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Sorry, cellphones aren't on the menu

More restaurants are implementing measures to curb diners' use of the devices, saying it disturbs other customers and slows service. But some are resigned this cell hell.

By Randye Hoder

January 26, 2013

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For the past 21/2 years, Bill Miller of Malibu Kitchen has had a hard-and-fast rule at his upscale deli: If you're on your cellphone when you reach the head of the line, he won't serve you.

In fact, he's posted a prominent sign at the counter: "You decide which is more important. Ordering food or talking on the cellphone. You won't be waited on until the phone is off and put away." That, he says, has earned him a reputation as the "Deli Nazi."

Eva, a 42-seat eatery on Beverly Boulevard, made headlines last summer when it decided on a softer approach to curbing cellular use — offering its customers a 5% discount off their meal for turning in their phones at the door. ABC News, public radio's "Marketplace" and the New York Daily News, among many others, covered the announcement.

But six months later, nothing has changed. And Malibu Kitchen and Eva are hardly the only restaurants around town that are trying to cope with diners who use, if not abuse, their cellphones. Some customers talk so loudly they disturb those around them. Others keep wait staff on hold at a table while finishing up a call, thus disrupting service for everyone. Some even return food that has cooled while they were busy talking on their phones.

That's why some restaurants have laid down the law. Hiko Sushi in West Los Angeles has a strict no-cellphone policy. Bandera in Brentwood declares on its menu: "No cellphones in the dining room." Joan's on Third, the gourmet marketplace, tells patrons: "Please finish your phone call before ordering."

And some customers have actually taken to policing themselves. In a game called Phone Stack, restaurant guests lay their phones upside down on the table, and you can't touch them during the meal. If picking up the phone proves irresistible for someone, he or she has to pay the check for the whole group.

In most situations, though, it falls on the restaurant to decide what, if any, cellphone rules make sense — and that has left some in the industry a bit nonplused. "As a server, it's your job to ensure the best experience for the customer," says Jack Arsenualt, who waits tables at Nic's in Beverly Hills. "So, if they want to be on their phone, we have to adjust accordingly. The etiquette of it is still being worked out."

A lunchtime diner at the busy Mauro's Café in West Hollywood recently was annoyed when a busboy accidentally spilled water on his smartphone, which was sitting on the crowded table (along with the phones of three of his companions). But owner Evelyne Joan isn't ready to ask her customers to put their phones away.

"I keep an iPhone charger behind the counter because every single day someone asks if they can charge their phone," says Joan, who sees the devices as simply a fact of life, especially at lunch, when people need to stay plugged in for work. "And I like to oblige them."

Not everyone is so accommodating.

"It's rude and demeaning to the staff behind the counter, and to the customers on line," Malibu Kitchen's Miller says of those who yak on their phones while holding up the queue. Of course, the yakkers often have a different view when Miller demands they hang up — or take a hike. "I can't tell you how many people get really belligerent about it. There is so much entitlement."

At Soho House, a private club with locations all over the world, members are told before joining that cellphone calls are prohibited inside the club's restaurants and bars.

"Once in a while that policy interrupts your life, and it's annoying because you need to take a call," says Erica Huggins, co-president of Imagine Entertainment, who frequents the Soho House in West Hollywood. But for the most part, she enjoys the quiet and privacy. "At the end of the day, even though we all do it, it is rude to pick up the phone and have a conversation when you are with other people," Huggins says.

As for Eva, chef Mark Gold insists that his beef is not with rude customers. He just wants everyone to put their phones down long enough to enjoy his food — and one another.

When people come to Eva, "the kids have iPads and the parents are checking emails," he says. "No one is talking or connecting with each other. Whatever happened to family dinner, to just being in the moment?"

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