For almost the entirety of my first semester of college, I ate alone in my room. Of course, extraneous circumstances made it difficult to find people to befriend. So for three months, I was pathetically accompanied by the illuminated screen of my computer and a borrowed Netflix account trying to catch up on every Marvel movie.
Our lives are inescapably intertwined with technology. For instance, in China, you can’t get around the city without WeChat, a social media app that combines the functions of Uber, Venmo, Instagram and Facebook into one multipurpose networking must-have. While the world continues to obsess over technological advances that make our lives easier and more efficient, its implications for food service — like waiting tables and ordering food — threaten it to become an obsolete practice.
One of the biggest, most recent adaptations that restaurants have made in light of the pandemic is the eradication of paper menus. No longer can we feel the greasy, laminated film or the crinkly, reused menu in our hands. Instead, your waiter seats you at the table and asks you to scan the QR code. Sometimes instead of a waiter, there’s an iPad where people can place their order, pay and then leave. Besides the waiter who brings your food, everything else is replaced by electronic communication. Often, the built-in devices sit immobile on your table, obstructing your vision of the other people you might be sitting with or distracting you with the newest Geico ad or some new TV show. Talking to waiters is more than for jotting down your order. Waiters can offer you their personal favorites and help you decide between difficult choices.
Soon, we won’t be signing checks, trying to calculate the tip or scrawling out our signatures on a piece of paper. Cafés and restaurants equipped with iPads that can read credit card chips and send recipes through text or email will become the norm. In fact, we’re so deep into this technological era that escaping it almost seems to make you either elitist or antiquated.
Technology encourages people to dine alone and reduces the amount of social interaction we are meant to have with others. I admit, I enjoy being alone. People frustrate and torment me in ways that my own thoughts have yet to surpass. But I absolutely adore eating with other people, seeing waiters bustle around and hearing the chatter of restaurants.
Restaurants are meant for people, not for robots and iPads. The technological ease of ordering food and paying the check is causing people to forget why restaurants exist in the first place. They serve as some of the cornerstones of cultural conversation and city life. First dates, birthday parties and anniversaries, are all commemorative milestones that we often celebrate by going out to eat. Unlike music, food has not yet been made freely available and disseminated to every corner of the world. While the ability to experience your friend’s favorite songs at the click of a mouse is convenient, it doesn’t come with the same excitement or anticipation as when we meet people for food.
Solo dining no longer turns heads the way it used to. People are launching themselves into this trend of low-interaction dining to avoid any form of social interaction. In Japan, Ichiran is one such restaurant that emphasizes anonymity and focuses on the food in front of you. While there is nothing wrong or shameful about this, it is intended to be a different experience than having technology replace social interaction. When we eat alone, most people cannot resist the temptation of checking their phones. But doing so defeats the purpose of solo dining and only serves to incorporate dining into part of a person’s to-do list rather than a time to sit down and relax.
I can support one-person dinners under certain conditions. They are luxurious. They embrace solitude and tranquility. For 30 minutes, it’s like pressing pause on your busy world. But only if you do it right. No writing emails, reading papers or binging Netflix. Just you and your food.
Embracing and destigmatizing individualistic habits like Ichiran is important, but should not be our primary focus. Eating alone is too often negatively associated with mental and physical health conditions, such as depression and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Instead, we should turn to new food-sharing initiatives like London’s Casserole Club and South Africa’s Food Jams, both of which aim to not only improve food security and provide food for those who do not have time to cook for themselves but also create a place to socialize and make new friends.
Dining is more than a meal — it’s a therapeutic, social, yet simultaneously private exchange of ideas, thoughts and culture. Restaurants take gastronomy and passion for food to a higher level; they fuse together architectural statements with expensive tastes that bring our society closer together.
Admittedly, improved labor efficiency and a cheaper workforce are reasonable motives to shift into a more electronic-centered business model. However, we must be wary of the way that this changes the way we interact with people. For once in my life, I would rather go back to the times where we are able to see and talk to other people. Call me old-fashioned, but at least I know how to enjoy my meals.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.