- Associated Press - Monday, October 22, 2012

The digital divide is wider than ever between diners who talk, tweet and snap pictures midmeal and those who wish they’d just shut up, shut down and be present.

Caught at the center of the discord are restaurant owners and chefs, who must walk the careful line of good customer service for both those who dine under the influence of smartphones and those who won’t. But as the devices have morphed into an unrelenting appendage for texting, photography and games, more restaurateurs are challenged to keep the peace.

Owners who once relied mostly on “No cellphones, please” signs, increasingly are experimenting with everything including penalties for using phones, discounts for not using them and outright bans on photography.

“There’s no place to get away from the chatter,” said Julie Liberty of Miami, who started the Facebook page Ban Cell Phones From Restaurants earlier this year. “Everything has a soundtrack, including when you go into the ladies room. That’s just not right.”

It’s a touchy issue. Consider the crush of news coverage Eva Restaurant in Los Angeles generated when it began offering patrons a 5 percent discount if they left their phones at the door. Online comments ranged from cheers of “YES!” to postings by others who said their phones would have to be pried from their cold, dead hands.

The policy is working, though. Eva’s Rom Toulon said about 40 percent of the restaurant’s customers leave their cellphones at the door.

“After a few cocktails and glasses of wine, it can be challenging to remember that you left the phone behind,” he said.

The burst of headlines for Eva came after a Burlington, Vt., deli took on cyber-folk-hero status for posting a sign informing customers that $3 would be added to their bill “if you fail to get off your phone while at the counter. It’s rude.” Disgusted diners are doing their part, too, with games like “phone stack,” in which all place their phones in a stack in the middle of the table. The first person who reaches for his phone pays the bill for all.

These are more creative approaches to the no-cellphone signs common in restaurants ranging from highbrow to quick-eats. The landmark Boston restaurant Locke-Ober asks diners — in language appropriate for a place with a dress code — to “kindly refrain from using cellular phones.” In Albany, N.Y., the Hamilton Street Cafe has a more direct, hand-drawn “No cell phones at the counter” sign with a phone with a red “X” through it.

Owner Sue Dayton said the sign by the counter helps keep the lunch line moving.

“You get a half-hour for lunch. You walk up here and you have to stand behind someone not paying attention enough to say what kind of bread they want on their BLT because they’re on their cellphone,” Ms. Dayton said.

Irritation over distracted dining has broadened with the rise of photo-sharing apps such as Instagram. The popular online scrapbook Pinterest is clogged with pictures of everything from pan-fried noodles to poutine snapped moments before digestion. Chefs — who, as a rule, put a premium on control — don’t always take kindly to their dining rooms becoming shooting galleries.

Grant Achatz, the famous Chicago-based molecular gastronomist, wrote a much-forwarded post several years ago grousing about diners who snap the meal away and even try to video his staff without asking permission. “I can’t imagine how celebrities feel,” he wrote. “No wonder they punch the paparazzi out when they get the chance.”

Some restaurateurs go with the digital flow. Sarabeth Levine of New York City-based Sarabeth’s said she’s perfectly fine with people chatting, playing games or even taking pictures. It’s free advertising, after all.

“I’m happy to have our customers,” Ms. Levine said. “They come, they tweet, they Facebook, they bring their children. It’s high-energy to begin with. I mean, people are noisy even in the way they speak today.”

Other restaurants go as far as to bar picture-taking, as does David Chang’s Ko in Manhattan. Others take a middle ground, like the high-end Washington, D.C., restaurant Rogue 24, where hostesses politely ask guests that if they do take pictures, please to do so without a distracting flash.

“I mean, you can’t fight it,” said owner R.J. Cooper. “Why fight a losing battle?”

“I think it’s about having more time under our belt with what the new normal is,” said etiquette expert Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post.

While the technology is new, the rules of etiquette are old-fashioned common sense. Silence your phone in restaurants and don’t answer unless there’s a very good reason, like a sick child at home. And if you do answer, excuse yourself from the table.

As for taking pictures, Ms. Post said to consider the sort of place where you are — busy pub or cloistered bistro? — and who you’re with.

“Ask yourself, ‘Just because I want to take a photo of my food, is this the right place? Am I with the right people for this to be OK?’” Miss Post said. “The answer can’t always be yes.”

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