The National: UAE dining gets high-tech with iPads

You might not have encountered them just yet, but if you eat out regularly, the likelihood is that you’ll be presented with one in the near future. Interactive iPad menus began appearing in restaurants in the US in 2010 and in the past year or so the trend has started to take hold in the UAE.

Restaurant iPad Menu

For the uninitiated, the iPad’s touch-screen allows customers to scroll through the menu, click on and enlarge photographs of specific dishes and call for service. It then depends on the restaurant whether you swipe a button to wirelessly transmit your order to the kitchen, or place it the old-fashioned way with a member of staff.

While this may well be a clever technological development, does it take away from the romance and ritual of perusing a traditional restaurant menu? And after a day spent staring at our computer screens, do we really want to be doing this in our downtime?

Alan Doyle is the marketing manger for Blue House, a Dubai company that provides market-specific applications for the iPad and iPhone. Blue House developed the interactive uTouchMenu solution – an electronic menu for restaurants in late 2010. Doyle says that after a relatively slow start, the concept is starting to catch on. The Farm restaurant in Al Barari, Dubai, already uses the uTouchMenu and Blue House is working on solutions for a number of major hotel chains in the city.

According to Doyle, this development has numerous benefits for the restaurant. “First and foremost, the digital menu allows the restaurant to interactively up-sell and cross-sell other items on the menu such as wine, fruit juices, side dishes or even shisha,” he says.

Other advantages, he adds, include the ability to make instant alterations to the menu, potentially increase revenue with a promotions section and boost customer loyalty by implementing a system that recognises repeat visitors and provides offers tailored to their preferences.

Since opening last November, it’s safe to say that Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi has wholeheartedly embraced the iPad. Tablet menus are used at the hotel’s signature restaurants Quest and Li Beirut, as well as Ray’s Bar, and they will also be in place at the Japanese restaurant scheduled to open soon, Tori No Su. Beyond the food and beverage experience, the hotel offers free iPads for use in its conference centres, executive lounges, limousines and in a number of its suites.

Doris Greif, the general manager of the hotel, says that one of the greatest advantages of the iPad menu is the increased choice it affords the customer. “The iPads provide the option for guests to really delve into the history, background, philosophy and gastronomic artistry involved in what they are eating or drinking. A full investigation into each can be undertaken, or alternatively guests can easily choose a limited search or even forego the iPad completely and rely on their own preferences or lean on the knowledge and suggestions of our experienced sommeliers and waiters,” she explains.

The introduction of iPad menus is likely to signal a decrease in the number of staff needed to man the floor and help the restaurant cut costs. However, relying too heavily on them could lead to a drop in customer-service levels, as it’s often the expertise or knowledge of a member of staff that makes a meal truly memorable.

David West, an Abu Dhabi resident who has eaten at both 55&5th The Grill at the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort (where the beverage menu is on the iPad) and at Quest in Etihad Towers, says that while he did appreciate the concept, he still prefers the more traditional approach.

“When I go out for dinner, I think it’s nice if there is a bit of interaction between the staff and customers,” he says. “You build up a bit of rapport over the evening and I do think that this type of menu curtails that slightly.”

Alex Lahmer, the executive assistant manager for food and beverage at the St Regis, says that the majority of customers have reacted positively to the iPad beverage menu at 55&5th.

“Most guests simply love it and actually get excited with the amount of detail they can go through. However, there is always the odd one that gets nostalgic and wants a printed paper version.”

He adds that one of the major drawing points of the iPad is the increased flexibility it affords them, which is particularly important in a region such as the UAE, where so many products are imported and continual supply is not always guaranteed.

The food and beverage manager Maheesha Ratnayake expresses a similar sentiment. Ratnayake also argues that the trend toward iPad menus is more than a fad, as they cut down on paper – thus fitting in with The Farm’s eco-friendly aspirations – while providing a flexible method of expressing the restaurant’s approach.

“The iPad really works for us, it’s absolutely not a gimmick. If we don’t get the right fresh produce delivered to us on a certain day or it’s not up to standard, then we can just take the dish off or make changes.”

Murrindie Frew, a Dubai-based photographer, says that after visiting The Farm a couple of times, she has gradually been won around by its menus.

“My first thought was how cool and quirky it was, until I couldn’t figure out how to use it and frustration took over,” she says. “After using it a couple of times since then, I’ve got used to it; it’s really no different to Facebook adapting its structure or using new technology. We all hate it at first, then it becomes second nature. My only concern now is having to explain how to use it to my technophobic mother when she visits.”

Restaurants that use tablet menus

– Mansion, the club in the newly opened hotel Melia Dubai, uses the Blackberry Tablet as an electronic menu instead of the iPad. “It is cost effective, looks very slick, plus, if you ever need to change the copy on the menu, it’s quick and easy,” says the manager Dan Yantin.

– Dine at the 55&5th The Grill at the St Regis Saadiyat Island and you have the opportunity to order by iPad. The hotel will be introducing the iPad menu at Sontaya restaurant in the near future.

– In keeping with its eco-friendly ethos and regularly changing menu, The Farm in Dubai has done away with paper menus in favour of the iPad system.

– Forty-five iPads are in use at various outlets at Le Meridien Dubai, including the à la carte menus at both Sukhothai & Warehouse Level -1.

– Guests can use iPad menus at Quest, Ray’s Bar and Li Beirut at Abu Dhabi’s Jumeirah at Etihad Towers.