2 Oct

People dining on dates don’t talk over a meal anymore, they text, tweet, and tube. They spurl-flick-deal-click.  Smart-phones are slowly killing romantic conversation, and changing dinner as we know it (Call me Laura Bush, but if you loved food and dining as much as I do, you’d understand that Apple, Microsoft, and possibly North Korea, have created an Axis of Evil, determined to ruin dining everywhere).

Why bother dressing to the nines, and paying for a $400 dollar meal, when you can follow Rachel Ray’s Tweets?  I don’t think I’m exaggerrating when I say that cell phone technology has dramatically changed how our culture interacts –or fails to interract–  at the dinner table. 

The dining experience is no longer limited to real time or space.  People are communicating, and having experiences (see the ipad below), outside the immediate circumstances of dinner. To be brief, people are fucking distracted, and it’s pissing me off.

Before texting, people would have to ask to “excuse” themselves before making/receiving a call. Now you just place your phone on the table, like a piece of esssential stationary, and wait for the phone to light up.

I try not to praise Europeans at any cost; but, when it comes to cell phone use, I would be remiss in not commending them for being tactiful tableside.  In general, Europeans seem to appreciate the experience of having a meal. Also, I believe they understand the value of moderation. Americans, however, are prone to developing medical compulsions over new gadgets.

People on their phones simply can’t be bothered to eat; but the server still must “serve,” often to the dismay of the guest. The server is either bothersome for interrupting conversation, or unattentive for not being available at the very moment that the guest puts down their phone. 

It didn’t always used to be this way. Guests had a responsibility to order.  I came across a corporate  hospitality manual from 2007, from my old restaurant that states:

Guests on cell phones: If a guest is using their cell phone upon being seated, greet the guest with eye contact, and offer ice water without asking water preference.  Do not interrupt the guest’s conversation. However, remain attentive until the guest has completed their call. In order to avoid miscommunication, do not take an order while the guest is on the phone, even if the guest indicates they would like to do so.”  

Doesn’t that sound lovely? Now people expect you take their full order while they are mid-conversation, while passively scolding you,  “Hold on Hank, this guy needs an order.”  Right, you don’t need the order, I do.

Cell phone conversations are the least of my worries.  2010 was the year of Apple’s Ipad Touch (Yes, people actually bring Ipads out at dinner. And Yes, I work in a restaurant where the majority of our socially programmed  guests own one.)

Now, what can I say about the Ipad touch, other than that they are totally obnoxious at the diner table?  To begin with, they look awful in dark dining rooms, radiating a white flourescent glow, like a  bug-zapper on the back porch in summer.  Additionally, Ipads are a complete liquid liability for the service staff.  Cells phones were hard enough to avoid, but try deshelling a four pound lobster tableside, around an ipad. It’s a disaster.

But these Ipad users aren’t concerned about lobster, or eating in restaurants.  Why eat when you can finger paint, play the Magic Piano, and my personal favorite: steer your ipad like race-car, with Real Racing HD. Turn that curve, but don’t knock over your bellini, bitch! People just aren’t really “there” anymore.   

I had a couple last night on a 6:30 reso date –not a business lunch– who decided to bring both their Ipad touches with them.  The lady facebooked, while the gentleman seemed to be arranging some sort of slideshow of their dog. Atleast the lady looked up from her screen to give me her order, but the gentelman couldn’t let his eyes drift away, not even to request his steak frites (Wrong temperature, surpise.) I pictured the two of them in bed with their ipad touches, never touching, making love with their Apple applications. 

I imagine that when television was first introduced into the American home, there were critics like myself, who were concerned that it would destroy the quality of family life.  Or maybe not, maybe the intelligensia didn’t notice a shift in family interaction until it as too late (See 1992). I’d rather not wait forty years to see what the smart-technology will do to the culture of cuisine. And for the record, I do not own a television.

Dining is one of the greatest joys in modern life.  In Manhattan, there are two places where people commune: the theatre and the restaurant. The theatre has already been lost as a cultural force.  The satisfaction of thirty-second youtube clips, has forever recoded our attentive DNA. We haven’t the patience for ideas, for experiencing life in the real. The restaurant, however, still may have a chance at surviving as a communal event. Food cannot be ignored; it must be contended with; it must be eaten, and perhaps even enjoyed, if only for our survival.

What is our romance with these new technologies?  Eating, drinking, talking. These are the actions of life.  The texting, the tweeting, the tubing — they are distractions. What purpose do these distractions serve? What compels us to busy our minds with the clicking? Why isn’t the plate in front of us enough?


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