Thursday lunchtime found me milling around on the sidewalk outside my office, awkward and uncertain. I’d just ordered my first-ever delivery app meal—pizza from Ian’s on the Hill—via Uber Eats.
The little knife and fork scuttled across the map screen as an UberX Prius might wend toward Pike/Pine on a Saturday night. I knew to meet the driver at the curb. Moments later, the man familiar from his Uber avatar marched up to me, uttered a recognizable approximation of my name, and thrust a pizza box into my hands before disappearing with a cheery wave into the pedestrian throng. No conversation, no napkins or packets of pepper flakes—come to think of it no absolute confirmation I was that pizza’s proper recipient, except that I happened to be outside, staring into my phone.
I spent a few days trying to understand this world—summoning baby-faced bike messengers and middle-aged men to my office and front porch. Most rendezvous were as efficient as my sidewalk pizza liaison. Emphasis on efficient. If a restaurant meal is romance by candlelight, these apps might be the Netflix and chill of dining.
Delivery apps generally fall into two camps, the “I’m famished and shouldn’t have to leave my couch to secure a nice plate of gnocchi” group and services delivering preassembled meals you heat yourself. One of the latter, Lish, has dishes from local chefs. Another, Munchery, delivered the one sour note of my food app immersion: a plastic tub of mushroom taco filling that melted in my toaster oven. (Equal blame goes to confusing packaging and me not rigorously examining the directions.)
Each has its strengths: Uber Eats estimates restaurant wait times before you order. But doesn’t going outside to retrieve food defeat the purpose of delivery? Amazon Prime Now arrived with my Kaname Izakaya chirashi bowl faster than expected: great if you’re hungry, tricky if you’re busy bathing a toddler.
Mostly I ate meals stripped of my favorite aspects of dining, like asking questions about dishes or eating food as soon as it’s ready.
The delivery app boom raises questions about why we enjoy restaurants in the first place. Sure these services are easy, speedy—usually tasty. But no amount of texts and push notifications can communicate a restaurant’s intentions like a gracious server, and all the sweatpants and Bravo reruns in the world can’t amplify a good meal like an inviting dining room.
One of the easiest encounters was with Postmates. A courier accepted my order and soon appeared with a respectably warm Li’l Woody’s burger. The fries were soggy, but there are certain immutable truths of fried food and the passage of time that no app technology can transcend.