Restaurants where you order by looking at a projected image and wafting your finger… Good grief, is this really the way of the future, asks William Sitwell
CALL ME OLD-FASHIONED, but when I walk into a restaurant and a manager-type person says, ‘I hope you enjoy our concept,’ I worry. It makes me think of Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s brilliant futuristic movie in which there is a restaurant with a concept. You point to a picture on the menu and, when the food comes — presented with flamboyant gusto beneath a big silver dome — all you see is a pile of pills on a plate. So as Inamo is a place of the future — all electronic ordering at your fingertips — you can see why I was nervous.
Hoping to be reassured, I then had a conversation with the owners, Noel Hunwick and Danny Potter, both chirpy 29-year-olds who met at Oxford. Most of my chat was with Noel, as Danny appeared a little nervous and jumpy. The reason was two-fold: he wanted to look after some customers in a private room and then muttered something about his girlfriend. It turns out the problem was less about his girlfriend and more about his dog. He has a Leonberger, a large comedy-style dog. The dog had been left in an office, the girlfriend wasn’t going to pick it up. You don’t leave a dog like that in an empty office unless you want trouble.
But back to the food. Except Noel didn’t seem too interested in talking about it, rather the concept. Unusually — in fact uniquely for an interview with a restaurateur — it wasn’t until some 30 minutes had passed that I prompted him to discuss the food. At which point he muttered something about the food being king before getting back to his preferred subject of IT.
For that is where Noel’s passions lie, and the language he uses matches it. You see, his conversation includes sentences like: ‘We’re giving the customer control of the dining experience… We’re a high-end solution… We’re broadening our product offering… We’re looking to advance the technology in hardware and software terms…’ You get the picture. Actually, he did mention food once. He said the word ‘pudding’. And I got excited, except that my hand was writing the words ‘proof is in the pudding’ and he wasn’t actually talking about food.
When Danny joined us I wondered if he might move us away from our customer interface upload-type chat. ‘Why did you decide to serve oriental fusion-style food?’ I asked. ‘The system is flexible over a range of cuisines,’ he replied, while I worked out ways of killing myself, before adding, ‘It marries well with the London market. According to the 2006 Zagat guide, 34 per cent said they liked oriental food.’
Perhaps the boys’ approach is actually a refreshing addition to the London dining scene. I mean, it is at least a more original answer than the usual, ‘Well, when I tasted sashimi as a teenager it changed my life… and so I started dreaming that one day,’ etc etc.
And there is no doubting the cleverness of these boys. They have two businesses. One has two restaurants that use their technology, and the second licences the technology to others.
At present, there is no sign that the computer system means fewer staff at their second site, Inamo St James. But that’s because they are just up and running and hope soon to run a model similar to their Soho branch, where they claim they make a 25 per cent saving on staff compared to other places. So what of the concept and, er, the food?
Our chat over, the dog on its way to be rescued, I went to my table. An overhead projector beams the menu icons and your personalised ‘mood’ on to the table. So you can choose, say, a mountain scene. All very relaxing, you might think, except the projection casts a nasty bright white light into your space, which is distinctly unrelaxing.
WITH A FRIEND, we set about ordering. This was great. No waving about, catching the eye of waiting staff. Wafting my finger around a small circle to my right, I could click the cursor on various dishes and make my order. There didn’t seem much choice, until my companion pointed out that some of the projection missed the table and went on to the floor, so we moved the table to see the choice of sashimi.
While you can flag down a waitress to ask for an explanation about a dish, the technology naturally discourages this. So, the effect is to de-humanise the staff, who become fetching and clearing monkeys. But the food came quickly — almost too quickly if you wanted to stretch out a leisurely dinner. What I did like was, mid-eating, I felt I needed rice. A quick flick of the finger and it was ordered and arrived almost in seconds.
The sashimi was fresh, but the fish lacked distinct flavour. The sushi was very good, with perfectly lukewarm rice. A sweet and spicy aubergine dish was fantastic — and we got two dishes, as we’d both ordered it without telling each other. Peking duck was fine, except the pancakes looked freaky because they were blue (a projection of sky, you see). And there were plenty of other tasty dishes, as we were having so much fun clicking on stuff, we over-ordered.
The place was buzzing, we ate well and particularly enjoyed how you just order the bill with a click and, if you get bored with your conversation, can play computer battleships.
After dinner I caught up with the chef, Sebastian Francis, who admitted some frustrations in how the system limits his ability to serve food that reflects the seasons (‘It’s hard to change the menu because of the technology’). Then he added, ‘When you’re changing a menu every day it can stress your imagination’! His preferred dishes include an avocado and tomato salad (the avo being decoratively curved with great dexterity), miso seabass and salmon with ginger butter. ‘My favourite dish is a crustacean one,’ he said, ‘but I can’t eat it as I’m allergic to it’.
After this comedy we left into the night, filled with thoughts, food and the view that this style of ordering will grow. But if you like talking to waiters, if you enjoy a good ‘staff interface experience’, I’m sure we’re safely stuck with them for centuries to come.
lllustration by Richard Beacham