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The Big Gripe: Your Cell Phone

Restaurants would like you to put down the phone and just enjoy your meal, please


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The perfectly warm short rib lands at the table. It is ready to eat. Eat me, it steams. You reach for your fork, but your “friend” gives you the pause hand. He picks up his phone, opens the camera app, spends a few fussy seconds adjusting the plate in the best ambient light, places a wine glass just so, moves his camera around the dish to find the very best angle, and snaps a photo. You start at it again, but no, he laughs. One photo is never enough. He snaps another photo from a different angle, and another. You pout. The short rib’s window of prime edibility starts to close.

Okay, all set.

So you finally dig in, eating alone for the first minute because your friend needs to pull up Instagram, select the best shot, choose the right filter, concoct a pithy comment, select the hashiest of hashtags.

Dinner reservations for two are really four now—two people, two phones.

“One thing I would change is for people to be more present and meditative about their dining experience,” says Andrew Santana, executive chef of Charles & Dinorah. “Just put the phone down and be in the moment.”

Om.

Your friend with 37 partially imagined food allergies used to be the most annoying diner in the restaurant. Now we all are the most annoying because we are the property of our smartphones. Hosts lead guests to tables only to look back and realize we’re not behind them anymore because we’ve stopped to take “ambience snaps” for the Insta story. When seated with the menu, we Google “best dishes at Restaurant X” or “saltimbocca, Restaurant Y, review.” We search for the retail price of Tablas Creek wines to make sure the restaurant isn’t gouging us.

Seventy-seven percent of Americans own smartphones now, according to Pew. It’s not very good for us, according to the big brains who study brain things. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that smartphones are making us feel more distracted, making us less able to enjoy personal interactions and feeling more bored after a meal.

But you love your phone! It makes you happy, being so always connected, and it will give you and your dining companions fodder to talk about! Maybe. But this British study found that nearly a third of notifications from your smartphone trigger negative emotions, making you more hostile, upset, nervous, afraid, or ashamed. Shame makes short ribs taste like tofu ribs. And Berkeley sociologists say smartphones are ruining our ability to maintain good conversations.

“It’d be great to see less cell phones in the dining room,” says chef Brian Malarkey of Herb & Wood/Farmer & the Seahorse/Lots of Restaurants & Lots More Restaurants. “It’s nice to see people more in the moment, enjoying their company and the atmosphere.”

“We are enjoying the company!” we protest. Or, we were. But while enjoying, the phone made its Pavlovian chirp, the screen glowed next to the bread. We looked down at our notification, sufficiently pushed, and lost track of what our company was saying. We pause between bites to text someone how great this restaurant is. We’d rather tell someone what a great time we’re having instead of having this great time.

“Especially put it down when you’re with family and having quality time,” says Cusp Dining & Drinks executive chef Ingrid Fuentes. “It’s so important and not common anymore.”

Your phone is also hurting restaurants. Because, in order to make money in an industry with a small profit margin, they must “turn tables.” While good restaurateurs will not want to rush you out, they still must strike a balance between giving you a good experience and convincing you to leave at some point—unless bankruptcy is their current business model. A study by the organization Balance Small Business found that customers using cell phones are much more prone to linger.

Just put the phone down and be in the moment. - Chef Andrew Santana

The catch-22, of course, is that social media has been a boon for restaurants. Excellent photos of their food, when posted to Instagram or Facebook by the right accounts, can really drive business. That said, some of you suck at taking photos of food, which can actually harm business. Banning cell phones also basically takes you out of the “business lunch” market, which in turn hurts your opportunity at getting a catering contract for companies. And what about the person dining alone? (At one American craft cocktail bar—I can’t recall which at the moment—they ban phones but give solo diners a book on spirits to read.) As for parents who claim they need to be by their phones at all moments in case the babysitter lets their child swallow paint thinner, I politely remind them that children survived babysitters for thousands of years before the ability to text.

So what’s to be done? Chef Jordan Kahn asked users to ditch their phones at his LA restaurant, Vespertine. Brooklyn’s Carthage Must Be Destroyed banned taking photos of its restaurant, as did the Chicago speakeasy The Violet Hour. At Petit Jardin in France, waiters blow whistles when customers are caught using their phones, and a second offense gets you kicked out.

Here’s the solution I like best, though. It’s not draconian, and doesn’t tell a customer what they can and cannot do. At his restaurant Hearth in New York’s East Village, chef Marco Canora places a vintage cigarette or jewelry box on the table. On the top, it reads “Open me.” And inside, customers find a note suggesting they take a break from their smartphones and store their phones inside the box for the remainder of the meal. They’ve had great success, with most patrons agreeing to comply (except when their dining companion goes to the restroom, at which point the restaurant says the phones come out of the boxes immediately).

I’d love to see one, two, or maybe 600 San Diego restaurants adopt this very practice. No reason to reinvent the wheel. Canora’s wheel seems pretty damn good.

Unplug from your little glowing master and plug into that short rib. Detach from your phone and attach to the person eating with you.

*Author’s Note: Lest this article be taken as some sanctimonious malarkey, the author would like to acknowledge he is part of the problem. His job is to take photos of nearly everything he eats, and quite frankly, his friends often wish he was an accountant so that he would put the damn phone away and eat already.

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