How Technology Replaced Service in Fine Dining

'Fast fine' restaurants are on the rise. Is that a good thing?

<p>simon2579 / Getty Images</p>

simon2579 / Getty Images

At first glance, John’s Food & Wine in Chicago looks like any other neighborhood bistro. But upon entering the elegant, warmly lit room on a bustling Thursday night, there’s no host to whisk me to a reserved table. Instead, I line up behind a dozen customers queued at the counter of this first-come, first-served restaurant. I gaze at the menu board of fancy coursed shareables, mind racing to piece together my meal as the line shrinks. A sommelier who’s also sometimes a cashier, server, bartender, and host takes my order — to which a 20 percent service charge is automatically added. He leads me to my table where I point my phone at a QR code, opening Toast to select a glass of wine that goes on my tab. Moments later, my drink arrives, when — finally — the experience starts to feel more like a traditional, nice dinner out.

Call it fine casual, fast fine, or express bistro dining; scaled-back dinner service is cropping up at more upscale independent restaurants as operators try to establish equitable pay staff-wide, turn tables more efficiently, and reduce food waste (and frustration) through more accurate ordering.

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Counter-service or QR code ordering theoretically allows fewer, cross-trained employees to focus on more meaningful customer interactions and tasks. Yet as with anything new, these models have their haters and champions, and those uneasily in between — who’d rather peruse a paper menu and chat up a server than scroll through our phones — who wonder if we’re simply clinging to a hospitality model of the past.

“Every service model, every labor model, is going to have some areas that need improvement,” says Adam McFarland, chef and co-owner with chef Tom Rogers of John’s Food & Wine. “Whether at a traditional restaurant where you’re trying to flag down a server or in a place like ours where you haven't seen our service style before and we have to gently guide you through it. We’re not trying to say no; we’re just trying to find different ways to say yes.”

‘It has to make sense for everybody’

McFarland and Rogers were loosely inspired by Birdie’s in Austin, the counter-service wine bar where customers line up to order “crushable” Blaufränkisch and fancy dishes like snapper with walnut salsa verde. A lean staff model enables Birdie’s to pool tips for all hourly staff. (John’s Food & Wine supplements counter ordering with QR codes in part because it has a full bar.)

Elsewhere, at Good Good Culture Club in San Francisco, customers are seated before ordering via QR codes on tables as multi-tasking staff bring out dishes. A mandatory 20% equity fee on checks balances everyone’s pay staff-wide. Keralan restaurant Thattu in Chicago similarly uses QR code ordering, though instead of charging service fees, it’s got a tip-free business model through slightly higher, all-in pricing.

“I do think the scaled-back model is a path forward [for independent restaurants], but I think it has to be used carefully and make sense for everybody,” says Vinod Kalathil, who co-owns Thattu with his wife, chef Margaret Pak. “People are accepting because of the fact that we’ve found a way that it works.”

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Thattu purposefully augments dinner service compared to lunch — via three waitstaff circulating the room. Some customers relish access to servers who can explain dishes and portion sizes, and take orders on handhelds for those who forgot their phones or aren’t comfortable. Many are equally happy to be left alone with their QR codes, Kalathil says. Big groups, in particular, delight in bypassing the headache of splitting checks by ordering individually.

But QR code technology has its limitations and still causes confusion because it can’t be customized to, for instance, remove the tip line, or even allow customers to specify if they have a food allergy, Kalathil says.

That’s why the human element remains as important as ever. Indeed, after Rogers and McFarland sent general manager and sommelier Jonas Bittencourt down to Austin to shadow at Birdie’s, they realized they needed to focus more heavily on cross-training and having staff on the floor — themselves included.

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“I expected to be a chef; I didn’t expect to be in the front as much,” says Rogers. “But we’ve grown and gotten busier, and next thing you know, you’re needed up front. We need to be present and know our neighborhood; this is a neighborhood restaurant.”

Location, location, location… and timing

Even so, not every market is ready to embrace fast fine. Katianna and John Hong, a chef couple with a long history working in Michelin-starred fine dining, debuted Yangban Society in Los Angeles in 2022 as a freewheeling, hybrid deli and sit-down restaurant with food by the pound and wine bottles at retail prices. They implemented QR code ordering at tables, inspired by their love of exploring international markets from Oaxaca to Singapore and their hatred of waiting for the check.

“There were like-minded people who thought it was quirky and different, who loved adding on instead of full service with the server spiel, and who loved leaving whenever they wanted,” says Katianna, chef and partner at Yangban. “But overall, the response was negative.”

Gradually, Yangban Society reincorporated handhelds and full-service ordering to those who wanted it. Then they started fully taking orders before ultimately closing and remodeling for full service. Hong chalks the decision up to the restaurant’s not-walkable location and the fact that early in the post-pandemic, people were done with QR codes and longing for human interaction.

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Yangban reopened in fall 2023 with Korean-inspired fine-ish dining in a traditional, full-service setting. But the Hongs haven’t given up dreaming of a different kind of dining.

“I love and appreciate hospitality,” Hong says. “It’s not that I think those restaurants should go away. But I think there's room for other models, for food at different price points, for different experiences, different commitments. I still think it’s something that could work; it’s all about timing and location.”

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