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Dining in the Future: Predictions for Restaurant Eating in 2040

Eateries may include more tech and fewer humans on staff

A robot serves a customer at a restaurant in northeast China in 2012 (Imaginechina/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Predicting the future of food is hard. In the early 1900s, people thought future produce would be gigantic, as in peas as large as beets. Ask a visionary to predict the future of food and they are likely to return any number of responses: Meals may consumed in liquid form, or be chock full of unusual ingredients like jellyfish, algae, or lab-grown meat. Then there’s the predictions that food will just be food. So instead of predicting exactly what people will eat, Vince Dixon forecasts how it will be eaten, as part of Eater’s Future Week

Jumping off of current trends in eco-conscious dining and automation, Dixon imagines a 2040 "fast-casual" dining experience in server-less restaurants where the tables are giant touch-screens that sync with smartphone-like devices. He puts the reader in the shoes of one of two people eating at such an establishment:

"What do you want?" your companion asks while placing her smart pad on top of the table. The smart table comes to life again: "Welcome back! Here are recommendations based on your last meal."

You let the table know your friend isn’t here alone this time by tapping your side. The screen divides in two and a menu appears. You start swiping the surface of the table, browsing through the restaurant’s selection of organic, whole-wheat pastas and fresh "artisan-style" sandwiches that are sustainably made with local ingredients. You smirk as you remember when "artisan" used to mean hand-crafted, instead of what it designates now: elegantly assembled dishes by robotic kitchen appliances programmed to mimic the recipes of famous chefs, and designed to cut back on labor costs.

The only employee the two fictional diners encounter is a young person who appears to wipe the table clean. The diners retrieve their own meals after they appear in small cubbies along one wall. The experience may seem a little lacking in personal interaction, but Dixon backs his imagining by pointing to a few restaurants already headed in similar directions. McDonald’s launched kiosks that allow patrons to build their own burgers in more than 2,000 locations, many in Southern California. A San Francisco-based eatery named Eatsa serves up the inspiration for cubby-delivered food. Also, restaurants with robots that cook and serve are already a thing in China.

Still, looking back at past predictions does highlight the tricky business of future-casting. Would a writer or technologist in 1980 have predicted the food trends of the 2000s, which included lots of controversy over corn? While the incursion of technology into the dining experience seems inevitable — as it does in many other aspects of food production and consumption — it may ultimately have a different shape. Perhaps the eco-consciousness will make it necessary for restaurants to cut down on food waste, or maybe the biggest changes will come in how food is produced, in response to some of the dissatisfaction people have nowadays.

In 20 years, someone one will be able to check the success of Dixon’s predictions (and that of others’ visions). The extrapolations may reveal more about the current moment than anything likely to happen in the future. The "home of the future" imagined by companies in the 1950s kept rigid gender roles in place, as do many of today's futurist visions, writes Rose Eveleth for Eater. The fears, hopes and blindspots of the person doing the forecasting limit their ability to prognosticate. 

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