Last fall, I stayed at the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati while in town to shoot musician Valerie June just across the river in Newport, Kentucky. In the hotel lobby, an art installation by Rachel Lee Hovnanian called Dinner for Two* occupied the space just off the reception desk. In this mixed media exhibit, a newly married husband and wife sit at opposite ends of a long table on their wedding night, and are so distracted by their smartphones (indicated by a constant series of beeps, bleeps, and dings) that they don’t even see each other. And a mouse, taking advantage of the distracted couple, has made itself at home in their wedding cake. The couple is newly tethered, but not at all connected.
The exhibit described isn’t that far off base from a modern restaurant experience. In recent weeks, The Washington Post pleaded with people to stop using their phones at dinner. And a New York restaurant took to Craigslist in an anonymous rant where they blamed customers’ smartphone use for slower service in their restaurant. Just last week, we posed the question “What’s the appropriate amount of cell phone use at a restaurant?” as part of our #SouthernEats Twitter chat. The replies varied—but only slightly.
As a child, my parents enforced a “no phone calls during dinner” rule. If the phone rang, Momma would send one of my brothers or me to answer, take a message (this was pre-answering machines), and let the caller know my parents would return their call later. One night, the phone rang, and I was dispatched to take the message. When I returned to the table, Daddy asked who it was. I replied, “Oh, the mayor. He wants you to call him.” And my dad waited until after we finished eating to return the call. Even the mayor didn’t warrant an exception to the No Phone Calls rule. To this day, if the phone rings during dinner we joke, “Oh, it’s probably just the mayor.”
Admittedly, as a food writer, I appreciate the over-use of cell phones in restaurants, because it allows me to do my job without drawing excess attention to myself. No one suspects you’re a food writer simply because you’re taking pictures of your food. Everyone documents their meal these days. And flying under the radar is key—it allows me to experience a restaurant the same way a reader would.
But maybe that makes me something of a hypocrite, because I also think that incessant texting and in-the-moment Twintstabooking are just plain rude to the people you’re dining with. It’s impossible to carry on a conversation with someone who is half-engaged with their greater digital community throughout the meal. Let’s face it, quality time with friends and family seems to be harder and harder to come by. And don’t get me started on actual phone conversations … Emergencies only, please. And even then, please step away from the table.
So I ask you: Just how much cell phone use is okay in a restaurant?
* This work will be on view at 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas, in the exhibition Dis-semblance opening on September 10.