Carte people say the tablets boosted sales by10 percent or more in their tests.

By the way, here’s a little historical footnote: In the 1920s a popular caf in Vienna had telephones at every table, and with these you could call any other table, all of which had number cards. Perhaps you might see a delightful-looking person across the room and want to chat a bit. It was kind of an early version of match-making apps.

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