Like an analog world-munching Pac-Man, the modern cellphone has morphed into instant messenger, mailbox, camera, flashlight, computer, map, dictionary, newspaper, personal assistant and social media portal. And as such its use at the table has become so prevalent that "restaurants are now forced to incorporate how to deal with them into the sequence of service and table maintenance," says Eric Rosenfeld, the general manager of the lush trattoria Il Covo, in Mid-City L.A., which has begun offering diners small plates to hold their phones in order to shield them from potential spills and dinner debris.
Some fine dining restaurants frown upon cellphone use — at Patina, the menu requests, "This restaurant is a quiet haven from the stress and tumult of everyday life. Please help us by turning your cell phone to vibrate while dining." And a few places, such as Sushi Nozawa, go as far as to post "no cellphone" signs. But most restaurants, like Il Covo, are finding ways to address what many consider the new reality of our fast-paced digital era while at the same time working to encourage diners to stay involved with their dining companions.
"If a diner would like to have their phone on the table, we want to protect it as much as possible," Rosenfeld explains, adding that many restaurants in Los Angeles even keep a discreet stash of iPhone and BlackBerry chargers on hand and train servers on how and when to approach a diner on a phone and what to do if a phone is in the way when it comes time to deliver a plate. (The hard and fast rule is never put your hands on another man's phone.)
That's the practical side. There is also the matter of manners, and when it comes to that thorny issue, most people will tell you that using a phone at the table is not polite while simultaneously admitting to being guilty of having used their phone at the table. It's a form of digital hypocrisy that has foodies chatting, both online and off.
Or so it seemed to friends John Purcell, a lawyer, and Katie Sticksell, a restaurant manager, who recently coined the term "reciprocell" in the Urban Dictionary. Reciprocell refers to the behavior that opens the door to all of that tableside chirping, humming and busy cellphone buzzing.
"We noticed that once one person at the table took out their phone, instead of complaining, everyone else sort of did it," says Purcell of the word and its definition, which is, "The act of checking one's email after a companion has pulled his or her BlackBerry or iPhone out first. Often used when one is initially afraid of being criticized for checking the phone."
The blithe wink-and-nod conjured by the word "reciprocell" pretty much sums up most people's feeling about the issue: It's simply part of the wireless fabric of 21st century living, one worthy of examination and in dire need of a digital-era Emily Post.
"It's a busy world now, so it's hard to tell people to not text when they have so much business going on and so many business dinners," says celebrity chef Kerry Simon of Simon L.A. and Simon Restaurant & Lounge at Palms Casino in Las Vegas. "What are you going to do? You can't dictate to diners how to behave."
That's why an outright cellphone ban at restaurants is unlikely, says Christian Page, the chef of Short Order at the original Farmers Market in L.A.
"The phone is part of the place setting now," Page says. "When people sit down, they put their phone down somewhere too."
Page says that what people do at his restaurant on their own time is their own business, but when he's out with someone, particularly a date, he'd prefer she keep her phone out of sight.
"I operate on two rules: the golden rule, and whatever my mom would tell me to do," he says. "Get that door open before the girl gets to it, stand up when she leaves the table and don't be on your phone at dinner. It's rude."
In fact, the phone can be a great indicator of how a date is going, says Joe Brooke, a former Next Door Lounge bartender who was runner-up in L.A.'s Best Bartender competition.
"If it's good, they're completely focused on the other person," he says. "But when someone gets up to go to the bathroom, the phone comes out and they get their fix."
Using your phone here and there at the bar is one thing, but actually placing it permanently on a coaster is another.
"It's the equivalent of a kid being told to put their video game controller down and go outside," says Brooke. "If a customer is focusing on it too much, I'll say something like, 'Is the Internet still working?' Just a gentle suggestion. If liquor is involved, you never want to be direct."
Plus, if a diner is constantly submerged in his or her phone, it's difficult to provide good service, which by its very definition must be interactive, says Paige Reilly, the manager of the beer program at Echo Park's Mohawk Bend and Tony's Darts Away in Burbank. She relates a story about two men she once saw who did not talk to each other at dinner more than once but constantly showed each other text messages that they were sending to other people.
"I think by the time it was over, I was laughing out loud," she says.
Cellphones aren't always a distraction, though, says Jerry Garbus, general manager of M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach. They can also provide a useful way of connecting with others while dining.
"The cellphone in our dining room is a seamless thing," says Garbus. "We've had guests literally reading a review on Yelp and ordering what was in the review during service."
Diners at M.B. Post also regularly check in at the restaurant on Facebook via their phones (the restaurant has nearly 1,500 Facebook check-ins).
"It creates a unique and fun environment. I'm friends with many of our guests, and when someone checks in I can see it on my phone and go and say hello," says Garbus.
M.B. Post's chef, David LeFevre, also keeps an active Twitter feed on which he regularly posts pictures of food.
"He tweeted this photo of him holding a sheet tray of bacon as it came out of the oven and posted a photo of our sticky buns on Facebook, and it just blew up and everybody left comments and wanted to be a part of it," says Garbus.