It's a Thursday night, and we're moderately busy. I'm watching this chick sigh and push food around on her plate while her boyfriend guides his fork to his face with one hand and answers a text with the other. Impressive motor coordination aside, he looks like just an average guy on his lunch break. I peek over his shoulder as I swan in to clear their plates, and note that his urgent phone business is refreshing an empty inbox and checking Instagram.
"That dude's in for it later," my fellow server murmurs next to me.
He definitely is. She has now completely dropped any pretense of being okay with this and is staring him down, arms crossed. She kind of looks amused, like the way evil-genius villains look when the hero thinks they've bested them but is dead wrong.
After the third course, he gets up to pee. She whips out her phone and bangs out a flurry of texts. Both phones live next to the butter knife for the rest of the meal.
This is such a startlingly average interaction, one that I witness so much it hardly registers.
Maybe I’m being unfair, I think to myself when I see couples like that, slumped in their seats, each ignoring the other (“It’s her birthday,” they tell us in advance, “make it special,”) and scrolling noncommittally through their respective feeds. I don’t know what their deal is, who they are, what’s going on in their lives. And those folks standing on chairs and rearranging their plates at an angle and moving the candle in for ambiance, fiddling with filters while their food goes cold? Maybe it’s nice that they just want to document the experience. There's nothing wrong with being inspired by a nice looking plate...
And then I think, NOPE. Fuck that so very much. If you've made the choice to literally break bread with someone for a few hours, the least you could do is put your ugly Samsung away.
As the person whose job it is to temporarily rouse you from your cozy tech silo, let me tell you that you are not fooling anyone by leaving it face down alongside the silverware, either. As if by hiding the screen, you’re doing the polite thing. Look! I’m not checking it! I could be, here it is, but I’m not. Sure you’re not. You’re just eating with a hand on the trigger, waiting for the moment when your dining companion shifts in their seat, places their napkin on the table, scoots off to the WC, and you can finally open that social media vein you’ve been tapping for the last hour without even realizing you’re doing it.
I’m not about to climb up on a high horse and say that Instagram (or whatever social doodad yanks your chain) is evil. It’s not. It just shouldn’t be more interesting than the human sitting across from you.
These days, you can’t throw a mini Parker House roll without hitting a renewed call for mindfulness and social media “cleansing.” You know you’re addicted, blah blah, zombies, blah. Unplug! Reduce screen time! Tech-free zones! You’ve heard it. You may not follow through, but you know. We all text while we’re walking, people. It’s an unfortunate trapping of modern life. But speaking for a staff of passionate cooks and sommeliers and servers at a nice little fancypants joint in a city full of other nice little fancypants joints, I’m going to plead a special case for restaurants.
Restaurants are nutso. You fight in them. Maybe you get engaged in them. You celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, promotions. You can drunkenly flounce your way to the bathroom using the walls for balance and no one will judge you. You could have a conversation that alters the flow of your life! We've all implicitly agreed that this is not a normal setting, and it's a place where we can feel pampered or lazy or in control. A million different things can happen at a table at any given moment. The thing is though, none of it matters if you still feel the need to distract yourself. I don't matter, the chefs don't matter, the sommelier and the bartenders; we can all go to hell if your ass is in the seat but your head's skimming your inbox.
Whether the meal is $10 or $1,000, one course or 27, there is no other setting that fosters connection—either to your dining companions or to your own mind—quite like a restaurant.
Let’s just say you’re a baller (or you’ve been saving for the past 300 years) and it is $1,000. The food is exquisite. You’re surrounded by your tribe. The time you spend daintily shoveling food into your face is referred to as an “experience.” Every single thing about the place is constructed with the aim of removing you from real-life bullshit, so let it. Buy into it, completely. Nothing bad will happen. And before you think, Yeah alright, but I'm not a monk, remember that food probably tastes freakin' amazing to an actual monk.
I can’t tell you how thrilled it makes me to do a quick sweep of my tables at any point in the night and realize that everyone is either eating, or immersed in conversation, or both. MAN, I live for being invisible like that. Instead of trying to land a plate of food around the plasma-blue glow of a screen and trying to ascertain whether there are any fucks to be given about what the kitchen has asked me to tell you, I’m just a magical restaurant gnome! Clearing your plates and refilling your wine, then gone in a flash.
Believe me when I tell you that all of us working in this strange little box that makes you food and does your dishes, we want to speed you along towards that crazy magical moment that could define your evening. When there isn’t a slim rectangle of metal competing for your attention, you can find it.
Eating is amazing. It's weird and kind of gross, and it puts you on the same wavelength as everyone else around you. It should be total hedonistic bliss. The second the phone comes out, though, it’s a boring old chore just like everything else. God, even the fried rice surprise we’re wolfing down in the back before service is a million times better when no one is browsing slack-jawed on their iPhones. You're not an asshole for wanting to take a picture of your Gran getting sauced on her 90th birthday. Just take it and be done with it.
This is it. This is the moment that you actively decide to look up and rejoin the action. For the love of whatever superpower you hold dear, take a break from the devices the next time you eat, even if you’re alone. It's not about impressing me—or those chefs plating with tweezers and painting great swooshes on plates in the open kitchen, sweating and cooking with their heart on their sleeve, right next to their Sharpie—with your rapt attention. It's being mindful for the sake of your sanity, and no one else needs to hear about it.
Your Server is everywhere and nowhere, friends. Confidante, ghost, and the middleman between the kitchen and your mouth. Fightin' the good fight in a nice restaurant in a big city. And yes, this is my chosen profession.
Evan Yarbrough is a professional illustrator living in Los Angeles. Besides obsessing over his next meal as he slowly chews the last bite of his current one, he makes sure a dog and cat don’t starve and tries to stay busy with story board and illustration work. And eating a lot.