Dialogue restaurant

5 Ways Restaurants Are Reviving Human Interaction

Strategic restaurateurs and entrepreneurs encourage connection and conversation.

Dialogue interior by Wonho Frank Lee

In the age of apps, artificial intelligence and robot chefs and mixologists, studies show that people still prefer in-person communication to digital exchanges. Even so, automation that eliminates human interaction is on the rise in the restaurant industry, from AI drive-through assistants to tablet ordering devices. Spots where customers eat in isolation, silently slurping ramen in individual booths at Ichiran for example, are increasingly prevalent as well.

Despite that trend, there are some restaurants around the country fighting to revive face-to-face conversations and restore a sense of humanity to the dining experience. Strategically placed cold brew taps, prompt cards and intimate settings all provide opportunities for the connections humans crave. Here are five ways that restaurants employ these techniques to fuel meaningful contact.

Prompt Cards and Paralanguage

Perhaps the most obvious effort to incite interaction: a Seattle restaurant called Conversation supplies its diners with question cards. Tucked into the menu, the prompts are intended to spark discussion and boost interpersonal connection. The restaurant works in less obvious ways to achieve its pursuit as well: The staff concentrates on nonlexical communication by presenting a meal with intentional rhythm, intonation and momentum. This component of interaction called paralanguage can have a lasting effect on the perceived quality of an exchange.

Clever Design

For Five Coffee, a New York-based specialty roasting company and mini cafe chain, is focused on elevating the customer experience in subtle yet significant ways. While the group recognizes that the quality of its product is important, the founders believe in building a superior space in which to consume it. At each For Five location, espresso machine taps are deliberately installed on a low level so that the baristas can easily converse with the customers. It also allows the customer to watch the drinks be prepared. At some locations, there are even seats in front of this espresso bar counter to further encourage connection. “It’s a really good spot for everybody to congregate,” says owner Stefanos Vouvoudakis. This understated design choice creates organic interaction.

Engaging Art

For Five also works with Sydney, Australia-based designer Tyrone Layne to create original murals for each of its locations. The art features locals, whether it’s depictions of busy New Yorkers or active Virginia residents, along with hidden images of Vouvoudakis and his co-owner Tom Tsiplakos. “It’s our version of 'Where’s Waldo?'” Vouvoudakis says. “People love looking at it and discovering the personalized element.”

Intimate Atmosphere

Award-winning fine-dining restaurant Dialogue flaunts its pursuit of conversation in its name. The Santa Monica tasting menu spot is very purposeful in its goal to foster talking amongst its guests and staff. With just an eight-seat counter and three tables, the space is tight and cozy, which is meant to prompt people to interact. According to Eater, “The compactness of the place practically forces conversation.” Plus, lauded chef Dave Beran is often cooking behind the counter and will take part in the dialogue himself. “There’s literally no separation between kitchen and dining,” he says.

Beran believes that perspective is what elevates good food to great food. “People want something to relate to, something to connect with, something they understand,” he explains. “Perspective gives people a point of reference. It inspires nostalgic moments that make you react in different ways. If you’re making the food and sharing conversation with the guest and offering that perspective, it’s more relatable to them.”

Disruption of Expectations

Beyond offering diners a small space with face-to-face interactions with the staff, Beran makes exacting, intentional choices to incite connection among guests. “We try to create dishes that force them to talk to each other,” he says. “The dining experience as a whole is really crafted to encourage engagement. The trick is finding ways to make the food spark conversation. It’s all about triggers.” He and his team accomplish this by introducing challenges throughout the 20-course meal.

At one point they might remove the silverware, pushing the diners to discuss their eating approach and improvise together. Beran plays with pace, speeding up and slowing down the meal by serving a few single bites spaced out evenly and quickly, followed by a longer course of a shareable plate and a large personal dish dropped at the same time. “The idea is if we’re disrupting your pace, you’re thinking about what you’re doing,” he says. He’ll also insert a sweet dish between a bevy of savory courses. “If everything is savory and then there’s a sweet bite and then it goes back to savory, we’ve disrupted your expectation and you start talking about that,” Beran says. “It’s like a plot twist in a movie. It makes you reconnect with the experience.”

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