When chef R.J. Cooper was designing his newest restaurant, Gypsy Soul in Merrifield, Va., builders asked if he wanted a cellphone charging station at the hostess desk. His answer:
"No — 100% a no," Cooper said. "We're not the Apple superstore."
Cooper's other restaurant, the exclusive Rogue 24 in Washington, D.C., used to ban cellphones, though he has since relaxed the policy. He says there's no point — customers will break out the phones no matter what.
The issue of cellphones in restaurants — to ban or not to ban — has chefs stewing. Most just live with the disruption. Some even offer to charge phones.
But some prominent restaurateurs are taking a stand.
In Los Angeles, Bucato bans talking on phones and taking pictures. Similarly, D.C. chef Spike Mendelsohn has a no-phones policy at his speakeasy-style Sheppard in Washington.
Cooper says cellphones at the table are "one of the worst dining trends ever," because they distract customers and restaurant workers from the dining experience.
In July, an anonymous Craigslist user claiming to be a restaurant manager posted complaints that customers using their cellphones had increased wait times, because people spent more time on their phones than reading menus. He compared current and 10-year-old security tapes to prove it.
Brendan McGill, owner and chef at Hitchcock in Seattle, says the post struck a chord with chefs.
Phones slow down service, McGill explains. Once the food arrives, patrons take pictures and post to social media. McGill says customers often ask to photograph him with the food.
"Meanwhile, the tickets are piling up in the kitchen, and I am compromising my service because I'm trying to be accessible to this media-driven world," he says.
Annika Stensson, senior manager for research and communications at the National Restaurant Association, says for customers these days, being available by phone is just part of their lifestyle. A patron may need to be reachable by a baby-sitter or family. With nearly 130 million people dining out every day, she said, more restaurants are embracing cellphones than banning them.
McGill says patrons are always asking to charge their phones. He limits charging to one phone at a time, because his bartender was spending too much time plugging customers in.
Cooper does not permit charging at Rogue 24.
Some restaurants, though, are embracing technology. Canlis, also in Seattle, serves smartphone chargers on a silver platter.
Joe Carlucci, owner of the Italian restaurant Carlucci in Downer's Grove, Ill., has been in the business for 30 years. He says that though people on their cellphones can be rude, he thinks restaurants should be tolerant.
"You're never gonna eliminate it," he says. "You're always gonna get one or two jerks that don't care about the other people's spaces."
Todd Thrasher of the atmospheric speakeasy PX in Alexandria, Va., says phones don't cause problems for him. He says patrons almost never talk on their phones in the bar, and if they do, he asks them to step outside.
Thrasher says when customers take pictures of his cocktails and upload them to Instagram or Facebook, it's free advertising.
"These people are paying me and doing social media for me," he said. "It's the greatest thing ever for me."
Mendelsohn says it's a matter of atmosphere. He says in his small, dimly lit speakeasy, phones can be "distracting" and take away from the going-out experience.
Though talking on the phone is not allowed at Sheppard, his two fast-casual chains, Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza, welcome mobile devices. Good Stuff even has a charging counter for customers.
Mendelsohn is philosophical about the issue.
"I think we're all heading in the direction where we miss a lot of great moments in life because we're so attached to our phones," he says. "People just need to realize there are places you could use it, there are places where you shouldn't want to use it."