David Rockwell, the outgoing designer of the hip W Hotels and popular Mohegan Sun casino, strolls around the floor of the new Adour restaurant in New York's tony St. Regis hotel. He halts and zeroes in on the pièce de résistance of his innovative design: an interactive wine bar. "We are trying to make wine approachable but not dumb it down," says Rockwell.
I sidle up to the bar, which opens on Jan. 28, and Adour's 29-year-old wine director, Thomas Combescot, proudly shows off his new showpiece. As he runs his hands over the bar's stretched goatskin surface like a croupier handling cards, sparkles of light project from the ceiling onto the bar's surface, following the sommelier's every move. "This is your power," he says in his velvety French accent, drawing curlicues with his fingers. "This is your magic."
Combescot touches another part of the bartop and a menu pops up, displaying a list: By the Glass, Red Wine, White Wine, Magnums, Bar Food, etc. I select Red Wine. A list of countries materializes. I choose Spain. Then a menu of regions appears, and beneath that, a selection of wines. I drill down more, and a "rosette" displays tasting notes and details about the producer and grapes. Combescot points at my wine choice and then pushes the rosette towards the seat beside me. "It's a dating tool," he says with a sly smirk.
Even though I am not tipsy, the technology is impressive—an example of a new trend of "ubiquitous computing." Such technology, which allows groups of people to manipulate computers without a hoary mouse or keyboard, signals a coming world in which the computer interface escapes the prison of the PC and spreads to new and surprising places. Restaurants, from the high-end Adour (with its $6,000-per-year private wine vault for regulars), to franchised family-oriented chains, are quickly becoming the destination for these social computing experiences, which offer much more complex—and public—interactions than simple ATM or airline check-in touch-screen kiosks, or the much-hyped iPhone interface.
This year, for example, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell is rolling out a new line of restaurants, called uWink, that feature touch-screen tabletops enabling customers to order and pay for their food without the need of a waiter (BusinessWeek.com, 1/23/07). The first uWink restaurant opened (as a pilot) on Oct. 16, 2006, in the Westfield Promenade in Woodland Hills, Calif., and has received mixed to favorable reviews. The second is set to open in early 2008 in Hollywood.
Some critics diss the technology as an expensive gimmick. But big companies like Microsoft are investing heavily to bring it into the mainstream. This spring, Microsoft plans to introduce a similar technology, called Surface, in restaurants and lounges in Harrah's casinos and Sheraton hotels. "We are bringing technology to where it doesn't exist," says Mark Bolger, senior marketing director of Microsoft Surface. "Computers will be pervasive, collaborative, approachable, and convenient." Each unit will cost about $5,000 to $10,000.
To create Adour's virtual sommelier, the first high-profile example of an interactive tabletop menu, Rockwell hired a much smaller outfit, Potion Design, a New York firm started by two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology Media Lab. Their system uses high-end projectors, computers, a Web-based database, and a vision-sensing system, all tied together with proprietary software. The technology has been installed before in office spaces and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Asia Society. But, Potion partner Jared Schiffman says, "this is the first time we've used this in a restaurant or service setting." Total cost of the project: about $250,000.
The interactive menu is part of a larger concept conceived by Rockwell and Alain Ducasse, a well-known chef with 24 restaurants around the globe. To date, New York has resisted the pricey talents of the "Robo-chef," so nicknamed for his ambitious pace of opening venues and publicizing his brand. His last restaurant at the Essex House shuttered. So Ducasse, along with Rockwell and Potion, has modernized the menu and done something he's never done before: put wine on equal footing with food and used technology and design to enhance the pleasure of wine-drinking.
"This is the first time in my experience that the designer thinks about the service of wine during the design [of the restaurant]," says Combescot, a sommelier with 10 years of experience who has worked with Ducasse for the past two years. "Restaurants usually think about staff and the maitre d's. When the restaurant is built, the sommelier and his team come with their buckets and decanters and there's never space." That won't be a problem at Adour, where the interactive, table-top menu gives wine plenty of room to breathe.