The bar is buzzing on a busy night at Chicago Cut steakhouse as regulars Keith and Peg Bragg sit at a table scanning the wine list.
Within seconds, they have all bottles under $40 at their fingertips using an iPad supplied by their server.
"You can very quickly look through to see the price per bottle," said Keith, a finance executive, as he scrolled through rows of selections. "You can read the wine tasting note, how long it has been aged."
The upscale restaurant on the northern bank of the Chicago River has invested in 40 iPads at about $700 each for wine selection. Since April, when Apple debuted the tablet, the device is now in use as a full menu at upscale restaurants, hamburger places and quick-service chains like Au Bon Pain. Restaurateurs said that's just the beginning.
Chicago Cut partnered with a technology firm to create a custom app that looks like a virtual wine cellar. It lists the restaurant's more than 750 wines, includes photos of bottles on wooden shelves and allows for searches based on variety, price or region of origin. Diners can also access information about a wine's taste, composition and a Google map of the vineyard.
"Eventually the bottle is going to spin around and you can read the back label," said Chicago Cut managing partner Matt Moore. In the future, programmers could add video or let customers e-mail themselves the name of a new favorite wine.
Moore's partner, David Flom, said the iPads were a large investment, but they're already showing returns.
"I've already seen an increase of wine per customer of 20 percent," Flom said. "I can't say that the iPad commanded 100 percent, but I can say it commanded a significant portion of that."
Technology is becoming increasingly important to restaurants, and tabletop ordering devices only stand to multiply, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm Technomic.
"It's cool and trendy, and kids love it," he said. "It paves the way for other opportunities with applications."
Au Bon Pain uses iPads at six of its 220 locations, with plans to expand. Ed Frechette, the company's vice president of marketing in Boston, said diners usually fill out pieces of paper with their orders at the cafes, but iPads have simplified the process.
"One of our employees has an iPad with a menu loaded in it, and they'll take your order," Frechette said. "You still see a menu board with all the information on it. We have hand-held laminated menus for a reference, but all the paper pads are gone."
At 4Food in New York, where diners can build and name their own burgers, iPads are at eight kiosks with plans for as many as 30 devices, including Android and BlackBerry platforms. Customers order and enter credit card information into the iPad to pay. Managing partner Adam Kidron said ordering food electronically will eventually be the norm.