Spy la Mode

You're enjoying a quiet, romantic evening at your favorite restaurant. It's just the two of you, gazing lovingly into each other's eyes.

But is it? Increasingly, it may be fine to nibble on your appetizer, but not on your date's ear -- not unless you want to provide entertainment for the folks in the kitchen.

You probably won't know it, but your intimate tte-à-tte may be being recorded on a hidden camera above your table, beamed to monitors displayed in managers' offices and kitchens. As a recent New York Times article reports, video monitoring is the latest high-tech innovation found in popular restaurants across Manhattan, Las Vegas and California. While cameras long have been used to supervise employees in profit-sensitive areas like bars and meat lockers, the Times reports that customers are now coming under the same watchful eye.

Melinda Beck

This video wave is slowly coming to our own happy burg, but likely, most of us will never realize it. Arizona law doesn't require notice of public camera monitoring, as long as no sound is transmitted. And while ADT, the state's major distributor of video surveillance systems, reports tripled growth in its local restaurant contracts over the past few months, it cites Privacy Act protection when asked to divulge culinary clients.

Restaurant folks aren't talking, either. A manager at Phoenix's Hard Rock Cafe huffily denied any use of ceiling cameras. But we visit for dinner, and there they are -- four black bulbs mounted over the bar as well as table-only areas. Other eateries contacted quickly directed inquiries to multilevel corporate headquarters out of state.

Assuming that most diners aren't smuggling sides of beef out the front door, what benefit can be gained by watching us? Pick your reason. We're stealing the silverware. We're planning to file false accident claims. We're VIPs under a social microscope. We're -- through no fault of our own, thank you -- being subjected to incompetent wait staff.

We're suddenly losing our appetites.

Eddie Matney says he feels our pain. His Epicurean Trio has a camera system in its fine dining room, but Matney insists his staff doesn't use it. The video setup was inherited when he took over the former Christopher's Bistro, and Matney decided that intruding on private moments was no one else's business. "Sure it'd be cool to watch an important person, but it's also sneaky," he confesses. "I'd love to know when a restaurant critic comes in and make sure their experience is perfect, but everyone should get the same level of service."

Yet improved service is one of the reasons larger restaurants need the systems, says Mark Stech-Novak of Mark Stech-Novak Restaurant Consultation & Design in California. As kitchen designer for corporate-owned Roy's restaurants, he is now installing sophisticated camera systems in Roy's dining rooms as a way to combat unpolished servers.

"Professional Maitre d's and captains are things of the past," he says. "People aren't trained anymore. Menus change daily, and waiters may not have a clue on cooking times and preparation needs of complicated dishes. A chef needs to know how to pace his orders, and he can't communicate his knowledge to a guy schlepping plates."

Roy's system, says Stech-Novak, allows an "expediter" to note the progress of a dining party via kitchen monitors, orchestrate cooking procedures with the sous-chef and notify "runners" when a hot dish is ready to be served. With up to 600 dinners served a night, he notes, and with celebrity chefs like Roy Yamaguchi increasingly absent from the kitchen to promote their concepts, a talented expediter is critical to an evening's rhythm. "When you've got extremely high-quality food, timing is critical. People paying $100 for dinner and wine don't want to twiddle their thumbs between courses."

Yamaguchi, by the way, was too busy to comment when repeatedly contacted at his Hawaii offices. A second Roy's is scheduled to open next month at the Esplanade, but it's a franchise, notes its PR rep, and neither she nor the store's architect have heard anything about the new system, they say.

Call Matney old-fashioned, but he feels customer service still relies on human interaction. "Restaurants are hands-on," he says. "You can't replace that with a TV set. Our floor manager goes to the tables to see the diners' reactions. He evaluates their tones of voice, sees the energy of their moods. There's no way you can get feeling, emotion or passion from a screen."

A large dining area is no excuse for robotized service, agrees Kevin Roessler, general manager of the 227-seat Seasons Rotisserie and Grill. "If I were a patron, I wouldn't care for it, and I'm pretty easygoing," he notes. "You've got to have confidence in your staff and management, that they're paying attention to their guests. Everyone's different. Some want 10 minutes between courses, others want a new plate to touch down as soon as the finished one leaves. Some bigger places want to move diners quickly because it's more profitable, but we would have to do seriously increased volume to offset the negative perception that we're monitoring."

Our waiter at Hard Rock shrugs when asked about the cameras in the rafters. "I guess it's for lazy managers," he says. "They can sit in the back room and make sure nobody does anything wrong."

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