Apr 15, 2024 - Food and Drink

Chicago fine dining restaurants try out server-free ordering

Red sign that reads No Tips! No Service Charges!

The dining room at Thattu in Avondale. Photo Monica Eng/Axios

In the run-up to this summer's boost of the tipped worker minimum wage, many restaurants are rethinking their service models, while some have already launched new ones.

Why it matters: A new model that eliminates ordering food through waiters could offer a glimpse of our fine dining future and a way to retain staff with higher wages.

What's happening: We recently checked out the model at Thattu and John's Food and Wine, where patrons order high-end food through QR codes or at the bar.

Two pork chops with a brown sauce on a white plate.
Thattu's famous pork chop peralan on collard greens and a yucca cake. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Thattu

This celebrated Keralan spot opened in Avondale last year serving delicious $16 chickpea curries and $32 pork chop dinner entrees with the tip baked into the price.

How it works: Dinner staffers deliver dishes, bus tables and explain ingredients, but guests order food and settle their bills through a QR code.

  • Lunch patrons fetch their own water and silverware.
  • Under this system, servers can make $23-$24 per hour, co-owner Vinod Kalathil tells Axios.
Bowl of curry next to appam on white plate.
A chickpea curry and appam at Thattu. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

What they're saying: "I think this is why we have not seen any staff attrition in the year we've been open," Kalathil says.

  • And, he says, "99% of [customers] don't have an issue with the QR code."

Should you still tip? Additional tips are not expected, and there's no tip line on the digital bill.

  • But patrons are free to leave cash.
Celery and apple salad with nuts.
Celery and apple salad from John's Food and Wine. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

John's Food and Wine

This popular new Lincoln Park restaurant offers sophisticated seasonal fare from chefs who worked together at Gramercy Tavern in New York.

How it works: Patrons order from a menu board at the bar before being seated. From there servers, chefs and a sommelier answer questions, deliver food and bus tables.

  • Dinner entrees range from a $33 branzino to a $57 NY strip steak, and a 20% service fee is added to the bill.
  • Diners can order additional items and pay with a QR code at their table.

Monica's thought bubble: I loved that I could order food and settle the bill without flagging down busy servers, who also get better pay.

  • But I understand it will take time for others to get used to it.

What they're saying: Guests are returning "10th and 11th times … and enjoying the service we provide and are fully embracing the model," co-owner and chef Adam McFarland tells Axios.

  • He says he's able to pay about $31 per hour for kitchen staff and $36 for servers.

Should you still tip? McFarland says they don't expect it.

NoodleBird

Four bowls of soups and garnishes.
Various dishes at NoodleBird in Logan Square. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

When fine dining establishment Fat Rice closed during the pandemic, Adrienne Lo reopened the spot as the more casual Asian eatery NoodleBird with QR code-only menus.

What they're saying: It works well, and "the people who have a problem with it are usually over 60," manager Jess Zegers tells Axios.

  • "But if someone is really struggling, we can go over and take their order."

The intrigue: As in the other two spots, the model boosts pay through less need for staff. But unlike the others, NoodleBird still uses a traditional tipping model for now.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to remove a reference to a receipt line for tips, which John's Food and Wine eliminated in March.

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