Our Disastrous Visit To Atari Founder’s High-Tech Restaurant

The premise behind Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s chain of restaurants, uWink, is great on paper.

Each table is fitted with touch-screens full of multiplayer games for tables to compete one another and against other tables. Plus, you can order your food, drinks and even refills with a tap of your finger.

It sounds like it should make going out to eat not only fun, but also extremely efficient. Except it doesn’t really work that way, based on the lunch that guest blogger Michelle Zeller and I experienced in Los Angeles earlier this week.

In fact, I don’t recommend you visit the place at all.

The meal started out entertaining enough. Both Michelle and I were entranced with the touch-screen interface and the ability to peruse our lunch options as though we were playing with a giant iPhone or Nintendo DS. We were both giddy over the high-end concept behind uWink, but it all went downhill after we sent our order away.

Many of the games weren’t working properly, especially the ones that would have seen Michelle and I competing against one another. They just crashed and asked you to request assistance from a uWink employee.

So, I tried that. There’s a help option that allows you to “request” a server to come over and find out what’s wrong. The server never came over. Eventually, though, our food — I ordered a deluxe mac ’n cheese — did arrive. It was just OK, but that was to be expected. uWink is more of a social experience, not somewhere you go and expect fine cuisine.

Because I’ve been trying to cut down on my soda intake, I decided to wait until the food arrive to order a Pepsi. It never came. As I finished my meal, I decided that if it hadn’t come at this point, I didn’t want it, so, naturally, I didn’t want to pay for it either.

Once again, a touch-screen request for a server to come over was denied. I could have just gotten out of my chair and asked someone to help me at the bar; but if the whole point of the uWink experience was to avoid the traditional restaurant interactions, I was going to use the touch-screen every chance I had.

Twenty minutes went by, though, before I’d had enough. The uWink experiment had failed. I found a random server and asked to have the never-received Pepsi removed. A few minutes later, it disappeared.

You might ask why I’ve gotten this far through the piece without talking about the games. There’s good reason for that — they’re not any fun. Maybe the multiplayer ones would have been worth trying, but they kept crashing. Everything else consisted of simplistic puzzlers that were mildly interesting for a turn or two before you became bored.

I will say, however, it was neat to pay the bill through the screen. But bill-paying isn’t a reason to visit a restaurant. Me? I won’t be stopping by uWink again.

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