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Chef's special: Fine dining, with a side of tech

Beyond the fads and gimmicks, technology is subtly transforming the restaurant experience as we know it.

This is part of CNET's "Dining Redefined" series about how technology is changing the way you eat.


To the naked eye, the plate in front of me looks like an ordinary meal.

There's broccoli, cubed polenta, kale salad, braised cabbage and salmon, all doused in a delicious hot sauce.

The only giveaway that this might not be an average lunch is the fish. There's a lot of it -- more than twice the amount you'd expect in a normal portion. The reason: I need double the amount of omega-3 as the average person.

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The broccoli and kale are there to help my subpar detoxing skills. There are fewer carbs on the plate, because sadly for me, my body doesn't need them.

This isn't a menu that was haphazardly thrown together. Vita Mojo, a London-based restaurant chain that specializes in providing highly personalized meals to diners, and DNAfit, a company that provides a full analysis of customer's genetic makeup, created a meal perfectly calibrated to my body's needs. (Tragically, those needs do not include pasta and white bread.)

Vita Mojo and DNAfit's work is just one example of the innovation the restaurant industry is baking into the dining experience. These changes shouldn't be taken for granted. After all, many are resistant to change. And they have to be mindful of crossing the line between helpful changes and gimmicky fads. Creating an experience that transcends flash-in-the-pan trends is a rare thing.

"There is a lot of technology being introduced -- more than any one chain can possibly process," said Neil Stern, senior partner at retail consulting firm McMillan Doolittle. "The central question always needs to be, does the technology help a consumer in a meaningful way?"

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My personalized fishy dish.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The restaurant business is a risky one, and tech just adds another wrinkle. Only last week, 2-year-old robotic restaurant chain Eatsa announced it was scaling back operations by shutting five outlets, leaving just its two San Francisco locations open. The takeaway, Stern said, is that restaurants need to get the basics right before sending in the robots.

But there are obvious examples of how technology has already intertwined itself with the restaurant business. There's Yelp, of course, as well as OpenTable for making online bookings. Google will tell you if that fashionable, no-reservations joint you've been meaning to try is busy at the moment. (Spoiler alert: It probably is.)

These technologies require little, if any, direct investment from the restaurants, but restaurants themselves are also starting to experiment. Sublimotion in Ibiza uses virtual reality headsets to transport guests to a Tuscan vineyard while they're eating. Barcelona's La Enoteca at Hotel Arts is using 3D food printers.

Change is afoot -- if you know where to look for it.

Getting personal

Vita Mojo is taking personalization to the extreme.

As you walk through the St. Paul's Cathedral branch of Vita Mojo into the open, light-filled space decorated with foliage and reclaimed wood, you'll either be directed to a queue in front of the open kitchen where you can pick up your preordered food, or to a bank of iPads attached to the wall on your right where you place your order.

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Most of Vita Mojo's customers preorder using its app. Those who don't do so order on in-store iPads.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Using sliders to determine exactly how much you want to include of each ingredient allows you to custom-design your lunch in the way you might do if you were cooking it yourself at home. The price of your lunch updates in real time so there are no nasty surprises at checkout.

The idea is to make deciding what you have for lunch a bit like "using a Lego set," Vita Mojo product manager Stefan Catoiu told me as I munched my way through broccoli florets. "We completely constructed the restaurant experience to give people full freedom on what they eat, not just how they combine things, but also the quantities that they eat as well."

My grab-and-go lunch cost £10, and struck a nice balance between pleasing my tastebuds and doing right by my body.

For Catoiu, Vita Mojo as a restaurant chain -- there are currently three London outlets -- is only the start. He hopes eventually to license the software he's custom-built to other restaurants keen to capitalize on personalization. In many ways Vita Mojo is a proof of concept for this.

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Vita Mojo has several London branches.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Its collaboration with DNAFit takes personalization one step further. By analyzing a swab of saliva mailed to the restaurant ahead of time, much like with personal genomics and ancestry kit 23andme, DNAFit will cross-reference your genetic makeup against peer-reviewed studies (all conducted on humans) to tell you whether there's a strong likelihood that you're genetically predisposed to have any intolerances or specific dietary needs. They'll allow you to attach your information to your profile, making repeat visits to any location easy as pie.

No more white bread for me.

DNA Fit

It was the shared belief that nutritional health should be personal that brought the two together and makes them such a good fit, said Catiou. "When we started this, everything that we did was based on the pretty simple premise that everyone's different, everyone has different preferences, different interests, different lifestyles, different DNA."

Companies like Facebook and Google are doing something similar with our tech experiences, by tailoring our news feeds, search results and the ads we see to our personal preferences. It's a strategy with legs -- research undertaken by management firm Boston Consulting Group in May showed brands that create personalized experiences for customers using digital technologies are seeing revenue increase by 6 percent to 10 percent.

Service with a soundtrack

Beyond the meal itself, restaurants need to be mindful of the mood.

That's where algorithms have their place.

A Spotify-backed startup from Sweden, Soundtrack Your Brand, works with restaurants to craft playlists that fit their vibe and contribute to the atmosphere they're trying to create. The right music, the startup has found, makes customers more likely to be spendy.

The company's co-founders, Ola Sars and Joel Broms Brosjö, conducted research in conjunction with the Swedish Trade Federation into how music can affect sales. They found that playing a carefully selected mix of music that reflects a company's brand increased sales more than 9 percent when compared with playing random popular songs.

Playing the wrong music, they discovered, can also be worse for sales than simply having a quiet restaurant. So restaurants have a vested interest in getting this right.

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Playing the right music can boost the amount of money customers spend.

Soundtrack Your Brand

I met the pair in Joe and the Juice, a global cafe chain with a high-energy vibe that also happens to be one of Soundtrack Your Brand's clients. If you've ever been into a Joe and Juice you probably experienced its high-energy vibe for yourself.

It's all up-tempo rhythms and strong beats, played at a volume that isn't too loud to drown out your conversation. I didn't recognize any of the songs playing, and I think that was the point: It's the kind of place that exposes customers to fresh sounds and makes them feel like they're discovering something new.

If that sounds like your musical cup of tea, you can check out Joe and the Juice's playlists on Spotify for yourself. They're pulled together by algorithms that choose a couple thousand songs from a database of about 45 million -- all of which have been tagged and sorted into highly specific categories. Human editors then cherry-pick the best and most relevant tracks for the brand.

The result: Restaurants get unique soundtracks that enhance the experience for their customers and help them to make a statement about who they are. Finding a way to play the right music is something they've responded well to, Sars said, and seems to get the knock-on effect it will have on their business.

"From a humanistic perspective, everyone that still has their soul intact does understand the effect of music," he said. "Of course you're going to sell more milkshakes, of course you're going to sell more beer."

The company is now working closely with researchers at Stanford to further investigate the deeper neuroscience of the emotional connection between music and the subconscious in a way it hopes will feed back into refining their algorithms.

Questions they want answered include: "How do you create a certain type of emotion, and how does that lead to certain types of behavior?" said Sars.

Instalicious

It's not just getting the sound right -- restaurants also need to focus on the visuals. As any human who's ever been hungry will be able to attest, the way food looks also has a very primal effect on the human brain.

There's perhaps no better example of this than the way we worship at the food altar of Instagram. "There's something kind of immediate and gratifying about Instagram," said Adam Coghlan, UK editor of Eater.

Instagram has served to make certain dishes such as rainbow bagels, cronuts and ramen burgers famous far beyond their native New York.

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From Brooklyn to London's Brick Lane, rainbow bagels are an Instagram hit.

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Research from Heathrow Airport, which surveyed 2,000 British travellers, found that 25 percent of people have been influenced to try a restaurant on holiday by pictures they've seen on social media. And 18 percent of those surveyed said they were more likely to visit a restaurant if it serves food that will look good on social media.

Restaurants have wised up to the fact that customers posting pictures of their food can be good for business. "Loads of food is designed for Instagram now. It's one of the biggest topics that people post pictures on," said Coghlan.

At the time of writing there were nearly 140 million posts on the social network bearing the "foodporn" hashtag.

Catit in Israel went so far as to produce special bowls that contain phone holders, and the Soho branch of London restaurant Dirty Bones has recently been handing diners Instagram kits,  comprising a portable LED light, a multidevice charger, a clip-on wide-angle lens, a tripod and a selfie stick, to help them take the best photographs possible of their short rib and chips.

The flip side of social media is that it allows chefs to peek at what their rivals are up to. Chef Doug McMaster of zero-waste restaurant Silo in Brighton told me he's seen a whole menu of dishes he created pop up on the Instagram feed of another restaurant. "I nearly fell off my stool," he said. "Not only were the ingredients the same, the presentation was almost inch-to-inch identical."

There's also the risk that chefs could be tempted to go for Instagram-ability over quality. In a Guardian review of the newly opened Ned Hotel, restaurant critic Marina Hyde was less than impressed with the food at its Asia-Pacific restaurant Kaia, devised with the input of a popular food Instagrammer. "The the plates are divinely pretty," she said in her July review. "[It] is the perfect picture, but tastes of precisely bugger all."

Kaia did not respond to a request for comment on the review.

Unfortunately, a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Marketing shows that we mere mortals are highly suggestible. The line between our appreciation of how food looks and enjoyment of how it tastes can become blurred. Researchers discovered that our enjoyment of indulgent foods increases significantly when we take a picture before eating it, and can even boost our experience of consuming "less pleasurable" (by which it means healthy) foods.

That doesn't mean we're at any risk of bland but eye-catching food becoming central to our experience of restaurants of the future, Coghlan said. We just need to be wary and discerning.

"I think the best restaurants and the best chefs will always make sure this stuff tastes good first and foremost," said Coghlan. "But of course in a very crowded market, in an industry that boomed and where it's very zeitgeisty and vogueish, of course people are going to do all sorts of things to try and improve their exposure."

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