“Yes, I’ll have the sundried tomato pesto sandwich, only without the pesto, and with the chipotle mayonnaise, hold the lettuce and onions, and—oh, I’m getting a call. Can you hold on a second?” She interrupts the order with her hand in the air, a referee’s “timeout,” and an urgent call from her friend Susan, who, incidentally, is also eating at California Pizza Kitchen. The event necessitates unending giggles, followed inevitably by, “Really? No way! Oh my gawsh! That’s crazeeeeeeee!”
The worst part is, the waiter is paused mid-side dish as though the interruption from incessant callers is part of his nightly routine. He waits patiently, because the tip will be worth it. Hopefully.
As important a fixture to restaurant culture—and eating utility—as a utensil is, the cell phone has found a not-so-comfortable, yet always expected, home beside the forks and knives of restaurant place settings. They range in color, design, and ringtone spectacles, but all seem to sit unabashedly below the water, next to the napkin, where the butter knife once humbly sat, long since retired.
“What’s the weather supposed to be tomorrow?” I hear over my left shoulder while picking bones out of a salmon fillet at Racine’s. Five years ago—not even five—the answer would have been a combination shrug-grunt. “I dunno. I thought I heard something about rain?…” and the answer would fade into speculation, somehow informed by the cheery, if clueless rant of the evening weatherman. And then the conversation would fall to the timeless tradition of incendiary gossip—always fun to eavesdrop on those conversations.
But today, much of the casual to high-end dining crowd is in bed—literally—with their cell phones. For business moguls, time is too precious to go without checking e-mail every 15 seconds, and for high school teens, social life is absolutely, unequivocally dependent on the unpredictable call from Johnny or, as I recently discovered, Susan.
Should we be doing something about this? Should I throw down my fork (a sad substitution for a gauntlet), rise in indignation, storm over to the gaggle of prepubescent girls doubled over in perpetual giggles, and demand they relinquish their curvy raspberry chocolate sidekicks?
Well, no. Whether I should or not, I wouldn’t. I’d much rather keep picking bones out of my salmon fillet. Still, I have seen questions thrown out during dinnertime conversation that cannot simply be discussed. Heaven forbid words are exchanged in animated interest. What’s the name of the lead singer of Journey again? When did the Vietnam War end? Is Russia still communist? What’s my name? The answers, it seems, cannot be tossed around between soup and salad, dangled about filet mignons, batted between slices of cheesecake. No, the answers must come now. And so, the blueberry smartphones—named after fruit for some unknown reason—are grabbed, tapped, and tricked into releasing the answer. Done. Next question?
It disturbs me for two reasons: one, meaningful etiquette is put entirely out the window. When exceptions are made for a four-square-inch piece of metal and plastic that gleefully rings at intentionally inconvenient times, what else will burrow its way into the manners of civilized dining? As long as the phone isn’t ringing, I suppose, all rules are on. When my brother shoots me a text message, or my dog calls to remind me he’d rather be out on a walk, I pause my politeness. It’s assumed that my manners are not corrupted by the pause, but merely suspended. They resume when the text has been absorbed, laughs have been had, and I’ve given my dexterous Labrador a stern talking to.
But let’s not forget the second reason why cell phones are the bane of dining out—the incurable impotence of conversation. If questions arise and discussions are had, thoughts are stirred that otherwise would have lain dormant. But if we’re allowed our cell phone obsession, our sidekick becomes the overly involved centerpiece of the meal—a new age coffee table book that is never content to lie still with pretty pictures and a fancy cover. When the cell phone rings or buzzes, the conversation dies. Until, and unless, another question arises. Then it’s back to the iPhone drawing board: How many calories are in salmon did you say? Let me check.
Then there are the conversation “intermissions” while web pages load, e-mails are retrieved, and IMs are swapped. “Hold on, I’m just waiting for Safari to load,” I often hear. The request is not for continued conversation while the not-so-quick-but-smartphone does it duty, but rather that there is a pregnant pause, an awkward silence, and mechanical pokes at lettuce leaves while answers are found. Heaven forbid we talk about anything—even the not-anymore-taboo topics like sex and mullets. They’re à la mode now, didn’t you know?
Oh, you didn’t? Check your chocolate. I’ll lick the butter off my toast while I wait.