Our phones have entwined with our lives to a degree that previous generations may have once thought confined to the realm of science fiction.
In our hands, we now hold our diaries and our directions, our cameras and our photo albums, our finances and our shopping. News, music, entertainment, taxi-hailing and, of course, the drip drip of tiny communications – likes and comments and reactions and mentions beeping their way through our day.
But there’s no doubting the downside of such a constant tech presence, be that the ignoring of our loved ones, the effect on our sleep or making social media envy portable and relentless. They’re both social and anti-social.
Increased reliance and functionality obviously means increased use, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. While we may not be yelling into a brick 80s-style (actually talk on a phone, are you mad?), better technology and data packages mean it’s easier than ever to document our experiences using social media – and we’re pretty fond of doing it in restaurants, where once, glancing at your phone during a meal was widely considered a pretty rude thing to do.
Some venues are establishing retaliatory phone policies; a couple of restaurants have banned phones in recent years, while one gin bar went so far as to install a Faraday cage to block mobile network signals.
And yes, it can seem like a terrible vision of a soulless future to see two people – who presumably booked a meal together because they enjoy each other’s company – sit bathed in the blue glow of their respective screens exchanging barely a word. But then there are scores of us who take a couple of shots then put their phones down, and scores of restaurants embracing the free publicity, too.
So are etiquette and manners out of the window or are they just changing?
World-famous The Savoy in London is implementing a one-night mobile ban for Valentine’s Day in its restaurant Kaspar's Seafood Bar & Grill, but the hotel’s director of food and beverage, Lee Kelly, tells us that the staff usually actively encourage the taking, and thus sharing, of beautiful pictures.
“We love it when guests photograph our signature dishes, cocktails or afternoon tea, as it shows they are thoroughly enjoying their time here,” he tells stylist.co.uk. “Phones are a fantastic marketing and communicative tool; people are no longer embarrassed to use them at the table but want to document and share their dining experience.
“We have noticed the circulation reach via organic content posted by individuals is incredible. Nowadays, photography is universal and I believe the culinary world is responding to this by checking the quality of dish presentation is perfect.
“However, as a one-off it is nice to go against the norm and hand over your phones for one night only. What better night than Valentine's, when we should be paying our dining partner as much attention as possible?”
Inspired by The Savoy’s temporary ban, we asked senior staff from top eateries what they really think of phone use in restaurants and of social media’s impact on the food industry.
From the man who walked out over his date’s incessant online updates to people asking for better-lit tables, here’s the low-down on restaurant phone etiquette from the experts.
“People use our Instagram like a menu”
Andy Downton, general manager at City Social, has been working in London restaurants since 2004.
“At City Social we see social media as a very positive tool for promoting the restaurant. We had our first guest using Facebook Live recently! And we use social media to enhance service. For example, we can often see when someone is coming in to celebrate at the restaurant and we will give them special treatment. We might respond to them with an image of a birthday cake that we serve from the kitchen before it comes out.
I run City Social’s Instagram account which has 16.8k followers now. The images are mostly food and we like to use it to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the kitchen. Guests use it like a menu to help decide what to order. We’ve built the following by interacting with customers online, encouraging guests to check in, tag the restaurant and follow us.
I keep an eye on it during service too. We have had situations where a guest has complained via social media, but we’ve been able to identify them and rectify the problem straight away.
There are negatives to phone use too – if a guest steps away from their table to take a call or write an email they often don’t look where they are standing and can be in the way of waiters coming out with food or even leaning on the waiter stations, which can be disruptive!”
“Some of the pictures we see online are of an incredible quality”
Tom Mackenzie is assistant general manager at J Sheekey, and has been in hospitality for five years.
“I have no issue with people using phones in restaurants, they are a huge part of everyday life. I really don’t think it impacts on our service at all – I know a very well-known restaurateur in NY has studied CCTV and thinks that mobile phone use slows down service by 45 minutes per table, but for me the experience is up to the guest.
I believe that good service is an absorbing and engaging process, like watching a performance, however if guests don’t want to engage in that performance it’s no issue for us, although we would always encourage them to.
When phone use begins to infringe on others, that’s when it becomes problematic. I’ve asked someone to take their call outside more than once – it’s important for us to look after all of our guests. Funnily enough, the loudest and most gregarious phone user has actually become a regular diner. He thankfully no longer uses his phone when dining with us!
There is certainly an increase in our guests using phones, but a more interesting trend I have noticed is guests placing their phones on tables, face down or face up. I feel we are all using our phones much more as a tool to research, examine and record rather than just to communicate. I think it’s a great thing as it means we have to be even more knowledgeable about the products we are selling at J Sheekey than ever before.
The industry as a whole is beginning to use social media in a very positive way, only recently the most popular Instagram accounts of restaurants and bars in London were listed in the Evening Standard; some of the pictures we do see online are of an incredible composition and quality. It gives us an opportunity to share what we do with a new audience and I think that’s very important.”
“One man left his date because she was more interested in her phone”
Mario Armani, the managing director of Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, has been in the industry for 30 years.
“Interestingly, we have adapted to allow for phones – we add extra minutes for people to take pictures when their courses arrive and we are also extremely conscious that everything put before the diner could be eternalised online. We were plagued with requests for more lighting, however that has been resolved with better camera technology.
“A good picture is worth a thousand words and can lead to incredible business coming through your doors. People often show me their phone and say, ‘Do you have this dish?’ so the power of social media is unquestionable.
“Consideration and dining etiquette is the key; whilst one understands that phones are a necessary modern-day evil, I am all for the experience. So if you are taking pictures to mark a great dish or something you want to share with your family or friends, that’s great. However I am a massive fan of, being ‘in the moment’ and I suggest you focus on the people that you are with.
“I find it rude when people are constantly texting someone else whilst on a dinner date. Regarding people who use the phone to inflict private conversations upon other diners, well, I have no time for them at all – hence why they are not allowed to do so in my dining rooms. This simply did not happen when I started in the industry. We often invite people to take their call outside, much to their dismay!
“We had a funny incident with a Valentine’s date that was apparently going ‘amazingly’ according to social media updates, until the gent she was on the date with commented on her post saying that he had left the restaurant as she was clearly not interested in a relationship other than the one with her phone. He was mad, and she told everyone around her unashamedly.
“I feel that this rapidly advancing technology has bequeathed all of us with a sense of responsibility to be connected at all times. The suggestion is that if you are not then you are antiquated or simply not on top of ‘YOU Incorporated’ where the curation of one’s every movement is incredibly valuable and important.”
“I had a request for a better-lit table recently”
Hilary Brett is the general manager of Balls and Company, having been in the industry for six years.
“Thinking back to family dinners as a teen where we twice daily sat around a table, having a phone even placed on the table would’ve led to a pretty lengthy lecture on antisocial behaviour. However, phone use has become so commonplace in all parts of life that I now barely register the sight of a phone on the table or in the guest’s hands.
I think the culture of acceptance of phone use has probably now shuffled, my personal limit would now be answering a phone call at the table I think.
I feel as though I see a lot more phone use in Balls and Company now, particularly in the last year or so, but it may just be that our social media presence attracts the sort of individuals who find inspiration to dine out online, and in turn use their phone to share their experience. Our guests often come to us having already seen a picture of one of our dishes, it is not remotely unusual for us to have people show us a picture of our signature brownies or doughnuts.
I had a request for a better-lit table recently and I’ve also had a few people even request we bring our awning in to ensure the restaurant gets the maximum amount of natural light! But honestly, it does not usually impact on our service – we often play along, some of our guests have even featured on our Instagram Stories.
Social media is a big part of what we do here and we really believe it helps us access our existing guests and find a way to potential future ones too. I guess it’s a common thought that people eat with their eyes first, and through presenting our very seasonal and colourful food on social media we are encouraging our followers to engage with what we have to offer here on some level before they arrive.”
“For many, phones make the experience of a great meal even better”
Group operations director 28°-50° Wine Workshop and Kitchen, Sid Clark, has been in the business for 15 years.
“Phones have become such a regular function in our everyday lives that it’s only natural that they are used more and more in restaurants. We try to be proactive on our social media as a business and encourage guests to use it, as the more people sharing experiences of our business then the bigger outreach to potential new guests.
We see many guests using their phones throughout the dining experience – taking a picture of food, tweeting about a dish or simply checking in on Facebook. Strangely enough, people don’t really speak on the phone at the restaurants. Of course guests are very welcome to use mobiles, but majority of people still take their phone calls away from the table.
I think the meal experience has lengthened in terms of guests time spend at the table, as a lot of people are using their phones throughout the experience. For instance, a lot of people tend to check phones for a couple of minutes when they first sit down rather than looking straight at the menu.
I think if anything they have, for many people, made the experience of a great meal even better. People can now capture the moment in a photo or share the experience through social media engaging others.
And good food photography really attracts guests to the business – particularly those shots taken by guests as they really capture the full experience.”
Main image: iStock