Restaurants increasingly fed up with cellphones

A sign at the Hamilton Street Cafe in Albany, N.Y., advises customers about the cellphone policy.
A sign at the Hamilton Street Cafe in Albany, N.Y., advises customers about the cellphone policy. Mike Groll/AP Photo

The digital divide is wider than ever between diners who talk, tweet and snap pictures mid-meal and those who wish they'd just shut up, shut down and be present.

Caught at the center of the discord are restaurant owners and chefs, who must walk the careful line of good customer service for both those who dine under the influence of smart phones, and those who won't. But as the devices have morphed into an unrelenting appendage for texting, photography and games, more restaurateurs are challenged to keep the peace.

Owners who once relied mostly on "no cell phones, please" signs, increasingly are experimenting with everything from penalties for using phones, discounts for not and outright bans on photography.

"There's no place to get away from the chatter," said Julie Liberty of Miami, who started the Facebook page "Ban Cell Phones From Restaurants" earlier this year. "Everything has a soundtrack, including when you go into the ladies room. That's just not right."

It's a touchy issue. Consider the crush of news coverage Eva Restaurant in Los Angeles generated when it began offering patrons a 5 percent discount if they leave their phone at the door. Online comments ranged from cheers of "YES!" to others who said their phones would have to be pried from their cold, dead hands.

The policy is working, though. Eva's Rom Toulon said about 40 percent of our customers will leave their cell phones at the door.

"After a few cocktails and glasses of wine, it can be challenging to remember that you left the phone behind," he said.

The burst of headlines for Eva came after a Burlington, Vt., deli took on cyber-folk hero status for posting a sign informing customers that $3 will be added to their bill "if you fail to get off your phone while at the counter. It's rude." Disgusted diners are doing their part too with games like "phone stack," in which everyone places their phones in a stack in the middle of the table. The first person who reaches for their phone pays the bill for all.

These are more creative approaches to the no cell-phone signs now common in restaurants ranging from highbrow to quick-eats. The landmark Boston restaurant Locke-Ober asks diners - in language appropriate for a place with a dress code - to "kindly refrain from using cellular phones."

In Albany, N.Y., the Hamilton Street Cafe has a more direct, hand-drawn "No cell phones at the counter" sign with a phone with a red "X" through it.

Owner Sue Dayton said the sign by the counter helps keep the lunch line moving.

"You get a half-hour for lunch. You walk up here and you have to stand behind someone not paying attention enough to say what kind of bread they want on their BLT because they're on their cell phone," Dayton said.

Irritation over distracted dining has broadened with the rise of photo-sharing apps like Instagram. The popular online scrapbook Pinterest is clogged with pictures of everything from pan fried noodles to poutine snapped moments before digestion. Chefs - who, as a rule, put a premium on control - don't always take kindly to their dining rooms becoming shooting galleries.

Grant Achatz, the famous Chicago-based molecular gastronomist, wrote a much-forwarded post several years ago grousing about diners who snap the meal away and even try to video his staff without asking permission. "I can't imagine how celebrities feel," he wrote. "No wonder they punch the paparazzi out when they get the chance."

Some restaurateurs go with the digital flow. Sarabeth Levine, of New York City-based Sarabeth's, said she's perfectly fine with people chatting, playing games or even taking pictures. It's free advertising, after all.

"I'm happy to have our customers," Levine said. "They come, they tweet, they Facebook, they bring their children. It's high energy to begin with. I mean, people are noisy even in the way they speak today."

Other restaurants go as far as to bar picture taking, like David Chang's Ko in Mahnattan. Others take a middle ground, like the high-end Washington, D.C., restaurant Rogue 24, where hostesses politely tell guests that if they do take pictures, please do so without a distracting flash.

"I mean you can't fight it," said owner R. J. Cooper. "Why fight a losing battle?"

Actually, the battle might already be lost.

The use of hand-held devices at the table is implicitly encouraged at the growing number of restaurants that offer Wi-Fi access or accept payment via smartphone.

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