We Asked Restaurants Whether Phones Have Ruined the Dining Experience

A restaurant in Australia is now offering rewards for customers who don’t touch their phone during dinner … but are they really that bad?

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Aug 3 2018, 4:18pm

Photo via Flickr user J. Annie Wang.

Hey guys, have you heard? [Enter new technology] is ruining friendships, love, sex, television, the passage of time, existence, Fridays, and definitely, definitely every morsel of food you put into your mouth.

A restaurant in Australia is ready to take this anti-technology sentiment to the next level, announcing rewards for customers who stay off their phones for the duration of their meal. According to Business Insider, Contact Bar and Kitchen in Sydney has introduced a policy offering restaurant-goers a free glass of wine if they hand staff their phone to be locked away until the end of their visit. Kind of like in a prison or during a GCSE exam, but for consenting adults.

So far, the restaurant has reported a 100-percent success rate. “I’ve been in the hospitality industry for 20 years. Over time I saw phones intruding during the meal more and more,” owner Markus Stauder told Business Insider. “I just want people to enjoy the food and drinks. People miss half the night because they’re on their phone.”

Whether this is true or not, this fear of technology interfering in social spaces is nothing new. When a device begins to change human behaviour patterns, many are quick to point out how much better things were in the good old days. In my day, people made real connections, they will say. Did it even happen if you didn’t Instagram it? Wow, good joke, Brian.

This kind of thinking was around long before the digital revolution beginning in the late 1970s, and the years following that saw us all become deeply besotted with our mobiles. When phones were invented in the 19th century, people feared that the way humans socialised would change for the worse. But here we are, many years later, using phones and still with the ability to have normal, functioning conversations.

I reached out to Jon Agar, a professor of science and technology studies at University College, London and author of Constant Touch: a Global History of the Mobile Phone, to ask whether mobile phones really are the greatest threat to having a nice convo with our mates over pasta.

“Mobile phones enabled us to be more improvisatory when it comes to social engagements,” Agar tells me over email. “This freewheeling experimentation in social coordination might also extend to what we choose to eat.”

“There is a lot of social signalling going on,” he continues. “Rather than only ‘getting in the way of social experiences,’ the social experience of eating is more complicated and probably richer in interesting ways.”

Agar does, however, think that locking diners’ phones away is a little authoritarian. “Remember that there are lots of spaces where mobiles are disallowed or restricted: schools, sacred spaces, aeroplanes, prisons, hospitals, and courtrooms. Usually, note, places where there is a well-defined and strong hierarchy of authority. Restricting use is, if you like, a way of displaying this authority.”

Phones have also opened up new ways of engaging with food. The transient experience of eating a raspberry sorbet is remembered with an upload to Instagram, and your grandma can see what you’re eating from halfway across the country. In the age of #foodporn, restaurants are also more aware of how diners engage with dishes and the area around them, resulting in better menus and more enjoyable dining rooms.

The transient experience of eating a raspberry sorbet is remembered with an upload to Instagram, and your grandma can see what you’re eating from halfway across the country

Chef and founder of Carte Blanche, a restaurant in East London, agrees. “Personally, I embrace [phones in dining rooms],” he tells me over email. “I've discovered loads of new places I want to eat at while scrolling through Instagram. And in the restaurant, it opens up a whole new dialogue with the customer after the meal is over."

This view is shared by a spokesperson for Rascals, a Shoreditch restaurant with millennial pink walls and bounteous house plants. “We love phones, everything we do is designed to be snappable :)”, they tell me over email. “We are in the business of providing experiences and more importantly making memories for people :)”.

However, a spokesperson for sketch—an almost unbearably Instagrammable restaurant in Central London—say that they have taken steps to ensure mobile phones don’t totally destroy the social element of dining out.

“We have never actively encouraged our guests to take photos in our restaurant and we do ask our guests to be sensitive to other diners,” they explain over email. “This is a phenomenon that has grown over the years, and is now entrenched within the DNA of this generation. sketch opened before Instagram existed, and this new way of living has been thrust upon us and others.”

Perhaps we criticise the use of phones at the dinner table—either to snap something for the 'gram or Snapchat your mate about the posh coffee you just bought—because it is an act associated with women and young people, two demographics society often undervalues. Your da reading the Observer over breakfast as he mindlessly ignores the beautiful scrambled eggs your mum just made is fine, but God forbid you take your phone out to Instagram a photo. That's the end of humanity as we know it.

Perhaps everyone should just chill out about phones at dinner. No one ever died from a goddamn Instagram, Brian.