Food News

Dallas Restaurateurs Debate Whether a Cell Phone Ban Could Work, and How

A comment in my story a while back about phone stacking caught my attention. "In Japan they have 'No Phone Areas' in restaurants, bars and even the subway," Wagner Gui Tronolone wrote. "I think it's awesome!"

It does sound sort of awesome. Sometimes a cell phone feels like a leash. At the other end of that leash are obligations and situations that can interrupt an hour of reprieve. Sure, there's always the option of simply leaving a phone in the car, but then guilt can be tied to that choice. If the restaurant makes the choice for you, it's seems sweeter.

Restaurants that do ban cell phones around the country and elsewhere are usually of the high-end, upscale variety, where chefs want their guests to focus on the culinary experience. And, more importantly, not disturb others. It's simple chivalry.

I floated the idea of a cell phone ban to a few restaurants around town, even if it was just for one night -- "Cell Phone Free Tuesdays" or something like that. Would restaurants consider a ban, and how do they think it would be received?

Brian Luscher of The Grape on Greenville thinks the hardest thing would be enforcing it.

"Sounds like a cool idea," said Luscher. "I think we could suggest it, as a whim, and maybe it would be received as a novelty or a gimmick, but to put your foot down would be perceived as some sort of affront to constitutional right as a 'merican."

Luscher went on to recount a recent dinner at The Mansion where he didn't notice any cell phone use during the meal (although he snapped a shot of his food sans the flash -- for research purposes).

David Uygur of Lucia thinks there's time and place, "Of course we'd love it if everyone came in, turned off their phones and gave their full attention to their dining companions and dinner -- just good food and conversation."

But banning cell phones, even for one night a week, just wouldn't work, he said, also citing enforcement.

One of Dallas' most popular new restaurants has made great use of social media, and it's served it well. If you've been to Il Cane Rosso, you've probably seen owner Jay Jerrier in the pizza pit, leaning against the bar, head down, swiping bits and bytes on his iPhone. Once a customer checked in on Facebook at his spot in Deep Ellum, then quickly posted that a server told her she couldn't order a pizza without cheese. Jerrier instantly replied to her post and told her to come up to the bar and he'd make her a pizza. (They were no more than 20 feet away from each other, but the message passed through a satellite orbiting space.)

So Jerrier is sort of an extreme. Asked if he could live without his cell phone, "Can I still use my iPad?" he joked.

Actually, he said, he thought he could pull it off.

"We generally don't have a huge problem with people talking on their cell phones in the dining rooms," Jerrier said. "It's generally crowded so I don't think you could really carry on a conversations.

"Social media has become part of what we do," he continued, "And I think it helps build a sense of community and a way for people to interact with us."

In talking with chefs, the only vague commitment in the form of, "Yeah, someday that might be interesting to try" kind-of-a-way was Mark Wootton at Garden Café, but even he seemed skeptical. He liked the idea of guests interacting more in his neighborhood spot and enjoying interrupted serenity of his huge backyard garden -- or even other guests -- but thinks it might hurt business in the end. Especially as he tries to create a more coffeehouse feel.

JS Online, a paper in Milwaukee, recently ran a poll asking if restaurants should enforce a cell phone ban. Of 2,913 responses, 48 percent voted "yes, cell phones are too disruptive." Only 1 percent voted no way.

The JS Online article went on to recount a woman yapping loudly on her phone at a nice restaurant and a "regular" of the eatery passing her a note on his way out, which surely contained a thought or two on her phone etiquette.

It all brings us back to: How would a cell phone ban work in a mid to upscale place? Would customers avoid the restaurant because of the restriction or savor it?

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.