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Opinion QR code menus are good. No, seriously.

Two employees at the D.C. restaurant Busboys and Poets train on a QR code menu system near the start of the pandemic in May 2020. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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I’m not exactly what you would call a technophile. It took me years to stop printing my airline boarding passes, much to my wife’s chagrin.

But I am willing to acknowledge when technology makes life a little more convenient, even at the expense of long-established routines. And so just as I’ve (finally) accepted mobile boarding passes, I have come to embrace QR codes for restaurant menus.

I know this might be an unpopular opinion. There are some who see those ugly little squares not just as a minor annoyance but as a threat to the Restaurant Experience.

I won’t dismiss these feelings as simply complaints from, well, customers of a certain generation. Because, again, I get it; I understand the appeal of holding a menu in my hands. (I particularly enjoy quietly judging a restaurant’s choice of typography.) This is what we expect from dining out. It is a ritual. A comforting formality.

The same could be said of printed boarding passes. For whatever reason, I felt more comfortable with a piece of paper in my hands guaranteeing that I can board my flight. It was simply part of my airport routine — until I tried the mobile version. And now I’ll never go back.

For those who are skeptical of QR code menus, answer this question: What actual advantages do physical menus have over mobile versions? Physical menus are often bulky and take up space on the table. They must be replaced when changed or overused. Waiters must run around handing them out, collecting them, and then handing them out again if customers want to see dessert options.

Online menus, by contrast, are easy to access and update. They give restaurants more flexibility to experiment with food options. I once went to a restaurant that let customers take a personality quiz on their phones to determine what cocktail best suited them. Was it necessary or based in any sort of science? Absolutely not. But it was fun!

And for those who argue mobile phones make dining out less accessible for older patrons, I say au contraire: Those who have trouble reading paper menus in dimly lit restaurants would likely appreciate online versions, which allow them to zoom in on the text. They can also adjust their phone’s brightness to make them easier to view.

What’s the downside? More distracting phones at the table? Maybe. But customers could always, you know, put their phones away after using them.

Helaine Olen: QR code menus are the death of civilization

I’m not advocating totally getting rid of physical menus. There will, of course, be some people who don’t have smartphones or can’t get the QR code to work. And perhaps there will be the occasional grumpy customer who simply refuses to look at any menu not made out of some sort of fiber. For those folks, keep a couple of copies in the back.

For everyone else, make QR code menus the default option. It’s perfectly reasonable as a customer experience, and I expect with time will become a norm, just as reading news on a phone is quickly displacing print news. Is that a bad thing? No, it’s a response to changing customer preferences.

I suspect some of the resistance to QR codes in restaurants is due to lingering resentment over silly coronavirus policies. Which is fair. Restaurants leaned into online menus during the pandemic to limit the number of shared surfaces that might transmit the virus. But surface transmission was never really a thing; the coronavirus is primarily spread through the air. So why keep online menus in place now? Don’t we want to get back to the way things were?

I hope not. Or at least, not entirely. There are plenty of good innovations and changes in behavior from the pandemic that we should maintain. More hand-washing. A greater emphasis on staying home when sick. More attention to ventilation. All of these are positive things.

So is greater access to telemedicine. More remote working and less commuting. And, yes, QR codes for menus.

I won’t be heartbroken if I’m wrong and restaurants decide, in the end, that QR codes are just not worth the trouble. But if they do fade with the pandemic, I hope it’s for a better reason than that people just don’t like change. Weigh all the pros and cons, and QR code menus are clearly a change for the better.