Eleven Madison Park, one of the country’s most celebrated restaurants, took a small step toward restoring dining-room civility last month. The eatery now offers diners little wooden boxes in which to place their cellphones during meals. The idea, chef/owner Daniel Humm posted on Instagram, is to encourage guests “to enjoy the company of those at the table and be just a bit more present with one another.”
Of course, Instagram and similar photo-sharing sites are themselves the problem. Humm was too polite to say he wanted to banish camera flashes around the room during a $1,000-for-two meal. Not to mention annoying phone jabber with one’s mother/boss/ex-lover that assaults your ears just as you’re about to dig into mushroom butter-poached lobster with a chanterelle mushroom tart.
In my around-town munching rounds, I’m routinely blinded by phone flashlights and deafened by talk that should remain private. Recently I was subjected to a phone harangue at Marea by a woman at the next table, demanding her son recount his every movement over the last 24 hours. My food at Gabriel Kreuther turned cold when a friend insisted on first shooting every morsel over and over.
But don’t blame millennials or tourists for turning dining rooms into street-corner rumpuses — the enemy is all of us.
A rep for Eleven Madison Park said 50 percent of diners boxed their phones at the outset and now it’s up to 70 percent. The boxes are removed from tables unless customers insist on keeping them.
EMP is the first restaurant in its 3-Michelin-star class to offer the “service.” A handful of less expensive places, including Drew Nieporent’s Batard in Tribeca and Marco Canora’s Hearth in the East Village, merely “discourage” cellphone use. The only place I could find that outright forbids them on tables is Il Triangolo, an Italian spot in Corona.
Owners are chicken to ban phones for the same, obvious reason they gave up on dress codes: fear of losing customers. How can we go without our precious smartphones — which have thousands of times more pocket-size computer power than NASA’s astronauts had to reach the moon — for even a few hours?
Smartphones can be a big help in restaurants when used responsibly. They tell you more about wine, and how much a bottle should cost, than many sommeliers can. Calculators make it easier to figure out how much to tip when you’re tired and fuzzy-brained from drink.
For all their fun and convenience, smartphones turn the restaurant-going experience to mush.
But for all their fun and convenience, smartphones turn the restaurant-going experience to mush. Those too young to know a device-free world might be amazed by the greater pleasures of focusing on eating, drinking and enjoying only the company of people you’re with.
Pre-iPhone, dining rooms were the settings for private dramas high and low — romance, breakups, plotting — all secluded from the world beyond.
Famous movie scenes set in restaurants would look a lot different in our digital world. Drug-addled Al Pacino wouldn’t get through half of his “Say goodnight to the bad guy tantrum” in “Scarface” before a SWAT team swept through. Meg Ryan’s hilarious fake orgasm scene —“Yes! Yes!” — in “When Harry Met Sally” would go viral once the tweets went out and earn her a new job as a sexpert.
A meal’s mystique is best preserved in our minds. As New York restaurant publicist Jennifer Baum observed, “Your sensual memory is so much stronger than what’s going to be translated into a picture.”
It’s a long way to go before dining rooms recapture their lost romance. But it’s great that the EMP boys are making a start. Yes! Yes!
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