Look around any hot-ticket dining room and you’ll see it: the vulgar, telltale glow of smartphones laid on tables, bars, and laps. iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxies full of Twitter updates and text messages; equipped with cameras ideal for mediocre food photography; even able to, in the most loathesome of at-table scenarios, make actual phone calls. They’re a great technological advancement, and an even greater nuisance to both diners and the cooks whose food has to compete for your attention with push notifications. The ubiquity of smartphones in restaurants now has even led to calls for a hard ban — or the invention of odd games involving stacking phones on the table during the meal. But such extreme measures are unlikely to succeed, and the use of phones at the table should be a matter of etiquette, not law, so here is the definitive road map to using your phone at the table.
• General Checking-in, E-mailing, and Messaging Are Off-limits: That sort of lazy, absent-minded phone browsing is rude. You are presumably at a restaurant to eat with someone else; focus on their company, not the communications of all the people who aren’t at the restaurant. (If you have the kind of boss who hates when you’re out of touch for an hour at a time, consider making plans that don’t require others to suffer while you scan your e-mail every fifteen minutes.)
• If You’re Dining Solo, the Game Changes: A book or a magazine may be a more urbane way to occupy the time, but it’s unreasonable to expect a lone diner to ignore the social connectivity that’s right there in their pocket. As long as the phone is on silent and the fiddling isn’t disruptive, one-tops get a pass.
• Keep It Sheathed When Not in Use: Even if you have no intention of checking it, a phone left on the dinner table is a shifty kind of power play: a vibrating broadcast of your divided attentions. Sure, you might ignore each chirp or buzz, but these interruptions disrupt dinner whether or not you choose to acknowledge them. If you are expecting an emergency call or message — and think long and hard about what truly constitutes an emergency — warn your co-diners to the fact, and explain why you need to keep the thing close at hand. Otherwise the proper place for your phone is out of sight in your pocket or purse.
• Minimal Fact-checking Is Fine: Used thoughtfully, a phone can be a powerful tool to enrich or clarify a meaningful dialogue — like figuring out if it was Fred Savage or Sean Astin who played the kid in Little Monsters. But make your first and only stop at IMDB. Spend just a beat too long gazing at a text or e-mail and you’ve derailed a good debate. (Fred Savage, by the way.)
• Amateur Food Pornographers Are the Worst: When the food arrives, there is no move more presumptuous and self-indulgent than forcing your tablemates to sit on their hands while you frame up the perfect shot for Instagram (or Foodspotting, or Forkly, or Nosh, or whatever). This is never okay — your tablemates are just too polite to tell you. If you are documenting your meal photographically, follow the advice of the experts and do it the right way.
• Do Your Dinner Research Beforehand: By all means even the most basic smartphone grants access to loads of helpful information. Go ahead and scroll through reviews, browse Foursquare tips, or even check an order against sustainability apps like Seafood Watch — just do it before you sit down for dinner. You’ll be better equipped to make an informed choice when the waiter arrives, and you won’t irritate your dining companions by disappearing into a food-blog fugue.
• If You Must Make or Take a Call, Leave: Even if you have to do the awkward sideways shuffle between tables. Even if it will only be a five-second call. Even if you think you’ve mastered that compunctious hunch-and-cupped-mouthpiece maneuver that tells everyone you feel just terrible about answering the phone. Go outside, tend to your affairs, and return to the table with a quick apology.
• Don’t Let a Bathroom Break Be an Excuse to Fall Off the Wagon: The only time an idle peek is okay at the table is when you’re alone (see solo dining, above). But if you do this, know that you’ve got to be done by the time your companion returns — no quickly finishing up a tweet or capping off a 90-point move in “Words With Friends” while your friend sits back down. They should have no knowledge of your interaction in their absence. This is a pro move, and it requires even more self-control than simply not checking your phone in the first place. Use your discretion. (And it goes without saying that if you’re sneaking off to the bathroom to check your phone, you need to recalibrate your social compass — or find more interesting people to eat with.)
The point is, restaurants are about more than just food, and phones often serve to get in the way of the conversation and company that are integral to great restaurant experiences. That said, should you find yourself left to your own conversational devices while your tablemate blinks at their touchscreen, chuckling at whatever Miguel Bloombito just tweeted, don’t be afraid to fight fire with fire — send a warning shot by way of text. “I’m walking out if you don’t put your phone away” should do it.
Jordana Rothman is a New York City-based food writer and former editor of the Food & Drink section at Time Out New York. Find her complaining on Twitter at jordanarothman.