Why does service sometimes feel magical and, on other occasions, seem positively animatronic? At what point does mechanical precision serve to sap the expression of genuine emotion? And how do bastions of hospitality ensure that their employees can truly connect with guests and make them feel unique?
The Uncanny Valley Hypothesis, as it was originally articulated by Masahiro Mori in 1970, posits that “the use of anthropomorphic realism in the design of characters and objects (e.g., robots, prostheses) might have a counterproductive effect.” Instead of “enhancing subjective experience of the character or object” in question, “certain degrees of greater realism might unsettle the observer and induce a negative affective state” that is “marked by feelings of personal disquiet and a sense of strangeness (i.e., an uncanny effect).”
The term “uncanny” finds its origin in the writings of psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch. It was later expanded upon by Freud (“the uncanny locates the strangeness in the ordinary”) and Lacan (the uncanny places us “in the field where we do not know how to distinguish bad and good, pleasure from displeasure”). But, for the purposes of this article, Mori’s engagement with the idea—one he says developed independently from its original psychological domain—will prove most instructive.
Conventionally, the concept of the uncanny valley has been invoked to describe the feeling of unease or dread that strikes when humans are confronted by closely humanlike (though distinctly inhuman) objects such as false teeth, corpses, or—in works of fiction—zombies.
As an example, Mori describes how some prosthetic hands “simulate wrinkles, veins, fingernails, and even fingerprints” and achieve “a degree of resemblance to the human form” that establishes an affinity with the viewer. However, once we are “startled during a handshake” by “its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness,” “we realize the hand, which at first site [sic] looked real, is in fact artificial” and experience “an eerie sensation.” When this happens, “we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.”
While the evolutionary foundation of this response has been speculated upon, Mori considered its effect relevant to the design of increasingly lifelike robots that go beyond recognizable “industrial” and “toy” models to more closely approximate actual humanity. As a robot looks less noticeably like a cyborg and more like a real human, its familiarity (and an observer’s affinity towards it) grows. That is, until the robot reaches a threshold—close to the point of total replication—that “subtle imperfections of appearance make them look eerie.”
Over time, the uncanny valley has increasingly been invoked in relation to computer-generated imagery with animated films like 2004’s The Polar Express, 2007’s Beowulf, 2011’s Mars Needs Moms, 2019’s Cats, and 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog being notable examples. It has also been applied to the use of virtual actors in films like 2010’s Tron: Legacy and digital de-aging in films like 2019’s The Irishman.
In each of these cases, moviemakers seeking to portray realistic human, humanoid, or anthropomorphic figures using the most advanced technology at the time arrived upon models that, in their “close, but no cigar” approximation, caused the audience to feel revulsion. The successful redesign of Sonic (following public outcry in response to the flick’s original trailer) reflects that it was the execution of the design—rather than its intention—that went awry.
The realistic expression of human characteristics forms a worthy goal for digital art. Yet Mori would point to bunraku, a classical form of Japanese puppet theater, as an example of how such an effect is successfully managed. Though these puppets’ sense of realism, “in terms of size, skin texture, and so on,” does not approach that of a prosthetic hand, their “absolute size” is ignored when the viewer is “seated at a certain distance from the stage.” In a theatre setting, the puppet’s “total appearance, including hand and eye movements” successfully approximates “that of a human being.” Thus, given the tendency for “an audience to become absorbed in this form of art,” they “might feel a high level of affinity for the puppet” despite its relatively rudimentary design.
This example, juxtaposed against the films listed above, would suggest that the moviemakers did not err in trying to digitally depict convincingly lifelike figures. Rather, the animators privileged as much photorealism as they could muster when, instead, accurately capturing articulation and gesticulation through artful framing would have been more effective. For an audience can easily connect with animated characters that are stylized expressions of fantasy (or, as has been done for decades, actors dressed with makeup or prosthetics to look any which way) but shrinks in terror when confronted by an overwrought “realism” that, principally, serves only to show off technological capability.
Mori’s bunraku example seems to suggest that, with regard to the uncanny valley, human-seeming constructions of greater fluidity—even when they are rendered in a caricatured fashioned—will spur more affinity than near-photorealistic examples. That, at least, will hold to be true until perfect indistinguishability is ever attained. (You think, beyond purely visual factors, of the Turing test or, even, the “Ebert test”—whether a “computer-based synthesized voice has sufficient skill in terms of intonations, inflections, timing and so forth to make people laugh.”)
You may likewise draw a parallel to the world of video gaming—a favorite source of critical inspiration. Though the industry has undergone exponential growth in graphical capability from year to year, AAA studios have erred in leaning too heavily on cosmetic enhancements while ignoring improvements to writing and gameplay. Users’ affinity for a title—its characters and story—is only drawn from realistic rendering up until a certain point. Past that, it is the nature of the game’s interactivity, its AI, and the richness of the emotional experience it offers that marks it as worthy of the great, graphically modest titles of yesteryear. (How is it that the popularity of Minecraft’s low-res, block-based world has proven resolute despite years of comparably splashy releases?)
When it comes to hospitality, it may—at first glance—seem mean-spirited to conceive of the craft of service as having an uncanny valley. Yes, robots are making their way into dining rooms (however haphazardly). Yet hospitality, as practiced by humans, must necessarily be canny. Imperfectly executed or not, it forms the genuine article—the baseline against which a lifelike robot practitioner of the craft would be judged.
In this case, it is best to consider Jentsch’s original use of the term (as quoted by Freud): “In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and….quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing.” The ”peculiar emotional effect,” in this case, is the “eerie” feeling that Mori describes.
Freud goes on to argue that this uncanny effect “is in reality nothing new or alien,” but “something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” Ultimately “the factor of repression” allows for an understanding of the uncanny “as something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”
By adopting a dramaturgical approach to evaluating hospitality, you may tie several of these threads together. The uncanny valley of hospitality would, in essence, mark the point at which service becomes so precise, so carefully scripted, but ultimately insincere that the perceiver wonders whether the practitioner is a “human being” or an “automaton.” The sensation that results from this emotional hollowness—this artificiality—“is familiar and old-established in the mind.” However, it is perceived as “alien” or “eerie” due to the brain’s conditioned repression of some fuller response. Instead, you feel a kind of revulsion that you cannot quite place your finger on, a sense of “something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”
Though Freud’s work has largely been discredited, you think a broad understanding of the uncanny as applied to Mori’s definition of the uncanny valley could offer you an effective tool to evaluate authenticity and genuineness in hospitality. The goal is not to classify certain professionals as “automatons,” but to probe the management styles that nurture or preclude the expression of the staff’s true self. This dimension of service, when it exists, works to forge the kind of social bonds that make dining transcendent. However, when it does not exist, even the most technically proficient practice of the craft can leave you feeling cold.
This tension—between the eerie and the sublime—strikes right at the heart of what makes the most superlative restaurants so special. It also explains that nagging feeling you sometimes get, no matter how good the food or drinks are, that you are not truly “at home.”
You will draw on several examples in an attempt to define where, why, and how the uncanny valley reveals itself during the course of dining. Though “people vary so very greatly in their sensitivity to this quality of feeling” (of the uncanny), your own impressions may form a gateway towards some broader consideration of the effect as it relates to others’ experience of hospitality.
To begin, it might be instructive to think through what would characterize “canny” and “uncanny” hospitality experiences at the low end of the industry. Analyzing these relatively humble consumer expectations and mechanics of service—as revealed via fast food—may illuminate a basic structure that can then be applied to comparably complex expressions of dining. There, the functioning of the uncanny valley may be more obscured, yet it should operate in accordance with the same principles.
A ”canny”—or “good,” “pleasant”—experience at a fast food restaurant would comprise entering the establishment, reading the menu, approaching the register, placing an order, paying, waiting briefly, and receiving one’s food. It is taken for granted that the store is clean and easy to navigate; that the food offered is legible and affordably priced; and that the service is competent—if not warm and accommodating. The wait involved in both the food ordering and receiving process should be carefully managed in order to live up to that conceptual cornerstone: “fast.” The consumer should feel, relative to other options, they have paid for (and gotten) an experience of caloric density and superlative efficiency.
Though certain establishments, like Chick-fil-A, have distinguished themselves by offering fast food service of a friendlier caliber, this does not make them more “canny.” Likewise, though certain establishments, such as The Wieners Circle, have made their reputation offering fast food service of a distinctly unfriendly style, this does not make them less “canny.”
In both these cases, the consumer’s perception of service is judged against those essential qualities of efficiency and competence. Surpassing or subverting those expectations can make for a memorable occasion, generating greater affinity between the customer and the business. However, so long as fast food’s base values are delivered, these nice (or not so nice) quirks amount to nothing more than window dressing for the same core canny experience.
An ”uncanny” experience at a fast food restaurant would, in the most literal sense, violate the familiarity or normalcy of the “canny” encounter. Though promising efficiency from the outside, a consumer would find the establishment hard to navigate, its menu hard to read, and their order difficult to place. They would find the amount of waiting involved to be far more than expected and the portion sizing (with regard to caloric density and overall value) to be subpar. Service, as it relates to these structural problems, may be apologetic or apathetic. However, in either case, its practice has little bearing on an experience that falls short foundationally at delivering the qualities of fast food for which consumers develop an affinity.
The “uncanny valley” of fast food hospitality, in practice, would correspond to a threshold—approaching the perfect “canny” experience—in which the consumer’s perception of the restaurant shifts from increasing affinity into a sudden crash and sense of eeriness. Such a diametrical shift seems hard to imagine without any prior warning signs. How does one’s growing appreciation for an establishment suddenly, shockingly collapse? How does the business, though ostensibly successful in measuring up to its duties, turn delight into revulsion?
Perhaps the restaurant that seemed so clean and navigable on the surface exhibits, just as you clutch your bag of food, a scurrying cockroach. Maybe the line to the register, which seemed nearly empty, suddenly ceases to move while any trace of the employees disappears. Maybe the cashier—rather than being warm or jokingly offensive—meets you with a totally blank gaze and monotone voice. Maybe they do not respond at all—only pressing buttons—as you stammer out your order in bits and pieces. Perhaps the wait for your food stretches endlessly, and the staff, though you wave your receipt, does nothing to help. Or, as you finally receive your order, you realize the comestibles are actually made from a Soylent Green style substance.
However unlikely, these possibilities speak to some manner in which the expectations of a fast food establishment are suddenly violated. Typically, consumers develop heuristics—be they online reviews or visual clues—to help determine if a business is likely to fulfill their end of the bargain. Having a low affinity for a particular place—and refusing to go in—would typically protect you from disappointment. However, having a high affinity for an establishment—being eager to engage it in line with those expectations—leaves you vulnerable to sudden disappointment.
As the system (whose smooth operation you have come to expect) grinds to a halt, that sinking feeling sets in. You wonder how you missed the warning signs that might have suggested this location was not up to snuff. You wonder what else of consequence you might have missed. A strange encounter with the staff or a listless wait in line (or for the order) feeds a dripping doubt that is entirely removed from the carefree speed and efficiency meant to characterize the concept. Just the same, the realization that your order was prepared in an unhygienic environment or is secretly comprised of some frightening substance calls presuppositions of food safety and morality into question—elements of the experience you never think twice about.
Perhaps, clutching your food, you make it out the door and banish any memory of the eerie feeling you endured. But some lingering fragment of dread—some small remembrance that something was “off”—keeps you from ever returning. That establishment, compared to all others, seemed familiar but insidiously wasted your time, made you doubt yourself, or served up something repulsive. It took you off of the usual commercial “autopilot” and made you far too conscious that all is not what it seems.
Next, you will extend this same logic to a mid-range expression of hospitality. By comprising a greater depth and degree of service—along with other, more comprehensive expectations—this example will serve to help bridge the gap towards fine dining. However, as with fast food, the relative plainness this style of dining entails will demand some suspension of disbelief for the sake of pursuing your thought experiment.
A ”canny” experience at a mid-range restaurant might begin with making a reservation online. The consumer sets a time, invites their guests, and navigates to the chosen establishment. They park or valet their car and step through the entryway. They find themself in an environment that—relative to the fast food concept—privileges a greater sense of ambiance geared towards a more leisurely, comfortable experience. The consumer meets the eye of the host or hostess and expects a cheerful greeting. The reservation should be honored with some rough accordance to the chosen time, and the party should be whisked to their table in a gracious manner.
There, they will be met by extensive, descriptive menus (both food and beverage) along with a doting server that is equipped to suggest, explain, and entertain. Bussers scurry about, placing/clearing plates or utensils, refilling water, and depositing baskets of bread. The meal may by segmented into multiple courses that are served individually or family style, yet dishes should generally be more elaborately composed and presented than those seen in fast food. Salt, pepper, and condiments are available upon request. Likewise, dietary restrictions may be accommodated by the kitchen. Dessert and coffee will be offered. Guests will not be rushed to leave but are expected to leave gratuity. They will be thanked for their patronage and invited to come back soon.
Instead of mere efficiency and competence, consumers at mid-range restaurants bring a more complex array of expectations to the table that goes beyond seeking sustenance to include social and environmental factors. The establishment, from the moment you envision it and make your reservation, becomes a venue for a larger occasion. Yes, the kitchen will feed you, yet the remainder of the staff will work to facilitate a certain connection—if only by unburdening the guest of superfluous duties—between you and the rest of your party.
“Competence,” in this case, extends beyond the mechanical tasks required to accurately record and execute a customer’s food. It demands something more than shouting out a given order number so that a guest can go and collect their tray. Rather, the service staff at a mid-range restaurant plays the part of conductor. They worry about the essentials of food and drink so that the host doesn’t have to. They lighten the mood and endure any request so that the gathered diners can see past the essential biological need being met and, maybe just maybe, conjure some sense that they are having a “night out.” That, to you, means an evening brimming with humanity that is leavened with alcoholic lubrication and approachable, delectable fare.
An “uncanny” experience at a mid-range restaurant would, to begin, encompass all the same factors that might besmirch the fast food environment. Those fundamentals—regarding basic staff responsiveness, menu legibility, reasonable wait times, hygienic food, perceived value, and unforeseen moral conundrums—always remain salient. If any of these structural elements fail to meet expectations, even the most imaginative environment, festive occasion, and fanciful cuisine are sure to fall completely flat.
However, the mid-range restaurant does comprise a range of unique expectations whose violation could prompt that eerie “uncanny” response. In fact, the vastly greater interpersonal element woven into such a dining experience allows for a whole range of perceived slights to rear its head.
“This place looked better in the photos.” “Did you see how the hostess greeted me?” “Is this really the best table they have?” “Are they staring at us?” “My chair is uncomfortable.” “Are those people getting special treatment?” “Don’t they know who I am?” “Why is it so cold?” “Why is it so noisy?” “Are the bussers ignoring us?” “Does our server have an attitude problem?” “What sort of name is that?” “Wasn’t the sommelier snobby?” “Why did they get their food before us?” “Why does theirs look better?” “Where is the chef?” “Where is the manager?” “Where is the owner?” “Didn’t this place used to be better?”
The increased degree of service that characterizes mid-range restaurants introduces a plentitude of interactions—between the guest and the staff or the guest and other patrons—that may cause you to second guess the nature of your experience. Whether based on total delusion or rooted in some actual discrepancy, any perceived notion of disrespect or partiality coming from the front of house stands to poison the entire evening. Rather than enjoying the occasion with their party, an aggrieved guest turns inward. Their creeping doubt takes the form of an inquisitive eye that—suddenly—casts every aspect of the evening as part of some elaborate plot to insult them.
That, of course, is an extreme case, but the core instinct remains the same. Once the illusion of a pleasant “night out” is punctured—even due to the most innocent interaction—the diner begins to assume bad faith. The kind of mediocrity that, typically, is safely absorbed by the peak-end rule is now given the spotlight. Every gesture, every inflection in tone is subject to scrutiny. They all serve to feed a gnawing feeling of alienation while remaining too subtle to provoke vocal protest. Rather, the customer is drawn into an “us vs. them” mentality that sees themself as being dehumanized by a strangely subpar, almost contrived practice of service that violates their expectations of social and environmental appeal. The food, unless obviously flawed, will be perceived in accordance with the disappointment felt across the rest of the experience. Even stellar flavors will see their degree of delectation deflated.
The “uncanny valley” of mid-range hospitality, in practice, would correspond to a threshold—approaching the perfect “canny” experience—in which the consumer’s perception of the restaurant shifts from increasing affinity into a sudden crash and sense of eeriness. You think, barring the same flaws you identified as capable of turning a fast food establishment “uncanny,” this threshold is defined by the practice of service. However, while a fast food customer only expects competence, a mid-range diner wants—to a certain degree—to be charmed.
This consumer demands a flowing experience where—relative to the larger sense of occasion they maintain with their guests—not a sour note is sounded. To that effect, such diner may be able to weather a bland interaction here and there. They can understand when a server is swamped and doing their best. But any thought that their party is being disadvantaged relative to others—any supposed snippiness or unjustified lack of attention—suddenly overcomes any excitement drawn from the environment or anticipation of the food. Unless the perceived misstep is immediately compensated for in some way that scuttles any festering doubt, the diner’s enjoyment of the evening collapses. There may be nothing of consequence to make a stink about, yet veritably standard service will suddenly seem woefully lacking (and maybe even mocking). In this manner, an otherwise enjoyable evening becomes infected with a pernicious sense of strangeness, skepticism, and disdain.
Finally, with these examples from fast food and mid-range restaurants in mind, you will now extend the same logic to high-end (or fine) dining. It is this domain, in which achieving perfection forms the standard, that you think exhibits the effects of an “uncanny valley” most recognizably. For the form these refined meals take, though sharing many fundamentals in common with the previous establishments, is tailored even more towards close personal contact. And the further hospitality moves away from merely satisfying gustatory desire, the greater potential exists for some poisonous perception of service to take hold and tarnish the occasion.
A ”canny” experience at a fine dining restaurant might begin by seeing the establishment rated in the Michelin Guide, raved about on social media, or depicted on television. That first exposure piques the would-be guest’s interest and sends them online to snag a reservation. The process likely demands that they wait for a particular release date and beat other aspiring diners to the punch. It increasingly demands that they pony up some (or all) of the meal’s cost in advance—which might not be refundable in case plans change. But, with the booking secured, the would-be guest may blissfully anticipate their experience a month or two down the line.
In the interim, they continue to consume the chef’s content. Rather than looking on jealously, the soon-to-be guest celebrates their reservation anew each time they catch a glimpse of the dining room or the kitchen’s latest creation. Perhaps they write a comment advertising their forthcoming visit like “we’re so excited to be joining you next month!” As the moment of fate approaches, the soon-to-be guest bestows their fellow dinner companions with the rarefied invitation. Maybe they book a sitter—or a car or a plane ticket (depending on the distance). Perhaps they purchase a snazzy new outfit, have their shoes shined, or get a haircut. On the day of the dinner, the guest fasts in order to ensure their full appreciation of each course.
Approaching the restaurant, butterflies begin to flutter. The imagined experience—with that first sight of the building’s façade—suddenly becomes real. The valet takes the guest’s keys (or, maybe, just opens the door of their black car). Then the maître d’ presciently steps outside and holds the door open. They greet the guest by name, offer to relieve them of their belongings, and check that everyone is set for the meal to begin.
The party is led through the restaurant and into the dining room. Its interior design glitters with the kind of detail that is impossible to discern digitally. Walking through the space feels like navigating a dreamscape. All is plush, hushed, and impossibly focused. The other patrons are finely attired but kept at a careful distance—their own experience is hermetically sealed. The guests ooh and aah at each other in whispered tones until, very naturally, they find themselves at their table. Each chair is pulled out in perfect synchronization. Choice of water is offered. The captain makes their introduction and asks about beverages. Maybe the sommelier or, perhaps, even the wine director makes a visit. But, once that is settled, the show begins.
Guests receive a series of intricate courses punctuated by intensive presentations, detailed descriptions, and a healthy dose of banter. Over the course of the meal, every opportunity is made to conjure some form of bonhomie between server and served. For the setting might be regal—the fare refined—yet any emotional connection that might be formed is golden (with regard to establishing some form of long-term, repeat patronage).
This all, of course, plays into the larger sense of occasion that has brought the party together: a birthday, an anniversary, a key business outing, or simply an intimate evening of shared gastronomic pleasure. The front of house does not only orchestrate the kind of evening they sense their patrons want to have, but they put the cherry on top with a well-timed joke, personal story, or special flourish. The server breaks the “fourth wall” of fine dining so that the social occasion flows comfortably in and around the portions of the meal that demand extended tableside interaction. Even the chef himself—that hallowed figure—may get in on the act at some appointed time during the evening.
Mechanically, no glass of water ever sits empty, no napkin ever lays unfolded. Dietary restrictions of all sorts have been accommodated. Personalization, whenever it may be imbued, is a matter of course. Guests who must use the bathroom are gracefully escorted there, where they find a pristine, consistently refreshed chamber filled with every possible toiletry. At the end of the meal, each diner is seen off with a printed menu and some kind of goodie bag. And so on.
These many tangible expressions of thoughtfulness, ultimately, align with the same ease, charm, and depth of personality the staff aspires to bring to every moment of each encounter. For the sense memory of the food, no matter how superlative, is destined to fade in time. However, guests will not forget the occasion they shared together and how the restaurant made them feel throughout the experience.
They will prize the bond that was formed—with each other and that favorite server—and seek it out again no matter how different the menu is next time. The satisfied guest will convincingly convey what a great evening they had to all those who ask (and some who don’t) without descending into any detailed evaluation of the cuisine. They will emphasize the connection made with a manager, the picture taken alongside the chef, more than any particular flavor construction that, ostensibly, would have formed the original reason for even going to the restaurant in the first place. Why get lost in the weeds? It all tasted “amazing” and, more importantly, was all situated within what amounted to a rollicking good time. (And that sense of “fun,” to be sure, demands no prior culinary knowledge or advanced degree in connoisseurship).
An ”uncanny” experience at a fine dining restaurant would, once more, begin by comprising all the same factors that could undermine a fast food or mid-range establishment. Those fundamentals—regarding basic staff responsiveness, menu legibility, reasonable wait times, hygienic food, perceived value, perceived service (relative to other parties), basic staff orchestration of the evening, construction of a sense of “occasion,” and unforeseen moral conundrums—always remain salient. If any of these structural elements fail to meet expectations, even the most luxurious environment, flawless mechanics, and superlative cuisine are sure to fall completely flat.
However, the fine dining restaurant does comprise a range of unique expectations whose violation could prompt that eerie “uncanny” response. Such an experience, ostensibly, is defined by the appreciation of what various “authorities” have declared to be one of the finest expressions of food. However, the vast majority of consumers are unequipped—in terms of adequate reference points or any general critical inclination—to discern the fine shades that distinguish “great” from “outstanding” from “extraordinary.” Instead, they will feel secure that they are tasting some form of excellence and shift their attention towards the other consequential aspects of the experience. Though that may include tangible elements of the environment, the interpersonal element that first comes to the fore at a mid-range level now takes on an incredible degree of depth and meaning.
The nature of fine dining is, for most customers, a bit intimidating. The natural sense of mystery and wonder that surrounds these luxury concepts may easily mingle with a feeling that one doesn’t belong. In the days of dress codes, white tablecloths, and complicated place settings, this status insecurity took on a more obvious form through rules of etiquette. Today, in line with the American democratization of fine dining via “foodie” culture, much of that frippery has been jettisoned. Restaurants, in turn, have taken it upon themselves to dispel—rather than enforce—the cloistered associations of yesteryear in order to deliver this mass of new aspirational diners into their clutches.
But, in practice, these establishments still play their cards close to their vest. As a category of luxury consumption, fine dining necessarily trades in fantasy. Thus, despite the range of media advertising their tasting menus, high-end restaurants look to retain a whiff of tension and intrigue. They do so to ensure their work is able to hit the desired emotional highs once guests arrive. That mystique may be interpreted as coldness or intimidation at first—especially compared to the chipper greetings that characterize fast food and mid-range restaurants—but the front of house, in these settings, thrive on breaking the ice and setting the mood.
Whereas a more casual concept aspires to offer service that is friendly, attentive, efficient, and proffered equally to all patrons, this—as you have said—forms less than a bare minimum for fine dining. Consumers, instead, are paying to be enchanted throughout every moment of the evening. The practice of hospitality in this case, as exemplified by organizations like Disney, must aspire to offer total immersion. The staff must not only preserve the feeling of fantasy that the restaurant’s marketing and interior design have worked so hard to construct. They must, ideally, enrich its sensation through a kind of interaction that is nearly as intimate and pleasing as the actual ingestion of the cuisine.
Each team member—from host to busser, captain to manager, server to sommelier, and including any members of the back of house that get in on the act—must be deferential, reverential, and unerringly smooth. Mechanical perfection, in this case, only forms the baseline upon which personality can be expressed and a larger emotional connection can be formed. That potential for a transcendent, distinctly human experience—the expectation that customers will be indulged when they seek it and respected when they don’t—distinguishes fine dining from its mid-range corollaries. Guests, in most cases, are paying a premium to maintain a ratio of staff that empowers dynamic, discretionary engagement untethered to any other pressing duties. They are paying for the kind of talent that can overcome barriers caused by language, medical conditions, or mere skepticism (from certain members of the party) regarding fine dining with aplomb.
Thus, an “uncanny” experience at a fine dining restaurant would be built upon a broad expression of excellence—comprising food, ambiance, and the mechanics of service—that spurs increasing feelings of affinity from the guest. Until, suddenly, something goes awry and transforms the perfect fantasy into an eerie sort of twilight zone. Discounting the aforementioned examples from fast food and mid-range restaurants, such an “uncanny” feeling would, in fine dining, be uniquely drawn from the close attention and intimate care provided by servers to served. The hospitality itself, though aspiring to offer the ultimate kind of emotional connection, would reveal itself to be contrived and artificial. Rather than receiving a thoroughly human experience, the guest would sense that they are participating in an expertly scripted, but insincere approximation of what that would feel like.
This eerie sensation is not necessarily provoked by an insensitive or offensive comment, which would reliably serve to spoil a mid-range or fast food experience and go well beyond an “uncanny” kind of misgiving. Rather, you think of the common practice, within fine dining, of googling customer names and maintaining detailed notes on them across visits. When this information is used effectively, it can empower a delightful degree of personalization or—just as importantly—continuity of an established relationship even as particular employees come and go.
However, when wielded in a clumsy manner, this kind of inside knowledge can come across as absolutely creepy. You are left thinking, “why does this person whom I’ve never met know that about me? And why have they shoehorned it into our conversation?” Or, perhaps, “why are they referencing conversations that occurred with a different member of the staff and that relate to a distinct intimacy and connection that cannot simply be grafted onto someone new?” In a bid to parade their omniscience before the guest, such a restaurant—in these cases—actually reveals something closer to obsession. This kind of information, if not thoroughly ingested and imbued into an effortless manner of conversation, appears consciously studied and, even, robotic. It almost seems like a real-world counterpart of digital cookie tracking, which allows marketers to more effectively serve advertisements in accordance with a user’s browsing history.
While that, you think, forms the most elucidating example of how this “uncanny” effect might occur in fine dining, there may be other instances that reveal deep, structural cracks in the seemingly pristine edifice of exemplary hospitality.
A complex tasting menu naturally demands a certain degree of scripting and choreography in order to reliably hit all its marks for each party across every evening. Repetition makes this process more and more fluid, and the front of house eventually develops both muscle memory and a certain performative rhythm. They may develop particular jokes or anecdotes that they use to reliably enthuse guests. Or, perhaps, certain foundational knowledge—regarding ingredients, their sourcing, and their manner of preparation—is drilled into the staff’s head until reciting the spiel becomes second nature. Achieving “perfect” playback, rather than offering a bespoke presentation each time, may increasingly (and wrongly) become the goal.
While mid-range restaurants might serve comparably formulaic food, the wait staff in those settings need not normally retain and recite the same amount of material. The written menus, in such places, provide any essential information customers might need—meaning that the front of house can focus on describing daily specials, portion sizes, spice levels, and a smaller array of possibly unfamiliar ingredients. In this manner, the mid-range servers—unburdened by memorizing an intricate presentation of a refined dish—can actually respond to customer conversation in a carefree, organic way. Fewer duties, of less intensity and in line with a more casual experience, enable a sense of naturalness to the interaction.
On the other hand, fine dining servers—swelling with comprehensive information about every aspect of their restaurant and its menu—see a large degree of their tableside interaction transform into something mechanical. They convey the requisite details, drawing on their favorite flourishes, while still needing to remain eminently responsive to unforeseen customer reactions. In that case, the server must pivot away from the script towards a more improvisational, genuine response. Of course, over time, seasoned front of house professionals come to see and hear it all. But curveballs always exist, and any server might very well puncture the sense of fantasy the luxury establishment has worked so hard to construct through some sloppy response.
This back and forth—between the server’s default performance and the customer’s interaction with it—is moderated by the former’s tone, body language, and manner of delivery. These qualities, from the start, determine how sincere the presentation seems: does the party perceive itself being addressed, on their own terms, as unique individuals? Or do they feel as if they are only the latest of countless patrons to buy the ticket, take the ride, and interact with the corresponding animatronics?
When the party has a particular question or comment to make, the server is forced to go off script. That may serve to encourage an off-the-cuff, organic, and charming response that regales the guests. Or, perhaps, it throws a wrench into proceedings by confounding the staff’s training and forcing them into a clunky, half-baked reply. Savvy professionals, when they need to, know how to plead ignorance and refer obscure questions to the right authority. Yet the temptation to offer “perfect” hospitality at every moment—to do so as a matter of pride—creates the temptation to wing it and offer a reply that could be perceived as lackluster. Thus, what felt before like genuine interaction suddenly seems like nothing more than going through the motions.
In some cases, a guest may simply seek the opportunity to tell a personal story—upon which they expect their server to listen attentively and respond accordingly. Doing so with sincere interest and thoughtful engagement can spur that elusive, highly-prized emotional connection. However, if the staff member feels the pressure of other pending duties, they might give the customer some sense that they are only being humored or patronized. While not consciously insulting, such a feeling denigrates the relationship between server and served by exposing the latter to the commercial and organizational demands that underlie even the most luxurious experience.
Thus, you think that an “uncanny” experience at a fine dining restaurant would be characterized by the clumsy usage of guest information (drawn from search engines or the establishment’s own recorded notes), the artificiality of overwrought presentational scripting, and/or a cursory, unconvincing response to some unanticipated customer comment, question, or demand. (You are reminded of how poorly Next endured your request, at the time of seating, to leave the restaurant early in order to make it to a show).
In each of these cases, the staff’s flawless service—the sort that works hand in hand with other factors to build a sense of fantasy—reveals itself as lacking a proper sensing dimension. As a consequence, the experience—one that is supposed to be sincere and singular—reveals itself to be somewhat contrived. The diner feels themself to be more like an archetype than a distinct individual, and they perceive the staff as cookie-cutter (perhaps even robotic) in their interactions.
When mechanically perfect hospitality tips its hand—when it can be deduced that the staff is adopting a paint by numbers approach to forming an emotional connection—what seems transcendent and sublime suddenly feels cynical. Moving forward, having pierced the veil, guests view this conscious, calculated manner of influencing them as more than a bit eerie. The mystique surrounding the fine dining establishment no longer heightens enjoyment but, rather, amplifies the sense of creepiness from servers who think they are forming a human connection yet—in their reduction of patrons into pervasive categories—actually dehumanize them.
The “uncanny valley” of fine dining, thus, would seem to define a zone in which a restaurant’s staff training—in pursuit of excellence–actually serves to sap the team’s ability to interact with guests naturally. The sense of artificiality customers glean from concocted efforts to connect with them strikes right at the heart of what Mori’s conception of the term, as it relates to robotics, seems to describe. Since fine dining aspires towards providing the ultimate in service, its practitioners naturally seek to establish the deepest affinity they can. However, at a certain point, trying too hard to be “perfect” actually violates the ease of interaction that better characterizes intimate human relationships and, thus, the best hospitality. (The service at grandma’s house might not be mechanically perfect, but it is absolutely pure in its emotional engagement).
Organizations like Michelin prize slick, suited servers that work the room with total precision and synchronization, yet this preference speaks to a clear bias. Bibendum publishes guides for travelers, and this demographic is naturally disadvantaged. They may speak the language fluidly and acclimate themselves to the culture and environment as best as they can. But, as a transient population, they will always remain slightly alienated from the deeper sense of place established by those who call a particular establishment—some particular terroir—home.
Restaurants that fancy themselves international destinations simply must engage in the gargantuan task of meeting diverse, global expectations of luxury. They must be everything to everyone while, somehow, asserting a sense of their own culture as rooted in a particular place. The industry culture of “staging” ensures, to some extent, a perpetual flow of talent from city to city and country to country. These exchanges may help bridge the gap of adequately connecting with travelers from a broader range of backgrounds. Yet a core team typically stays in place and perpetuates an identity grounded in the physical confines of the restaurant and extending across as much of the local terroir they engage with.
Packaging that identity and presenting it to a traveler is different than doing so for a local (though many of the finest destination restaurants occupy a singular slice of nature that affords few other proper “residents”). The difference is one of viewing the concept’s work from inside or outside the larger geographical and cultural context. Journalists, rating/ranking organizations, and marketers may look to illuminate these threads for their readers to form an appealing promotional narrative. However, their impression is always only a partial—if not flagrantly biased or self-serving—one. It can only rarely speak to what the native mainstream perceives. (For these forms of media seek to shape—rather than celebrate or uncover—local taste).
The fine dining restaurant expends more conscious effort anticipating each and every expectation a traveler might bring to the table because the locals, more naturally, would match the restaurant’s own culture or, at least, align with the experiences of a native population that has formed some large proportion of the establishment’s customer base since opening. In doing so, service grows increasingly standardized, modularized, and—generally—better. The corporate hospitality culture is reified and can consistently cultivate exceptional staff. But too much rigidity runs the risk of erasing some part of the restaurant’s identity as perceived by its own community.
Comprehensively catering to every demographic means flattening the experience as necessary to make it more legible to particular audiences. Great servers can cement the training that allows them to respond effectively to any eventuality while, just as easily, relaxing themselves and engaging with a sense of naturalness that genuinely reflects the fullness of their personality, the restaurant’s culture, and a larger sense of place. When the demands placed on the staff are too great or their environment, perhaps, is too strict, this ability to relax and reveal some sincere expression of self is inhibited. The server is forced to rely solely on their training, which turns every customer into some variation of a bland, “default” diner and precludes a greater emotional connection.
The meal, mechanically, may still be perfect, and the vast majority of people would leave feeling totally happy with their experience. (For the lack of any deep connection with the staff would easily escape attention if one enjoyed the company of their party). But the highest expressions of hospitality are genuinely emotionally stirring, and they forge bonds that connect people across the table, around the room, and throughout every sector of the food system. The more comfortable each guest feels—the more present and actualized they are able to be in the space—the more effectively such connections can form. A given party may share this feeling with each other, the staff might work to mechanically facilitate their evening, but they should ideally share the same emotional wavelength and, in whatever small way, sanctify their mutual appreciation for the craft.
That kind of connection—between server and served—inducts the diner into the restaurant’s family and makes them a part of its story. It forms the entryway into a transcendent experience that affirms life and the beauty of nature.
Upon revealing that the potential for this kind of emotional satisfaction has been closed off, a fine dining experience truly does become “uncanny.” The service offers a mechanical and presentational “perfection” that seems appealing at first glance but eerily shows its hollow emotional core with time. The hospitality works to silence–rather than affirm–the diner’s own identity because its practitioners are unable to sincerely display theirs.
The ”uncanny valley” of fine dining really reflects how effectively a restaurant is able to empower their staff. Are they merely programmed to superficially please in a certain manner? Or are they entrusted with self-definition and expression? Are they respected and valued without question? Are they compensated adequately and truly in possession of team spirit? Then, feeling totally secure and purposeful, servers may meet customers halfway and, on those special occasions, forge a real connection.
Disconnecting hospitality from its emotional underpinnings—or trying to contrive such a sensation— is taking the easy way out. A restaurant must aspire to forge these legitimate bonds, to build a sense of community, if it wants to realize its highest purpose. Cutting this corner (or trying to standardize the process for the sake of profit) may still please most mainstream consumers. Yet the sacrifice being made can, indeed, be felt. Such servers, in their rigor, seem positively robotic. When they clunkily try to construct a more “human” moment, it is perceived as unsettling. It’s a formulated attempt at what can only come about naturally, and it tarnishes the fantasy of effortless decadence.
This is because the quality of an experience’s immersion and interaction—while first judged by its broad appeal to the mainstream—is really distinguished by how a restaurant responds to singular customers whose requests they have never contended with before. These situations, which violate an establishment’s best laid plans, are by their very nature exceptional. They reward hospitality cultures that make no excuses, that place no barriers between their staff and the satisfaction of any request. By solving the most personal of problems or catering to the most esoteric proclivities, the restaurant forges the kind of connection that ensures a guest’s loyalty for life. The food and drink, in this context, become increasingly irrelevant: the customer will go time and again where they feel—without question—taken care of.
The distinction between “canny” and “uncanny” service reflects the dividing line between soulful and soulless hospitality. It forms the boundary through which strictly commercial considerations fade and a more nuanced give and take—between server and served—takes place. That relationship, when it is allowed to blossom, transcends monetary exchange. A sense of trust and fairness underlies every interaction, and both parties can give freely and fully of themselves within this atmosphere of good faith. Any request or critique—every moment of conversation—strikes with a sense of ease and naturalness.
The restaurant, no matter how refined, loses any trace of intimidation. The venue transforms into something more like a close friend’s home. Food and drink are joined by intimacy and security. All your worries—including those uniquely related to how one postures and jostles for attention in a rarefied dining setting—melt away. There is no longer any conscious consideration of the services being rendered; rather, the evening unfolds as an effortless dance. The journey of the menu forms only the faintest thread through which the assembled patrons undergo a profound, deeply personal, and memorable experience shaped, above all else, by human interaction.
These are the fleeting emotional peaks that true connoisseurs perpetually chase. For experience has taught them how rare it is—even when paying several hundred dollars per person—to be made to feel at home.
That sensation hides beyond all the luxury marketing, gastronomic special effects, rare ingredients, and the shallow feelings of superiority they spur. It cannot by invoked by spending more money, hiring more servers, training them more strictly, or arming them with a greater information advantage.
The conditions for such a connection can only be set. The staff, for all its technical excellence and advanced preparation, must be empowered to leave the playbook behind at a moment’s notice. And the customer, though they may be enthusiastic about dinner, must really sense that hospitality can offer something more.
Transcendent dining experiences are, really, the “canniest” of all. Yet they are often unrecognizable, taken for granted, or simply impossible to profit off of. Consumers have come to expect kindness and precision in exchange for their money but view the friendships they form at certain special establishments as an unrelated bonus. But they are not. Such relationships imbue dining with the ultimate enrichment, anchoring the creative expression of cuisine to the intimacy of a meal surrounded by loved ones. This balancing effect encourages greater risk taking from the chef, for the guest knows—even if a dish or an entire dinner falls flat—their satisfaction is personally guaranteed.
Any restaurant that falls short of this emotional standard is decidedly less “canny”—even if most patrons, swept away by surface-level novelty, have no idea what they are missing. Competence does enough to sustain the fantasy when one only desires fine food and drink, but that standard shows itself to be sorely lacking once a diner learns to view comestibles as only a small fragment of the establishment’s larger human expression. Only then do the many souls that transport those countless plates of food take on even greater consequence than the famous chef’s creations. For they are all living, breathing expressions of a restaurant organism in which each individual part glows with the beauty of the native terroir.
The ”uncanny” restaurant is not one that consciously satisfies more humble expectations of service. The everyday establishments that lack any singular character, any enrapturing team spirit, but pump out accessible, tasty fare are certainly “canny.” They may not achieve the same level of affinity as a more emotionally engaging experience but never seem eerily lacking.
Rather, “uncanniness” is solely the domain of concepts that wrap themselves in the transcendent language of hospitality while lacking any capacity to conjure such a feeling. These restaurants may position themselves as luminaries within the field. Their leaders may lecture at conferences devoted to the craft. They revel in media attention and are adept at jockeying for national and international awards. But such restaurants create systems that are more concerned with maintaining prestige than preserving a distinctive culture. These groups become obsessed with fitting employees into a proven mold rather than mentoring them in such a way as to unleash their singular style and potential.
At a certain point, even among the most respected restaurateurs, expanding their empire becomes the priority. Standardization replaces personalization, and the guest experience is flattened into something that can be successfully replicated for the lowest common denominator of consumer across the entire country (or globe). Each aspect of every location must ultimately serve the brand. The original mothership, the place that made the restaurant’s name, has to fall in line all the same. Uniformity secures economies of scale and increased efficiency. The beloved quirks and traditions of yore, unless they are codified and adopted en masse, quickly form impediments to convincingly realizing the brand’s new and improved identity.
This applies most distinctly to service style and standards. For the restaurant’s original location may have benefitted from a particularly talented generation of staff who defined the culture through sheer force of personality, yet these people move on and leave only a husk of the former operation. It may look the same at first glance—walking the walk and talking the talk that endeared the establishment to diners—but its generative emotional core has been removed. The fabricated, instruction manual style hospitality feels different. Its practitioners try desperately to capture an energy that is not, in fact, their own. They are led increasingly to rely on management’s own standards—defined to make their own jobs easy—rather than assuming the same ownership that organically guided their forebearers.
Looking at things from the top down, ownership wants to maintain a culture that has proven successful while smoothing the transition towards constant expansion. They reduce the experiences of countless employees who served customers with heart and soul into a set of practices that purport to perpetuate same feeling. A few talented restaurateurs manage to crack the code, but the vast majority end up with little more than a caricature.
They want the fruits of transcendent service without committing to its costs. Providing the living wage, health benefits, and sense of ownership that empowers self-actualization and the sincere expression of a server’s personality demands money. It requires robust cultural programming, mentorship, and a team spirit that looks beyond pure performance metrics. It necessitates a direct kind of uplifting that can only come about from engaged, on the ground leadership.
That all serves to stymie expansion, and so these restaurants trust that a few good managers, equipped with the right codified processes, can hire and train their way into ensuring lightning strikes again and again. Most often, it cannot—but the mainstream consumer hardly cares. They were not there at the beginning. They did not sense the energy that was lost. (But they may recognize when they feel it somewhere else and find themselves, slowly, gravitating there instead).
The local or “regular” customer, returning to the restaurant mothership, will notice the dilution of the emotional experience immediately. All those familiar faces will be gone, and the new blood will clumsily draw on their guest notes to bridge the gap. They’ll go through the motions, by the book, the way they’re “supposed to be done.” But it will all seem stilted. It will feel like a formality. The magic will be gone, and the doppelgänger version of it walking around will seem positively uncanny.
Or, just as easily, some new restaurant sets its sights on earning one, two, or three Michelin stars. The owner invests in the right property, the finest interior design, the rarest ingredients, and a concept that is sure to snare media attention. They put all these pieces in place then think they need only whip their staff into shape and set them loose. The owner tasks a manager with playing puppet master: teaching the servers how to move and what to say. They hit their marks perfectly, honoring the chef’s work but offering little more than mechanics.
Bibendum, writing for travelers that care little for any emotional connection, will like what he sees and sanction a steady stream of customers. They’ll pump money into the place and advertise their experience on social media without ever feeling something more. The owner, meanwhile, laughs their way to the bank (and an ill-gotten reputation as a hospitality maven).
Ultimately, the uncanny valley of fine dining denotes the most insidious kind of hospitality malpractice. The feeling it spurs is subtle but consequential, exposing the hollow core of service that does not or cannot draw on genuine emotion. That, in almost every case, reflects bad management and/or ownership. It points to people who treat their staff as disposable, who seek only to wring as much profit from their enterprise as possible—community be damned!
The eerie feeling that results is “familiar and old-established in the mind” because humans tend to know when the person caring for them is insincere. It is repressed because its recognition spoils the fantasy of fine dining, revealing the repressed tension of “something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”
That, you think, is the gnawing feeling that underlies nearly all hospitality: these people are not your friends; they are paid to serve you.
Yet sometimes, when all the stars align, that commercial consideration can truly be transcended. Souls touch and service transforms into something life-affirming as only the beauty of human nature can offer.
That, you think, is where you strangely find common ground with the industry’s more radical activist organizations. Hospitality can only reach its highest calling when both server and served feel cared for. Negotiating just what that comprises—and how restaurant owners might, in good faith and fairness, be able to provide it—is a worthy task that need not carry any unrelated political baggage. For, by building the widest coalition possible, such a social movement could effectively repair the domestic food system by making all participants whole. It would educate consumers on just why it is worth paying more, on how their community benefits, from the proper valuing of intimate, caring labor that forges social bonds.
But, for now, the “uncanny valley” and its eerie sensation highlight the artifice of those who seek to contrive the kind of hospitality that can only exist naturally when all those involved feel taken care of. The concept will prove, you hope, an effective tool in identifying corporate-concocted service practices that, through their false manner of emotional manipulation, malign the very craft they purport to honor.