Ordering A Meal in A Brave New World

Posted on January 20, 2018


Life in the Boomer Lane’s travel experiences have involved being felled by belt buckles, vending machines and assorted TSA agents. On this most recent trip, to Florida, the culprit was an airport restaurant.

At first, LBL was delighted. The section of National Airport in DC that serves Southwest Airlines is actually the original airport. It’s small and has contained no restaurants, only a coffee bar and baked goods. A new renovation provided a real restaurant, and LBL and Now Husband enthusiastically headed toward it.

When seated (without the benefit of a hostess), LBL’s sense of comfort started to diminish. An iPad stared at her, while another iPad sat staring at Now Husband, across the table. The iPads were tilted and met at the top.  LBL read the screen. The iPad welcomed her to the restaurant and provided a scrolling list of cities.  LBL assumed these were cities served by the restaurant. LBL started scrolling, looking for Washington, DC. It was not on the list. The following conversation ensued:

What are you doing?

I’m trying to find Washington, DC.

But you are flying to Tampa.

I thought I was supposed to identify where the restaurant was.

No, the restaurant knows where you are. You are supposed to identify your flight.

How did you know that?

Because that’s the only thing that makes sense.

LBL, in spite of a lifetime of being skeptical about anything that makes sense, decided to follow what Now Husband suggested.  She poked at the screen in an assertive manner. Apparently, she poked too hard, causing Now Husband’s iPad to topple over. She tried to poke gently, and Now Husband’s iPad toppled over again.

Why don’t you just take the device out of the holder?

It’s a stupid design, the way they meet at the top, like they are holding each other up. Why aren’t they secure?

Can you just take the device out?

Can I do that? It looks attached.

It’s just a holder.  You can remove it.

Sure enough, LBL was able to lift the iPad and place it on the table. When LBL found Tampa and touched the screen, her flight information appeared.  It informed her that the flight was on time and told her exactly how much time she had to eat, before the flight would start to board. It was sort of creepy.

Next, the screen asked if she was ready to order. She was, but no waiter appeared.  She looked at the screen again, and, sure enough, eventually she found a button that said “Menu.” Gingerly, she touched it. A menu appeared that looked more like Netflix choices than any actual menu she had ever seen before. This took awhile to acclimate herself to. By this time, Now Husband had completed his own order.

LBL pressed “hamburger.” The screen then informed her of a variety of additional choices that customers made who had chosen “hamburger.”  Again, exactly like Netflix. LBL read every single choice, even though all she wanted was a hamburger. But it was interesting to see what other people chose. She lost track of time, imagining the possibilities. Now Husband waited.

How are you doing?

I want a hamburger.

Great. Then press “Place order.”

As LBL’s finger hovered over “Place order,” about to press. Before she could do so, the screen flashed the following: “Due to inactivity, your session has ended.”

I can’t order. The session ended.

Press again.

Nothing happens.

Start over. 

By now LBL had changed her mind about the hamburger and decided to get chicken noodle soup. Now an expert at the system, she efficiently ordered the soup and pressed “Place order.” Two items appeared on her screen, the hamburger and the chicken noodle soup.  She was relieved to see a button at the bottom that said “Call server.”  By now, Now Husband’s meal had arrived and he was eating.

LBL was grateful that by pressing the button, an actual humanoid approached the table (or at least, an excellent imitation of a humanoid), and he guided LBL through the ordering process. Now Husband ate his lunch and watched.

Eventually, the chicken noodle soup appeared (billed as “homemade” and tasting like homemade) and LBL completed her lunch. She pressed “My bill” and her bill appeared. The iPad instructed her to “swipe your card” and provided a handy illustration of a card being swiped.  LBL then swiped her card across the screen, the back of the iPad, and, after noting that nothing happened,  she examined the sides of the iPad and repeatedly ran her finger up and down the edge.

What are you doing now?

Trying to find where to swipe my card. There doesn’t appear to be anywhere to do it.

Now Husband call LBL’s attention to a rather large black box that ran the width of the table. LBL had not noticed the box before. Upon closer inspection, she saw it was a credit card swipe machine, with two parts, one for each side of the table. After several tries, she was able to swipe her card correctly and press “Pay” on the screen, put her card away, and grab her jacket and suitcase. She stood up and told Now Husband she was ready to head for their gate. Now Husband didn’t move.

Did you add a tip?


What you leave servers.

I know what a tip is. I didn’t see where to do that.

It was on the screen. Go back to your bill.

LBL pressed “Bill.” There was nothing there, like a sad, empty shopping cart on eBay or Amazon.

There is nothing there. What should I do?

Now Husband didn’t answer.  He threw three dollars on the table.  On the way out of the restaurant, LBL saw another humanoid.  LBL stopped her.

“If you are an actual person and not a computer, and, if you are allowed to handle actual money, can you tell our server that we left the tip on the table? Thanks.”

LBL and Now Husband headed toward the gate.  LBL was proud of her first experience with a computerized restaurant. But she still wasn’t sure that she shouldn’t have ordered the hamburger.