Photo: Willie J. Allen Jr. / Tampa Bay TimesDiners at the Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar in Tampa browse an iPad menu.
Dining in Florida
Menus and wine lists are going digital across Florida at all levels of price and style, from sleek new French bistros like Stephane’s in Boca Raton to longstanding white tablecloth spots like Michael’s on East in Sarasota.
Besides offering gorgeous pictures, some digital and touch-screen menus let diners sort through wine pairings, rate the place on Yelp or even swipe credit cards. At the same time, restaurants can use the devices to track cannelloni sales, measure a waiter’s revenue and reorder Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc when inventory runs low.
More than a dozen Florida restaurants adopted the technology last year, with the trend continuing to spread.
Digital menus are especially popular for displaying the dustiest part of the menu, the wine list, where users might be thought resistant to change and not as tech-savvy.
“I remember only one person” who objected to the high-tech format wine list, says Stephane Lang-Willar, since he opened Stephane’s last year. “This way it’s like having a master sommelier at every table,” he says.
Quite a master som at that. Virginia Philip of the Breakers in Palm Beach, one of only two women in the country with the MS certification, picked the wines and recommends specific ones for every dish. To make up their minds, customers get tasting notes from Philip herself that tempt them in new directions like a spicy glass of kerner from Italian Alto Adige that they might not have tried.
The service also has great back-of-the-house benefits, Philip says, allowing wine inventory labels and vintages to be changed instantly, with no smudgeouts, no reprinting.
The wine list is also on an iPad at Michael’s on East in Sarasota, where diners search by region, price or grape varietal. A click on a wine name takes diners to pictures of vineyards and wineries that go beyond a mere label and a description of the wine. And like many digital wine lists, it allows diners a choice of “tastes.”
One of the biggest efforts is at Carmel Cafe, the new “mod Med” chain from Outback founder Chris Sullivan, where iPads put the accent on “mod” at the start of the concept. Diners can browse the menu by categories, see wine pairings or surf the wines (and spirits and beers). Kids or bored companions can cruise the web, too.
While the devices speed ordering during a lunch rush and have the potential to cut labor costs, Sullivan and other users say servers get more time for better service. “It gives the front of the house more opportunity to touch people,” Sullivan says.
Meanwhile, food, orders and bills move faster, a key competitive edge. On a recent visit, a server’s face time at table was more frequent and helpful: She advised that the chicken skewers had very punchy flavor, a single espresso was a better buy than a double and monitored the ordering to keep the food flowing in order — right on all counts. Her own computer gave an air-traffic controller’s view of all the tables as well as the action on her station, often ad hoc. A challenge handled smartly and pleasantly.