Beyond the drabness of QR menu codes

Also: Greece recs.

A lot of people have been asking me if I think QR codes at restaurants will go away. They hate them. They want physical menus back. It bums them out to have meals begin with everyone taking out their phones. QR codes are unromantic. Many say they ruin the flow of dates. And at this point in time — with an increasing number of restaurants requiring vaccination to dine indoors (in NYC, the mandate begins today) and the knowledge that COVID doesn’t spread as fiercely via surfaces as we once thought — they feel like an unnecessary holdover. The argument has been made that having QR codes in place of menus reduces waste and cost for restaurants, especially for those that change their offerings frequently. And yet the fact remains: diners do not like them. 

I have a hunch that we’ll start to see QR codes disappear, for the simple truth that they are not sexy. Others think that they’re here to say. Regardless of what happens, as a matter of contemporary hospitality, it’s worth dissecting why the negative opinion of diners isn’t enough to make something go away.

Anyone who has been dining at restaurants over the last year has likely noticed a shift in notions of hospitality. First restaurant workers were put on the frontline of the pandemic. Then, before vaccinations were widely available, they were forced to police diners on safe public behavior. The combination of these two unfortunate scenarios led to a long-overdue correction in public opinion regarding service — restaurant staff, owners, and food media alike came out in droves to say that the customer, in fact, is not always right.

Meanwhile, various restrictions, such as time limits on tables, remain in play. I’ve heard countless stories of people being rushed to place their orders, even being cut off from ordering dessert. As a result, eating out has lost some of its allure. Just because people complain doesn’t mean that they don’t respect that restaurants need to turn tables after a financially taxing year and a half, or that it takes time to appropriately sanitize each table before a new party takes over, or that COVID is still a threat to society. It only means that we’re living in a transitional — and therefore, awkward —moment in time. It doesn’t exactly feel good to induce a tense interaction with a server because you got distracted catching up with a friend and still haven’t had a chance to look at your menus.

Whether the future includes QR codes or time limits is uncertain, but there’s a bigger paradigm shift happening right now: if the customer is not always right, what can we ask of ourselves in place of outdated entitlement? What can restaurants expect from customers in 2021? Awareness and respect, at minimum. What if, also, we thought of ourselves as more than passive customers, and instead as active participants in a dynamic dining culture? What if we considered restaurant workers as peers, as opposed to mere providers of service? If we can understand — and practice — hospitality as a two-way street, then we might find ourselves in a better position than ever before to enjoy restaurants to their fullest potential.

I just returned from nine days in Greece, my first international trip since early 2020. Restaurants don’t utilize QR codes as frequently there. Nor do they enforce time limits on tables. The Greek way of dining — lingering for hours on end, ordering multiple times throughout a meal, knowing that a server will arrive at your table eventually but likely not immediately, including when you’re ready for the check — is alive and well. As with any travel, especially in a prolonged global pandemic, there were some bumps in the road. But the hospitality still flowed in novel ways. Greece welcomed us into their country in the first place. Our Airbnb host in Athens left us a cold bottle of Assyrtiko in the fridge. Stars on many menus indicated when certain seafood was frozen, not fresh. A fig tree planted by the owners of the house we stayed at in Syros overflowed with ripe and sun-dried fruit for anyone to pick. And my favorite: most of our island meals ended with complimentary miniature ice cream bars.

What is hospitality, anyways? It’s kindness. It’s knowledge. It’s the sharing of tradition, culture, philosophy, food. It’s a socially transmitted gift that can only be appreciated if noticed, and that is best relished when received with gratefulness. 


For anyone thinking of a trip to Greece, here’s a quick rundown of recs in Athens and Syros. The latter is significantly less touristy than many of the other Greek islands and has so much to offer — from beautiful beaches to lovely tavernas. If you go to either or both, please bring me back a sleeve of Papadopoulou dark chocolate Digestives. :)

Athens

Heteroclito for an extensive Greek natural wine list, cheese platters, and an elegant vibe.

Nikitas for a low-key tavern lunch. Get the zucchini balls if they have them.

Pnyka for the spinach-feta pie and not-too-sweet galaktoboureko, a phyllo pastry filled thick with creamy custard and drizzled in syrup.

Kaya for an excellent rendition of freddo espresso (no sugar), which I’m now sad to have to forgo for my usual cold brew.

To Steki tou Ilias for a jug of house wine and a pile of charred lamb chops under bushy trees.

Ariana for all the olives.

Lefteris O Politis for a cheap lunch — or snack — of spicy beef souvlaki and cold beer.

Aster for Cretan carbonara, fantastic meat specials, and goblets of pudding for dessert in Petralona, the loveliest of neighborhoods.

Takis Bakery for cheese pies and croissants. Grab your coffee from Drupes Spritzeria next door, which turns into a charcuterie and wine bar at night.

Atlantikos for mussels saganaki with feta and simply grilled fish.

Barrett for local beers and hipster-watching before dinner, or after.

Oikonomou for the idyllic taverna meal. Don’t miss the meatballs over rice or the stewed okra, and be sure to take a peek in the kitchen.

Latraac Skate Cafe for the pale yellow-stained half pipe, the youths, and the Negronis.

O Thanasis for kebab platters and gyros.

Seychelles for something a little less Greek, a date-night feel, and phenomenal pasta (particularly the pappardelle). 

*Bonus, if you make it up to Delphi: To Patriko Mas for views and moussaka.


Syros

Sta Vaporia for scrambled eggs with feta and cherry tomatoes plus a front-row seat to swimmers treading in the sparkling sea.

Delfini Beach Restaurant for smoked eggplant salad (read: dip) and fried calamari.

O Mitsos for mezze and meats overlooking Ermoupoli (the heart of Syros).

Ampela Taverna for a classic lunch followed by an afternoon at the beach. 

Plakostroto for inventive salads, stewed rooster pasta, and a breathtaking setting. 

Ntanos for all the Greek pastries, especially the praline-filled donut.

Iliovasilema for ntakos (essentially Crete’s answer to bruschetta), fried zucchini chips, and fanciful seafood pasta.

Seírios for addictive, corn-dusted breadsticks.

Allou Yialou for the seaside scene and sunset, and the freshest fish — raw and cooked.

Django (also in Athens) for seasonal fruit gelato.

And, of course: Greek salad throughout.

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Published:

For Vegetarian Times: a profile on the chef Shenarri Freeman, and the vegan soul food she’s making waves with at her East Village restaurant Cadence

A look inside Rose + Rye, a wonderful Armenian microbakery in LA (that’s currently raising money for a brick-and-mortar!), and the ingredients they use to make rich, fragrant pastries for Caravan

In Bon Appétit: Heidi Swanson on how her own cookbook carried her when everything fell apart, as told to me

New York’s Resy Hit List for August.

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A few recommended reads (I’m a bit behind here on account of vacation):

Jason Diamond for Grub Street: Rethinking what it means to be a “Jewish” restaurant in New York

Julia Clancy for The Los Angeles TimesMar Vista’s cookbook queen wants her living room back, so she’s selling treasured titles

Kathy Gunst for The Washington PostThis chef closed her high-pressure kitchen to make innovative ice creams by the lake

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I’m @emilyjwils on Twitter & Instagram.