CityZen has embraced the trend by ordering an iPad for parties of one to use at their table. The tablet was deployed for the first time in the dining room last week, complete with Internet access over the hotel’s WiFi network. (All the better to Google photos that reveal the tattoos CityZen’s rock-star sommelier Andy Meyer is hiding under his suit?)
To MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who studies people’s relationships with technology, the proliferation of solo diners focusing on glowing digital companions is more sour than sweet. “Having a solitary meal in a restaurant is a basic spiritual practice,” she said. “It’s a classic way to experience moments of solitude and to refresh and restore and gather yourself.
“Why would we want to go to a restaurant where there’s something to be savored and put ourselves in a state of mind where that goes right over our heads?” she asked. “There is a cost to the pleasures of the moment and a cost to our humanity.”
You say dead zone,
they say oasis
Let us pause here for a restorative palate cleanser: The devices aren’t actually everywhere.
Drive out to Washington, Va., to the Inn at Little Washington, a high temple of American cuisine, and you’re not likely to see any diners — solo or otherwise — checking in on Foursquare.
For one thing, the destination restaurant sits in a rural dead zone for most cell service providers. (Exception: Sprint.)
For another, according to owner-chef Patrick O’Connell, his staff works hard to save guests from digital distractions.
“We’re particularly adept at casting a spell and luring them into participating in something that is riveting,” he said, adding that he couldn’t recall an instance of a diner goofing off on a phone or tablet between courses.
“There’s a tragic quality to the cultural phenomenon that has been happening. People never seem to be present in the space they’re in. It’s a real pleasure to see people thoroughly immersed in where they are when they’re here.”
Yet some top chefs and restaurateurs who are not exactly enamored by the trend do this very thing when they’re eating alone.
“If I’m out by myself, I’ll pull out my iPhone,” said Cathal Armstrong, chef-owner of the acclaimed Old Town Alexandria eatery Restaurant Eve. “If it’s a dark dining room, I tend to keep it below the table, so other people can’t see the light as much. And as soon as the food arrives, I put it away and pay attention to what I’m eating. But I’ll open it back up again and read the news or generally doodle, just wasting time.”
Ashok Bajaj, whose restaurant empire includes the Oval Room, the Bombay Club and Rasika, admits to it as well, even though he holds dear the notion that dining out is an event to be relished and celebrated. “But we’re losing that,” he said. “You see it all the time, people texting and doing all this other stuff while they’re eating.”
For her part, Henderson, the Bourbon Steak regular, said she sometimes does leave her iPhone in her turquoise Akris handbag when she’s dining alone. Certain meals — “at chef-driven restaurants,” for instance — warrant her undivided attention, she said. “I’m not so addicted that I can’t put it away.”
Henderson shrugged as her bowl of curried Singapore noodles got cold.
Of course, she’d already shared it with friends: Before taking a single bite, Henderson had snapped a photo of the dish with her iPhone and posted it online.