Restaurant of the future?

Or Gimmick? Legal Sea Foods brings high tech to the dining experience.

The buzz was all about the technology. Legal Sea Foods, purveyor of traditional New England fare, was launching the restaurant of the future – or at least of today. Dubbed Legal Test Kitchen, LTK for short, a blustering press release promised "a glimpse into some of the restaurant industry's most innovative technology."

Here, diners would surf the Web or watch TV at their tables using portable plasma touchscreens while listening to their iPods via individual speakers. The hassle of ordering and paying would be mitigated by waiters toting hand-held PDAs and portable machines that let you swipe your own credit card.

My assignment, courtesy of an editor who is an enthusiastic trendseeker, was to report back from the dining experience of the future. He was excited about its professed embrace of technology. I was skeptical. Maybe it's because I'm a contrarian technophobe, but on our two separate visits, within a week of each other, we each had very different experiences.

With walls of glass, an expansive stretch of bar space, leather banquettes, and a dark-chocolate color scheme, the restaurant looks modern, sleek. But the much ballyhooed technology is less visible.

LTK was relatively quiet on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the youngish crowd mostly business-suited power-lunchers. I arrived alone. My date (you know who you are) stood me up, which may have contributed to my grumpiness at the prospect of sharing a table with an iPod and an interactive plasma screen.

In my defense, discerning eater Jim Leff, of Chowhound.com, affirmed my distaste in an e-mail: "Customers who care about food don't want to listen on headphones or type on their computers or push screen buttons as they eat."

No matter. The plasma screen never materialized. It was only after surveying the restaurant on my way to the bathroom that I caught sight of two small screens mounted on a wall. (The restaurant, which seats 80, has a total of five.) And it was only after my editor explained they could be removed and set on a table that I understood how they doubled as menus.

There are just 14 iPod docks, available by request. But watching the waiter snuggle my iPod between two small speakers didn't make me feel in-the-know; I felt self-conscious. Especially when 50 Cent's racy "Candy Shop" came blaring out. (I prefer to keep my flirtation with gangsta rap where it belongs: in my headphones.)

When my editor visited with his wife on a boisterous Sunday night, he could turn the volume full tilt and no one seemed to notice. His order was taken on one of the seven hand-held wireless devices, and he later paid at his table with a portable credit card machine. He also witnessed people poking away at a plasma screen.

When I ordered there was only a pen and paper. Somehow, even this tried-and-true technique failed. My waiter returned to re-take my order. And still I ended up with two lobster rolls. (I ate only one, and thought it was good. The rosemary-laced fries that accompanied it, however, were delicious, as was the mango iced tea.) At the end of my meal, I had to ask to use the card swiper; they only have five. But it was thrilling – who wouldn't love forgoing the waiter flag-down. Plus, it calculates your tip for you.

Legal Sea Foods owner Roger Berkowitz envisions his new restaurant as a place where technology subtly supports the dining experience. "What I'm trying to do is make the restaurant experience more efficient, so you spend the optimal amount of time eating and socializing," he says.

The actual experience was a little too subtle.

Technology is undoubtedly important to the restaurant industry. As Chrissy Shott of the National Restaurant Association points out, it's an incredibly labor-intensive business where anything to boost efficiency is valued. The annual Restaurant Industry Forecast found a greater emphasis on technology – everything from websites to improving service – to be a top restaurant trend for 2006. Twenty-seven percent of adults surveyed by the Restaurant Association said they would use wireless Internet at their favorite restaurant; 52 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds would. One in four adults would watch a tableside TV. While few restaurants have made a point of incorporating technology in the way LTK purports to, the interest is certainly there.

I left lunch intrigued by how inconspicuous the high-tech frippery was and, aside from the credit-card swiper, mostly underwhelmed. My editor, however, caught a glimpse of the future – blurry though it was.

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