The future is here when waitress Kathy Miera says she'll check to see whether the Tam O'Shanter restaurant's smoked salmon luncheon special is still available.
Rather than walk a dozen or more steps to the crowded kitchen and yell at some frazzled chef, she simply pecks an abbreviated code into her hand-held computer terminal.
Within a second, the tiny screen on the pocket-camera-sized device indicates that the salmon is indeed in stock at the late lunch hour of 1:15 p.m. With the salmon issue settled, the rest of the table's orders are taken, with similar codes being inputted on the keyboard.
Precision Via a Printout
Not too long after the orders are programmed, Miera returns with the drinks. On her tray alongside the various glasses is a small printout that indicates seat No. 1 has mineral water, No. 2 has house white wine and the third luncheon patron is drinking iced tea. The service of the entrees is similarly well-organized and precise.
Somewhat later, as the time for paying the tab arrives, Miera provides an exact computer printout of everything ordered by each person, complete with itemized costs, tax and total. The slip of paper also indicates that the meal ended at 14:08.
A step into the Tam O'Shanter means you've entered the world of restaurant automation where chefs, waiters and waitresses communicate through keyboards and computers.
Here, the manager can use his hand-held terminal to see what anyone in the restaurant is eating and then come to the table after all the plates are cleared and ask, "How was the smoked salmon?"
Who Ordered What and When
The precedent being set means there may never again be an occasion where a surly waiter or an indifferent waitress blurts out, "Who gets the linguine?" This system keeps track of which person ordered what entree, appetizer or beverage.
And finally, asking for "the check" may become obsolete. When it's time to settle up, a more appropriate request is, "May I have the printout, please?"
All this restaurant razzle-dazzle has been made possible by Validec Inc., a San Carlos, Calif., firm that specializes in mobile communications systems.
During the typical meal service, about a dozen hand-held terminals are in operation at the Tam O'Shanter. The information programmed into the devices is sent to printers at various locations throughout the building, such as the main bar, service bar and kitchen.
An order of three draft beers, once inputted by a waitress, appears almost simultaneously at the printer in the bar. The bartender then begins readying the drinks well before the waitress has even left those requesting the brews. A table's request for salads, a burger and a steak is just as expeditiously begun in the kitchen.
Only the Beginning
The Tam O'Shanter operation is one of only two Validec computer designs in the nation, a honor sure to end soon. The firm is eagerly poised to introduce this palm-sized terminal to the rest of the country, where an estimated 200,000 restaurants operate with table service.
Even so, the Tam O'Shanter is an unlikely candidate to be in the forefront of this new computer wave. The restaurant opened in 1922 and management claims this Los Feliz Boulevard institution is the oldest eatery in Los Angeles with the same ownership and location.
Furthermore, the odd-looking computer terminals just don't seem compatible with the Scottish castle motif and generous doses of medieval pennants, banners and simulated Gaelic antiques synonymous with the Tam O'Shanter.
As a result, the first glimpse of tartan-clad waitresses scurrying around Tudor-style dining rooms while juggling computers is incongruous.
Appearances aside, there are many who believe that Validec will become to restaurants what corkscrews are to wine.
"This system will improve service and the quality," said Richard R. Frank, vice president of Lawry's Restaurants Inc., which operates the Tam O'Shanter. "We've put a lot of effort into improving this restaurant and this is another step."
In fact, the Validec system has definitively changed the restaurant's operation. There is less time spent by the waiting staff walking from various food-and-drink locations because all orders are sent by computer.
Consequently, a waitress needs to enter the kitchen only to pick up food that's ready to serve. The chef can even send a message to the waiter's or waitress' terminal, thus alerting them that a particular order is ready and minimizing the chances that a prime rib will sit too long.
The time formerly spent running various patterns through the restaurant is now devoted to caring for customers' needs, the system's architects claim.
Bryan Monfort, Tam O'Shanter manager, said that the effect of the new system has been positive.