Image: Couple ordering meal in restaurant © NULL, Corbis

The appetizer order is taken promptly. The check is presented and processed the moment you are ready to pay. The children are entertained throughout the meal. But it isn't the waiter you have to thank for this efficient dining experience.

A growing number of restaurants -- including Chili's Grill & Bar, Applebee's and Chevys Fresh Mex -- are using or testing small, interactive computer screens at the table. Diners can see glossy pictures of food, order menu items and pay a check without a waiter.

Some of the devices also offer video games, often for a fee, movie trailers and news articles. Some have advertising; many plan to add it. Device makers hope to charge liquor companies for ads and retailers for coupons.

For couples and families, restaurant meals -- once a place for leisurely conversation -- have become just another time to be glued to email and games. "Restaurants are faced with either being outside of that communication and just allowing it all to take place on guests' phones, or they can be part of that," says Austen Mulinder, the president and chief executive of TableTop Media, which makes the Ziosk, a device that lets diners order, pay and play games. Chili's franchisees are using the Ziosk in more than 100 restaurants. Applebee's is testing it.

The technologies promise to address a longstanding complaint of diners: Paying the bill is a hassle. "When you are ready, that five minutes waiting for the credit-card transaction feels like 20," says Jay Johns, the vice president of strategy implementation at Applebee's. Since late last year, Applebee's has tested three types of screens -- the Ziosk, Presto, and eTab -- at 13 restaurants across the U.S. The devices let diners swipe their credit card at the table and email themselves a receipt. Some print a receipt at the table.

The entertainment features have been a hit, says Don Schuck, the director of information technology for the U.S. division of AmRest, a franchisee that owns 102 Applebee's restaurants in the U.S. and is planning to test three of the devices in its Columbus, Ga., locations. Initially, he says, "We thought, 'Who is going to want to do that?' Surprisingly, quite a few." Some restaurants charge a fee, usually about $1, to use games. Diners have the option of removing the free-standing devices, restaurants say. Seven out of 10 diners at a table with the Ziosk choose to use it, the company says, adding that Ziosk is in hundreds of restaurants.

During monthly visits to her local Chili's, Kimberly Nasief-Westergren turns the Ziosk screen away from her 11-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter. "We want to engage her in a conversation," says the 38-year-old president of a consumer research firm who lives in Louisville, Ky. Her son is drawn in by "the flashing lights. He wants to grab at it and put it in his mouth," she says. That said, she says she's interested in the idea of paying her bill with the screen.

"The only difficulty is the kids fighting over it," Lynn Mahoney says of the Ziosk device at her local Uno Chicago Grill. The 43-year-old, who operates a coupon blog from Wrentham, Mass., says her three children play games on the machine while waiting for food, then put it away. The adults "get a couple of minutes to talk without them saying, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.'"

Casual dining chains are the main target for these devices. Some higher-end restaurants use iPads to show menus or wine lists. Most device makers charge restaurants a monthly fee.

So far, even most middle-tier restaurants have resisted letting people order everything on the menu from a machine because they want to preserve the personalized service that diners get from interacting with waiters. Instead, they are focusing on high-margin items such as drinks and desserts.

The "upsell" is a big feature of the product, says Terry Bader, the vice president of marketing and strategy for eTab International, which makes one of the devices being tested by Applebee's. "We can prompt consumers at the table with a message, 'Hey, how about another round of drinks?'" Bader says. At Chevys, which is testing the Ziosk in 12 of its 60 U.S. locations, the device shows dessert photos around 20 minutes after a waiter comes to the table.

Dessert orders are about 30% higher than before restaurants used the Ziosk, says Mike Bova, the senior vice president of operations for ERJ Dining, a Chili's franchise with 122 restaurants that have used the Ziosk since 2010. Brinker International, which owns the Chili's brand, says all of the Ziosks in use are operated by franchise partners.

Rather than a table device, T.G.I. Friday's recently launched a free cellphone application for diners. It shows users the menu at their local Friday's, offers discounts and can be used to pay the bill. Using technology from Tabbedout, diners enter their credit-card information into the app, which links with the restaurant's computer system when on-site. The app doesn't take food orders because "that is a human interaction that at this point we don't want to lose," says Trey Hall, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the company.

Pay-at-the-table systems make low tippers more generous, restaurants say. The systems are designed to suggest a tip amount, say 20%, letting users adjust up or down.

Tips are above average when people use T.G.I. Friday's app to pay, Hall says. The app suggests an 18% tip. More than 90% of restaurant diners choose the predetermined tip on Viableware's device, a pay-at-the-table device that looks like a traditional black bill holder, the company says.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro plans to test the device. Like tabletop machines, it lets users divide up the bill, add a tip, swipe a credit card and email themselves a receipt. It doesn't offer entertainment. "The dining experience is the entertainment experience, and we don't want to clutter that," says Steve Stoddard, the president of Viableware.

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Lights on some machines signal to waiters if a patron is paying or needs help.

At Chevys in New York's Times Square, after two weeks of using a Ziosk, waitress Teri Hurst is careful to turn the machine away from children while explaining the gaming options to parents, just as she would while explaining dessert options. "I call them apps, not games," says the 37-year-old. Playing games costs 99 cents at Chevys. Enough people play that the games have become a profit source for the restaurant, general manager Mike Alasaad says.

Earlier this year, Texas Roadhouse, the second-largest steakhouse chain in the U.S. after Outback Steakhouse, tested the Ziosk to see "if we could cut some time off the table turn," spokesman Travis Doster says, using the industry term for time spent at a table. Waiters found that recharging the machines was bothersome and that the devices hogged space on tables already "busy with peanut buckets and bread baskets and all," he says. Table turn decreased slightly, but the company doesn't plan to offer the device, he says.

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