Cellular Gastronomy: Restaurants’ Love-Hate Relationship With Your Phone


When I walk into the International Language Institute, the small, dingy lobby is empty—except for a guy sitting next to the elevator. Is this actually the right way to the new  Dupont “speakeasy” from Good Stuff Eatery’s Spike Mendelsohn and lobbyist/Kabin owner Vinoda Basnayake? It doesn’t look like the entrance to a bar with studded red velvet walls, $18 cocktails, and copies of Playboy in the restroom.

“Is this The Sheppard?” I ask the man, who I suddenly realize is wearing an earpiece. It is. OK, I think, they’re really taking this whole Prohibition-era thing seriously. Maybe too seriously: Before the “elevator host” takes us upstairs, he lays out two rules:

No phone calls.

No photos.

But it’s not just self-conscious throwbacks like The Sheppard that are adopting such strict anti-technology rules. Komi forbids photos, and sister restaurant Little Serow restricts flash photography and video. Fellow faux-speakeasy Harold Black doesn’t allow cell phones at the bar or flash either. Even Cork Wine Bar requests no photos of its food. And chef R.J. Cooper tried to ban photos upon the opening of Rogue 24, but he’s since relaxed the policy, realizing that people are going to do it anyway.

Indeed, you need only visit any one of those restaurants’ image-filled Yelp pages to realize fighting photos is a losing battle. These policies just go to show the tension among restaurateurs and diners when it comes to your mobile vs. your meal. Many restaurateurs see phones as a distraction from the experience they are trying to offer; the ubiquity of devices in bars and dining rooms is either a sign of the decline of civilization or a normal fact of modern day life, depending on what camp you’re in. Sure, there’s the larger matter of whether our addiction to phones is hurting real-life experiences and social interactions. But do restaurants need to step in to “save” people from their photo-and-texting-crazed selves? Should restaurants be like movie theatres, with a reminder to silence your cell phone before the show starts?

“We really want you to enjoy your cocktail, enjoy your time. Don’t be on your phone,” says Mendelsohn. “You have the rest of your life to be on your phone.” He also says the measure is meant to assure guests of privacy. Plus, “that selfie’s really not going to turn out anyway, because it’s too dark.”

Other chefs fret that dishes will get cold in those precious minutes that diners spend arranging their plates and choosing Instagram filters. Some don’t appreciate amateurs’ photo skills: Pictures may be fuzzy or dark, or—worst of all—feature a half-eaten dish, not representing the food at its best. Cork Wine Bar added a no-photo policy six months after opening for that very reason. “We saw some pictures of our food online, and they didn’t look so hot,” says owner Diane Gross. “So we were a little bit concerned about things popping up on the web that weren’t professionally done.” Gross says she has no problem with people taking pictures of themselves, just not the food. And even though the policy is written on the menu, it’s not heavily policed. If someone is taking photos, the staff will politely point out the rule.

“A lot of people will judge you based on those pictures,” says Water & Wall and Maple Ave Restaurant owner Tim Ma. He recently dreamed up another possible solution: “Maybe if we see somebody starting to take pictures of the food, we could have pictures ready and be like, ‘Don’t worry about taking a picture. We’re going to send you a picture of this dish.’” But he knows it would never work.

“If they want to take a picture of the food, maybe that’s something that will help them remember this period of time in their life, or it’s their birthday,” Ma says. “I can understand that. I have my opinion about it, but it’s not like I’m going to do anything about it.”

Others see it as free marketing. “If people are Instagramming and tweeting and they’re putting your hashtag in there, that gets people interested in you again,” says restaurateur and bartender Todd Thrasher. “They’re doing social media for us, and we’re not paying them. They’re actually paying me.”

Thrasher says he has no problem with people taking photos at PX, or even Restaurant Eve. He’ll only ask someone to step outside if they’re making a phone call. Thrasher says there’s a group that eats at Restaurant Eve every month or two that self-regulates their phone use: Every time they come in, they all put their phones in the center of the table as soon as they sit down. The first person who picks up his or her phone pays for the whole bill. “I’ve probably seen them come into the restaurant 16 to 20 times, and I’ve seen phones picked up probably half the time,” he says.

Then there’s the question of whether all that picture-taking and phone fidgeting adds up to slower table turns. A couple weeks ago, a poster on Craigslist claimed to be from a New York restaurant that compared surveillance video from a decade ago to footage from today and found that meals take nearly an hour longer now because customers are playing with their phones, taking photos, and sending dishes back because they got cold while they were photographing. The story was never confirmed as real, but it went viral anyway.

Most restaurant owners I spoke to don’t believe that phones are doubling service time, but some do think mobile use is drawing out meals at least a little. Ma sees guests spend a little extra time “checking in” before they look at the menu, Googling items on the menu, and taking photos. “It’s like around 10 minutes, but that’s 10 minutes of rentable [table] time,” he says.

Thrasher agrees that phones make service longer, particularly at fine dining establishments. “If someone gets up to take a phone call, we can’t really serve the food to you,” he says. “We have to hold the food back or replate the food, because if you’re spending that much money for dinner, that food better be hot.” And if someone is texting or Facebooking at a table, a server may wait so as not to interrupt.

But even if people stay a little longer, restaurateur Jeff Black says it’s not to a point where it negatively affects his operations. The one exception: A 20-something couple once came for dinner at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, and after they finished their meal and drinks, they cuddled up along the banquette, put on headphones, and began watching Wolf of Wall Street—a three-hour movie—on an iPad. A manager stepped in right away and told them he’d buy them a drink at Black Jack upstairs, but they couldn’t stay and watch the movie there.

Phones also impose themselves on restaurants with demands for electricity. The issue has recently been debated in VICE, Eater, and Epicurious, with chefs and writers arguing it’s not a restaurant’s responsibility to power up customers and that it pulls bartenders and servers away from their jobs. (Not to mention the potential liability issues if the phone is damaged or stolen.) A Seattle chef even posed the possibility of a phone-charging fee. Others embrace, or at least accept, the fact that customers are going to want to charge up. And many new restaurants surround their bars and dining rooms with outlets to make it as easy as possible for patrons to be constantly plugged in.

Agua 301 has free Wi-Fi, plus 16 outlets along its 20-seat bar and more on columns in the bar area and dining room. “When we had the opportunity to build this place out, that was one of our number one things with our architect,” says owner Stephen Briggs. “We felt it was an added step of service and hospitality to offer that to the guest.” He and his wife, his business partner, are constantly bombarded with requests to charge phones.

Teddy & The Bully Bar and Lincoln Restaurant owner Alan Popovsky estimates one out of every 10 customers ask about charging their phones. That’s part of the reason he agreed to make his restaurants pick-up hubs for a new D.C.-based service called Find Puck, which is basically Uber for portable phone chargers. (Yes, really.) iPhone users who need power sign in, find nearby locations that have “pucks” (wireless chargers shaped like the phone), then rent them for $3 an hour. Popovsky gets 50 cents per use, which, so far, has added up to about $40 per month. He also has an array of “house” chargers for customers with dying batteries to use for free. “It makes people feel like they can stay longer,” says Popovsky. “If you don’t have your phone charged, a lot of people get antsy.” He figures if they’re still charging, maybe they’ll order an extra drink or dessert.

Overall, what restaurateurs say over and over again when it comes to phones in their restaurants is “we’re in the hospitality business.” They may not always like the omnipresence of devices in their dining rooms, but most know they can’t really control them. “I think you’re putting your thumb in the hole of the dike and you’re hoping that the water doesn’t crash on your head,” says Jeff Black. “It’s a tidal wave, and it’s a part of how a lot of people live nowadays.”

Admittedly, I’m one of those people guilty of taking photos of nearly every meal. (At least I have a professional excuse.) So when I enter The Sheppard, the no-photo warning doesn’t deter me; it makes me want to snap away more. I shoot the cocktail menu and the Iberico ham with caviar and sherry foam. And I take a picture of the chandeliers hanging above frames of scantily clad women on the walls, which soon after goes up on Twitter—with no regrets.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to [email protected].

Photo illustration by Darrow Montgomery