Dine and Dash 2.0: How Tech is Changing Eating Out

Locanda Vini e Olii
Locanda Vini e Olii in Brooklyn, N.Y.Vicky Wasik

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Forget paying the bill. A new generation of apps is making it easier than ever to make a quick exit when eating out at a restaurant.

Cover, which recently expanded into Brooklyn from Manhattan, is essentially a mix of ride service app Uber and location-sharing app Foursquare, letting diners check in to a restaurant and then sending them the receipt later. Other apps, like Dash and TabbedOut, offer similar products. Then there is online reservation service OpenTable, which launched its mobile payments system on Monday.

“Waiting for the check, a lot of things can go wrong,” John McDonald, owner of Lure Fishbar, told NBC News. The popular seafood spot, located in New York City’s Soho neighborhood, has been accepting Cover for three months.

“People get frustrated, they get anxious, maybe they are on a date. Cover eliminates a couple of the variables during service,” he said, noting that accepting the app did not cost him anything. “If you can use it, why not?”

Cover makes its money by charging a transaction fee — just like credit card companies. It often takes an equal or smaller cut than the credit cards do, giving restaurants multiple incentives to join, including faster table turn-over as diners leave more quickly after finishing a meal.

Currently, Cover is accepted by more than 60 restaurants in New York City, with an intentional focus on the more buzz-worthy eateries in Manhattan and, as of three weeks ago, Brooklyn. Its biggest competitor could be OpenTable, which is now testing out its own iOS app in 12 restaurants in San Francisco.

Cover lets you join a "table" and then split the bill as many ways as you want.Cover

OpenTable’s biggest advantage? The existing relationships it already has with more than 31,000 restaurants.

“Unless you have a steady stream of people using a new technology, the servers are not on top of it,” Kashyap Deorah, general manager of mobile payments for OpenTable, told NBC News. The company’s existing popularity, Deorah said, would create a “virtuous cycle” where servers and diners would both increasingly get used to the service.

I gave Cover a try at Locanda Vini e Olii, a Tuscan restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, which recently started accepting the app.

It worked like this: I opened the app, started a “New Table” and then had the people in my party join it. Before the meal, I told my server that I wanted to use the app. He seemed surprised — we were his first customers to use Cover — but also enthusiastic.

Two hours later, I plucked a few last mussels from their shells, took the final sip of my Negroni, and looked around awkwardly. Without flagging anyone, I simply got up with my friends, and left. Later, I received an email telling me how much I had paid, which included my default tip of 20 percent. (The default tip can be changed, or adjusted for each meal.)

It worked seamlessly, although without getting a bill, it definitely felt like spending play money: dangerous for diners on a budget, but probably another selling point for restaurants.

I went back to talk to our server Michael Schall the following day, who just so happened to be one of the restaurant’s owners.

Schall said he found his first Cover experience was “pretty smooth” and compared it to the house accounts that were once common in New York. In the past, instead of getting a bill after every meal, many diners would simply keep a tab running. (Restaurants in New York are not legally allowed to keep credit card numbers on file.)

“It’s an old-school concept and technology is bringing it back again,” he said.

It was an idea echoed by one of Cover’s founders, Mark Engerman, who likened it to “eating in New York City in the 1950s.”

Engerman claimed to be processing more than $100,000 worth of restaurant business a month. He plans to launch an Android version of the app soon and eventually expand to other cities, most likely starting with San Francisco.

In the meantime, restaurants are keeping an eye on whether users get on-board with the trend, much like they did with cabs.

"I used a car service the other day that was not as automated as Uber," McDonald, the owner of Lure, said, recounting waiting for the driver to swipe his credit card. "It was annoying, because I knew there was a better option out there."