Check Please! Why Paying the Bill Takes So Long in the US

America's restaurant technology is worse than Polynesia's. Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters

It happened again not long ago. We went out to dinner and had a perfectly pleasant meal. We were sated. Ready to go. Then we sat. And I wondered what I always wonder: Who among my fellow Americans enjoys this ritual? You ask for the check. The waiter walks away. He brings it. He walks away again. You put your card in the little sleeve. You wait. The waiter picks it up. He walks away again. Eventually, after reciting the specials at one table and opening a bottle of wine at another, he returns. And finally, 20 minutes after you were ready to leave, the restaurant is ready for you to leave.

Within those 20 minutes is contained not just the customer’s inconvenience, but a national crisis and disgrace. America suffers from a terrifying restaurant technology gap. Throughout much of the world, this tedious ritual has been dispensed with. At tables from London to Istanbul, from Casablanca to French Polynesia, when the diner is ready to leave, the waiter reaches for her or his handheld device, runs the credit card, hands over the receipt, and that’s it. Gone in 60 seconds.

I thought Americans were the people in such a hurry all the time. Aren’t the French that languorous race of idlers who sit in St-Germain cafés all day, knocking back kirs and smoking Gitanes? No, they are not! Because a few years ago, when I needed to scram from a brasserie near the Comédie-Française to catch my plane, I was out of there faster than you could say Jerry Lewis. French restaurants are a model of efficiency compared with American ones.

So what gives? It’s hard to get a satisfying answer. I tried the National Restaurant Association. They were very nice, but confusing. Something about American and European credit cards being different, American ones being more susceptible to fraud. But as I pressed the matter, it became clearer and clearer (to me, anyway) that this wasn’t really the issue. Fraudulent credit-card use is no likelier to be caught at a restaurant terminal than tableside.

No, it just seems that restaurants don’t want to invest in the new technology (around $500 a pop for these devices, plus whatever start-up tech costs), and that they don’t want to because Americans aren’t clamoring for it. Most Americans, an ill-traveled bunch in general, probably don’t even know the technology exists. The restaurant association has, as you might guess, done some polling, and found that 52 percent of us would utilize “electronic payment system at the table.”

That’s encouraging. But I do wonder, who are these 48 percent who wouldn’t utilize this technology? What on earth could they possibly be thinking? Unsurprisingly they skew older, but that seems crazier still to me. You don’t have much time left, and you’re content to spend it waiting on the check?

Arise, countrymen! Demand equal footing with French Polynesia!