The long-standing trend has gained steam.
Starting tomorrow, the British restaurant chain Frankie & Benny's will institute a phone ban in all of their restaurants—sort of. According to the BBC, the chain has devised a scheme to incentivize parents to hand over their phones, offering free meals for their children if they elect to go phoneless. The restaurant had commissioned a survey of 1,500 parents and children and found that over a quarter of parents checked their phones during "family meal time," and 23% did so "while their child was talking about their day," which is a particularly upsetting data point.
Their "no phone zone" promotion will run through December 7, though Frankie & Benny's wasn't the first—nor will it be the last—restaurant to try to get guests off their phones. Eleven Madison Park, the absolute polar opposite of a British restaurant chain, instituted a phone-discouraging initiative in October in the hopes of encourage diners to "enjoy the company of those at the table, and be just a bit more present with one another." The fine-dining restaurant put boxes on tables where guests could store their phones during the meal, citing a recent exhibit by NYC artist Arlene Shechet called "Full Steam Ahead" as inspiration. (In 2017, chef Marco Canonara put "Open Me" boxes on the tables of Hearth, with a note reading, "We’d like to invite you to unplug during your meal here at Hearth. Feel free to use this box, put your phone away, and connect with your fellow diners.”)
While the Eleven Madison Park initiative doesn't ban phones, it reflects a broader effort on the part of restaurants to discourage guests from remaining glued to their phones—somehow in an era where more restaurants feel they must rely on Instagram to generate business. It would seem that the phone-ban decision isn't one rooted in any business motivation, but rather in an interest in preserving the sanctity of meal time. (However, one cynical retail analyst suggested to BBC that Frankie & Benny's might have instituted the promotion to prevent people from posting negative comments online. No phones? No Yelp rants.)
Mario Gigliotti of Il Triangolo Ristorante in Queens banned phones this year, telling CBSNewYork, “No cell phones on the table, at dinner, everyone talks. This is my home, and when you come into my home that’s how we run our restaurant.”
Many restaurants have had phone (and laptop) bans for years, long before the advent of Instagram and TikTok and whatever else the kids are on. (This writer is all-too-familiar with the dreaded café laptop ban.) Harvey Cedar's Clam Bar in Beach Haven, New Jersey has had a no-phone policy for 15 years, and manager Nel Lally told NJ.com that the policy is quite popular. "People did not understand how to talk in a normal voice," she said. Remember when people screamed into flip phones?
But now, with most (most!) people having learned how to talk in normal voices on their mobile phones, anti-phone sentiment is rooted in the growing concern that people are no longer able to enjoy or be present for something as basic and beautiful as a meal. And this makes chefs, people in the business of serving people meals, upset. Understandbly so.
We think the optional ban—in the form of, say, a box on the table—is the path forward, as it can make diners feel less judged for their phone use. And if guests feel they are in an emotional place to separate from their iPhones and its alluring dings, they should be encouraged. If they don't, well, what can you do? Is it so horrible? Many restaurants have found ways to profit off of guests' Instagram use, and have even developed menu items with the specific goal of racking up likes. The technology isn't going anywhere, so we might as well find ways to make it work for us.