EVEN MY eye doctor delivers -- replacement lenses. Pizza trucks crisscross the city, Chinese carryout boxes are swinging from wok to home. And now a company called Order In has done the obvious -- set up a middleman operation between restaurants and homebound or officebound diners. Customers can order anything from a snack to a full restaurant meal from any of six different restaurants (with more to come in the next month), delivered within about an hour or at a specified time.
Yes, it is obvious. But while anybody might have thought of it, few would have carried it out so well. First, Order In signed up some good restaurants, with a variety of food styles. For Indian food there's Bombay Palace, for Cajun New Orleans Emporium, for Spanish and Mexican La Plaza, for Chinese the Szechuan, for sandwiches Le Sorbet, for American Joe & Mo's. Beverages such as juices, sodas and bottled waters are available; in the future there may be wine and beer. The diner pays a 15 to 20 percent service charge (minimum $3.50 to $5) depending on location and payable by credit card or check. So far, deliveries are only in Washington and Rosslyn, but they're expected to expand.
If you plan ahead, the process runs smoothly, in my experience. First you need the company's brochure with the restaurants' menus (call 265-5665). Orders are taken from 10 to 10 weekdays and 5:30 to 10 weekends (not all the restaurants are open all those hours). Telephone service has been very pleasant and efficient; operators take the order, read it back, tell you the price and specify an approximate delivery time, warning you when a particular restaurant may be backed up with orders. Restaurants are expected to get the orders ready within half an hour, and delivery time is generally within an hour, though large orders will take longer.
And the delivery service has been at least as pleasant as the telephone service. Food is brought in insulated carriers, along with plastic plates and utensils. The two delivery people I encountered performed like the best of waiters, delivering a lot of personality with the food. They made me feel welcomed in my own home.
As for the food, that obviously depends on the restaurant. The most successful of the three I tried -- Bombay Palace, Szechuan and La Plaza -- were the curries and tandoori meats of Bombay Palace. Not only were they deliciously seasoned, the meats had kept their crustiness and juiciness, and curries were not harmed by being kept waiting. I wouldn't risk the fried appetizers or crisp breads, but there are dozens of other appropriate choices at reasonable prices from Bombay Palace.
La Plaza's foods suffered in transit. Nachos were a soggy mess, ceviche had lost its zest from being wrapped with hot foods (there should be a separate carrier for cold foods) and even quesadillas had grown oily upon standing. Enchiladas turned limp and their sauce coagulated, and paella seemed to have faded a bit. Surprisingly, roast duck and roast chicken stood up well -- and those are delectable dishes from La Plaza.
The real disappointment among my Order In samples, though, was from Szechuan. Admittedly Chinese food is generally meant to be eaten crisply fresh. But sogginess wasn't the problem, it was the original quality of the ingredients and cooking. Perhaps the restaurant assigns its carryout orders to trainees, but these were chewy, dreary things swimming in salty cornstarch-glue. They certainly would have warned me away from future visits to the restaurant.
Bronson Dorsey, president of Order In, says he passes along complaints about the food to the restaurants unless they relate directly to Order In's handling. He is working on better and more attractive packaging; until now the restaurants have been left to choose their own containers.
So far, he says, offices have made the greatest use of Order In; some law firms order 10 to 20 meals every weeknight. Real estate offices have used it as gifts to clients when they move into a new house, doctors have ordered it for their patients in the hospital, and friends have sent dinners to parents of new babies, convalescents and as celebration gifts. One customer, said Dorsey, calls for a Joe & Mo's lobster for her husband when she comes home from work too tired to cook (presumably she is also too tired to tackle her own lobster).
For restaurants, Order In is a way to expand business and to develop new customers. As Moe Sussman of Joe & Mo's said, one prominent Washington woman "is one of our biggest customers and doesn't come in the joint."
In Herndon there is a variation on the theme. Takeout Taxi uses a computer system to communicate with its four participating restaurants (Quicksilver's, Tortilla Factory, Hobo's Gourmet Pizza and Yenching's) and car phones for its drivers (mostly moonlighting mailmen) to deliver quickly, usually within 20 to 40 minutes, said proprietor Kevin Abt.
Customers may order entrees from any combination of restaurants, and cost is simply the price of the food plus 15 percent tip. So Far Takeout Taxi operates from 5 to 9 Sunday through Thursday, until 11 Friday and 10 Saturday. Its menu lists 120 items, which it buys at a discount from the restaurants, then prices at about their menu prices. Plans are to begin delivering lunches as well, to expand to half a dozen or more local areas, then to franchise Takeout Taxis. After seven weeks of operation, said Abt, 65 percent of the customers are using the service once a week. Its telephone number is 435-FOOD.