Restaurant owners grapple with policies for annoying cell phone use

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% 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% 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 Manhattan. 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. The Manhattan restaurant Comodo even encourages guests to upload pictures of their dishes to Instagram with the hashtag #comodomenu to create a user-generated "Instagram menu." Sharing trends are likely to accelerate  as the generation who has no memory of a world before cell phones comes of age.

Already, about one in five U.S. adults say they share online when eating a meal with others, and more than a third of teens do the same, according to the 2012 State of Mobile Etiquette Survey for Intel Corp.

The same survey found 81% of U.S. adults believe mobile manners are getting worse, up 6 percentage points from last year. A Zagat survey this month found most respondents disapproving of texting, tweeting and emailing when eating out, but a majority accepted picture taking.

"I think it's about having more time under our belt with what the new normal is," said etiquette expert Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post.

While the technology is new, the rules of etiquette are old-fashioned common sense. Silence your phone in restaurants and don't answer unless there's a very good reason, like a sick kid back home. And if you do answer, excuse yourself from the table. Try to keep your phone off the table, it signals to your companions that you waiting for something better.

As for taking pictures, Post said consider the sort of place you're in — busy pub or cloistered bistro? — and who you're with.

"Ask yourself, 'Just because I want to take a photo of my food, is this the right place? Am I with the right people for this to be OK?'" Post said. "The answer can't always be yes."