PizzaExpress iPhone booth hands-on

"I'll have the Etna Romano pizza please" isn't something we normally have to say when it comes to reviewing the latest gadgets here at Pocket-lint, but that's exactly what we found ourselves doing on the last Saturday in October, as we tested out the latest Apple-friendly tech.

The UK restaurant chain PizzaExpress is starting a new experiment. It's ditching those cold stone tables and metal chairs for a more fun, interactive, and colourful experience, starting with its Richmond restaurant.

Walk in, and you're greeted by friendly staff, a barrage of colour, disks on the ceiling, and, dotted around the place, "pods" that combine your traditional diner booth with, basically, a lid.

However, that lid isn't just to make you feel cosy and snug. It provides a dimmer light, a speaker and noise insulation so you can attempt to block out some of the ambient row of your, perhaps, noisier dining guests.

The booth also contains the key ingredient for gadget fans and Linters: an iPod dock.

Yep, music with your food.

It's an age old theory that music enhances the taste of food (no, really), and now PizzaExpress is allowing you to put that to the test. While you eat your pizza and pasta you can listen to Nirvana, Norah Jones or whatever takes your fancy.

The booths seat up to seven adults, or in our case four adults and four under 5s, and there is still plenty of room to enjoy your large pizza and a beer.

To the side of each padded booth is an iPhone/iPod docking station. It's a standard iPod dock, and one that easily took our iPhone 4. Plus, judging by the size of it, we would expect it to be able to take the fatter iPod classic as well.

Once plugged in you are ready to go, with the dock charging your phone/MP3 player at the same time - handy if you are low on juice.

Volume is controlled via your Apple device in the same way as normal. PizzaExpress is able to limit the volume too, making it quieter if you are too noisy and louder if you can't hear it. It's clearly a safety precaution as there is "bleed" from the booth that could annoy nearby diners. However, on a busy Saturday lunchtime, as with our visit, you may have to ask them to turn it up.

The speaker is situated in the roof of the lid and, while it's not going to set the world alight, it's perfectly good enough for this situation.

You might have guessed by now that it's basically a massive iPod dock, in which you can play any music on your iPhone/iPod, and you'd be right. We were able to play songs from the iPod app, as well as Spotify, with no problem. Luckily, the 3G connection in the restaurant is good enough to stream tracks.

Besides the music playback functions, the booth also sports a dimmer light, which our waiter Guy told us was "for the romantics".

For our (mouths-) hands-on, we went all gung-ho, dragging the kids along for the ride, but we could easily see you trying to impress Mrs Pocket-lint with some low-light romantic music to set the scene.

Of course, with the lights down, and soft music melodiously wafting across your Chocolate Glory desert, the waiter might not see you, but PizzaExpress has thought of everything. The restaurant chain has put in a "Serve me" button that apparently will make the booth's bulbous lid "glow".

In reality, it's a small blue light that is unlikely to get noticed, and after pressing the button it was some time before our man came running. Looks like a wave in the air is still going to be the best way.

Away from the booth the technology continues throughout the restaurant. There are a stack of interactive touchscreen panels in the corner to entertain older kids, and like Heston Blumenthal's Little Chef on the A3, the toilets are filled with the sound of birds and other choice noises.

So was the experience worth it, and should you be rushing over to Richmond to check out the new toys?

As you might expect, it doesn't massively change your dining experience, but it is a bit of fun (that's free). And, we could see that, in the right moments, it could potentially "seal the deal".

On the downside, there are a couple of things worth mentioning. One, if you use your phone to entertain your kids (think apps) you can't do this here because it's in use, and two you can't quickly check your phone because it's on the dock - something those who are addicted to email, Facebook or Twitter might want to take into account.

The food is good, the staff friendly and accommodating, and we had a fun time eating, chatting and, of course, playing with the technology.

However, with only seven pods in the entire restaurant, it might be worth making sure you book them before you go.

Still, at no extra cost, it was a thumbs up from us and the rest of the family. 



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