Here’s the thing about restaurants: you need more than a gimmick if you plan to open one and have it be successful. I’m not saying you can’t have a gimmick. It’s fine to have something unique that distinguishes your restaurant from the thousands of others competing for attention. But that uniqueness is seldom enough to cover for a deficiency in the core triumvirate of food, service and atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the owners of the new Terrace 390 in downtown Orlando seem to have overlooked the important basics and have placed too much faith in the hope that the restaurant will be carried along by a gimmick, or more precisely a gadget -- the iPad. Each server carries one and uses it in a variety of ways: to take orders and send them wirelessly to the kitchen; to show vivid photos of dishes to guests to demonstrate menu items; and to present the check and even process credit cards tableside. It’s actually pretty cool, and it advances several aspects of the restaurant experience into the 21st century, much more than Seasons 52 did when it outfitted its servers with handheld devices for order taking when it opened in 2003.
But the fascination soon ends as the server flips through pretty photos of the dishes one by one. I stopped my eager server after he showed us photos of the full list of appetizers and before he could launch into the entrees. I felt like a hapless visitor to the home of friends who insist on showing you pictures of their recent vacation.
There is a traditional, paper, old-timey menu that you can actually hold and read yourself (the iPads are not for guests to handle). That is, you can read it if you’re one of the few people who finds it comfortable to read gold and white lettering on a black background. And it won’t be interesting reading. The menu is an uninspired list of the usual suspects with nothing distinctive that might suggest a specialty of the house or something to warrant attention. It’s also sort of all over the place, culinarily speaking. You’ve got your quesadilla, your flatbread, fried calamari and crabcake. Shrimp cocktail appetizer, chicken sandwich, Italian sandwich, Philly cheesesteak, the required pasta dishes and an assortment of salads, plus steaks and fish dishes.
Two of my guests ordered the mushroom-bacon swiss burger, one requested it medium-rare, the other medium-well. Astonishingly they both came out identical -- well-done. My guests did report that they liked the flavor of the burger. (And a manager, when told about the overcooking, apologized and offered a dessert to the table, even though we did not want dessert.)
I had the grouper entree, which looked as uninteresting as it tasted -- not bad, just blah. (By the way, the fish on my plate looked nothing like the photo online, although the burgers were a pretty good likeness.) The entree came with a choice of two sides; I selected the sweet potato fries and macaroni and cheese. Again, they warranted little reaction more than a shrug and a “meh.”
The dessert that was served to us as consolation for the overcooked burgers was the tuxedo bombe. It looked as though it would be heavy, but it was actually rather light and fluffy and would have been an enjoyable dessert if we had been in the mood for one.
Servers appear to have been trained, but I wish there would be more training on the basics of service than on the use of electronic devices. For the record, all staff I had contact with were charming, eager and helpful.
Terrace 390 occupies the space formerly held by the popular Harvey’s Bistro. But whereas Harvey’s was confined to the walls of the bank building, Terrace 390, as the name would suggest, has opened up to the multi-level patio in front of the skyscraper. There is a bar outside, as well, though neither the bar nor the patio was open on my visit.
The inside decor has been made a little more casual than Harvey’s sandstone-dominated decor. Wood paneling now covers some of the big stone blocks, and the place has an overall sports barlike atmosphere. The side dining area is a little odd. The boothback for the tables that face the windows is unusually high. It creates a sort of wall for the booths along the back wall. It also gives the effect that the people seated there are dining in a passageway. Harvey's always lacked a certain warmth; Terrace 390 seems to have wanted to correct that, but is isn't quite there.
When I requested the check, my server called it up on the iPad, of course, and turned it around so that I could see it. I like to go over my check and I felt rushed with the server standing there displaying the screen to me. I handed him my credit card and he attached a dongle to the iPad that allowed him to swipe the credit card there at the table. But then he repaired to the back to get the print-outs, which included the check that I wanted to look over in the first place.
Terrace 390 is owned by three recent graduates of the University of Central Florida (that would explain the black and gold of the menu). I can’t attest to their previous experience as restaurateurs, but it would seem to be limited. And I’m guessing they are invested in this venture in a big way. The cost of the iPads alone must be significant.
The iPads could be a good investment. It won’t be long before the conventional waiter’s pad and pen is rendered quaint. I think they’re smart to be on the cutting edge. But in a town that’s loaded with restaurants, diners make their choices on the food, the service and the atmosphere that together define a restaurant. No one is going to say, “Hey, let’s go to that place where they use the iPad.”
Terrace 390 is at 390 N. Orange Ave., Orlando. It is open for lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Monday through Saturday; late nights Thursday through Saturday. Here is a link to the Terrace 390 website. Click here to download a copy of the Terrace 390 menu . The phone number is 407-425-2445.