Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mini Foodventure #35: uWink, I sigh (Woodland Hills)

Tired of waitstaff trying to upsell you everything from appetizers to desserts, taking down the wrong orders or just rudely interrupting one moment, only to disappear when you need service? Perhaps you're on a first (maybe blind) date and afraid of the seemingly endless silence or generic & cheesy icebreakers. Or, like me, you may just be dining solo and forgot to bring your mp3 player/BlackBerry/book to kill time while waiting for your food appear.

Those are exactly the kind of problems uWink try to solve by replacing servers with a touchscreen computer on each and every table. Simply punch in your order and an expediter will bring out your grub. You can even play a few games on the screen while you wait; think of it as an adult Chuck E. Cheese, with less kids running amok and no giant rat costumed entertainer scaring everyone (even though the company is founded by Chuck E. Cheese's former CEO).

The idea of no annoyance and fun-while-you-wait sounds too good to be true, and so, I made it a point to check out the place the next time I'm in the San Fernando Valley, which was this past weekend.

The recently opened restaurant is at the Westfield Promenade in Woodland Hills, one of the smallest L.A. malls around (only one anchor department store - Macy's) and quite desolate for a Saturday afternoon. After some store browsing, I hopped in.
Indeed, there were computer screens everywhere - at the bar, at the table, and the host stands (the ones with the keyboards & mice). I was promptly given a seat and a uWink card (which I have to swipe along the side of the screen everytime I order something) and was free to order away.
The computer menu is pretty intuitive and easy to navigate, though the touchscreen is not always precise (reminds me of the PhotoHunt game: "I TAPPED ON THE RIGHT SPOT, DAMN IT!") so I'm glad that a card swipe is needed to place an order.

As for the menu items themselves? meh, basically upscale diner fare and nothing too exciting (PDF of the menu here) - so I settled for a wild mushroom burger on wheat bread with a side of sweet potato fries. I was pleased that every option imaginable can be entered in, great for my more finicky pals who want to go light on this, extra that, with a little something on the side.

Now that I've ordered, time to dive into the fun & games. There are several dozen to choose from, from horoscopes & love detectors to quiz shows and puzzles. You can also view movie trailers (co-marketing revenue?). Most of the games are free, there are a few premium & prize games you have to pay for (including a wine tasting challenge, with a 3-glass flight for $10)

Somewhat lucky in love, eh? Will I be lucky enough to win a dessert for just .50?
$1.50 later -- No! Thankfully, my food arrived so I cut my losses and dove in.

I wish I had better things to report about the food: The burger wound up being way too greasy with its slathering of mayo, cheese, sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions, and I can barely taste the mushrooms. The sweet potato fries turned out to be overcooked and soggy. Even giving the benefit of the doubt that it may be the kitchen's off-day, the expediters should know better than to bring out fries that looked practically like charcoal.

There were other indicators that the front-of-house staff may not be at its best that day; even with the clear instructions I provided on the touchscreen, a few service-related mishaps occurred with my order, including being brought hot coffee when I ordered iced and being served another table's order. And from the observing neighboring tables, there was quite a bit of flagging around by other diners to get service - I'm not sure if they needed some corrections too or if they aren't aware that they can punch in drink refills or bus tables on the screen. Oh, the irony of us actually missing our human servers.

And probably the biggest annoyance of all, while noshing I decided to sign up for the uWink club (who knows, maybe a free dessert on my birthday can lure me back). After punching in all my contact information on the not-so-accurate touchscreen (every third key I used was "Backspace" or "Clear"), I found out the "Submit" button doesn't work! Great . . .
I don't think I need the results of a tarot card reading to tell me whether I'll be returning anytime soon.

But honestly, it was an interesting dining experience -- maybe if I went with a group it would be more fun and food would be less of a factor. And given the success of other dining-entertainment establishments like Dave & Busters, GameWorks and, yes, Chuck E. Cheese's -- the food, really, just need to be "not bad"; the target audience aren't foodies, but families and young adults looking for a place to get some decent bites, maybe a few drinks and have some fun w/o having to scope out another venue.

So it may still be worth a shot to try -- just don't have high hopes for the food & service. Just like the Chuck E. Cheese pizzas.

Westfield Promenade
6100 Topanga Canyon Blvd. 2310
Woodland Hills, CA 91367
(818) 992-1100


Anonymous said...

I had similar experiences. they need to get it together

Chubbypanda said...

Are the games and touchscreens enought entertainment to compensate for the food? That's the real question. Dave & Buster's managed to exist despite their food. Given how bad uWink's food is...

elmomonster said...

I've been curious about this place ever since I read this story in Newsweek. Nolan Bushnell, as you mentioned, started up Chuck E. Cheese, but he also invented the first video game. Yup, he invented Pong.

A novel concept, this uWink, but for me, the last thing I want to do when I'm eating out is muck around with an icky video touch screen using my greasy fingers.

H. C. said...


I think that this is one of those restaurants that I very much want to love (and actually did, in concept), but its execution disappointed me on many different levels.

And I just found out from LA Eater that they're opening their 2nd restaurant @ the Howard Hughes Center (the one with the Bridge De Lux theaters) ~ hopefully service and food would improve by then.


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