Concern over the practice has sparked some restaurants to encourage customers to put away their phones -- with mixed results, depending on the tactic.
Each Wednesday night at Sneaky’s Chicken in Sioux City, Iowa, servers ask guests if they’d like to put their phones in a special box during the meal. If they do, they get a 10 percent discount on their dinner. Christy Wright, who co-owns Sneaky’s with her parents and sister, said the policy took shape after her family members took a look at their own smartphone habits.
“We noticed that within our own family we were way too connected to our phones and thought maybe we could get others to join us [in disconnecting] for just a bit,” Wright told The Huffington Post.
Since the restaurant introduced the policy in September, only one or two groups of customers have declined to give up their phones -- and they needed to be reachable because they had sick family members, so Sneaky's gave them the discount anyway.
“Everybody loves it,” Wright said. “The staff is arguing over who’s going to work Wednesday night now.”
Sneaky’s isn’t the first restaurant to try to restrict phone use in its dining room. Jawdat Ibrahim, a restaurant owner in Israel, announced a whopping 50 percent discount last year for unplugging over dinner.
"Technology is very good. But just when you eat, just especially when you are with your family and your friends, you can just wait for half an hour and enjoy the food and enjoy the company," he told The Associated Press last year. "A lot of people, they sit down and they don't enjoy their food, their company."
Research has shown that having your smartphone within reach probably won’t make you a better dinner companion. Even if you’re not checking your email or Instagramming your brunch, the mere presence of a smartphone can reduce empathy and diminish a conversation between two people, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Environment and Behavior.
For establishments that want their guests to unplug, incentives feel gentler than edicts.
Phones were banned at Rogue 24 in Washington, D.C., where diners were once required to sign a two-page reservation contract that included the policy, along with an onerous cancellation fee. The contract was reportedly met with outrage, revised and later discontinued.
Last year, the Los Angeles restaurant Bucato announced a policy against phones and photography in an attempt to curb “gastro ADD.” Some chefs argue that phones at the table can detract from not only the conversation but the taste of the food. Executive Chef Evan Funke told Los Angeles Magazine, “My cooks, my servers, everyone here takes a lot of care to get the food to you hot and perfect. By the time someone has taken a photo of it and posted it online, the dish is already cold and not perfect.”
Diners didn't love being prohibited from using their phones while paying to eat in a restaurant where entrees can run upward of $30. Reaction was also mixed when photos were banned at the Michelin-starred Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- following attempts from several other elite New York chefs to restrict food photography.
But some restaurateurs see the upside of phones in front of their dishes: free advertising.
"These people are paying me and doing social media for me," Todd Thrasher of the speakeasy PX in Alexandria, Va., told USA Today. "It's the greatest thing ever for me."