For those parents out there with young children, this one is especially for you. Then again, I am sure many might agree with the greater message I am about to propose.
Between online learning, Minecraft, TikTok (and is Frozen still a thing?) I am sure your children are maxed out on screen time. We adults are no better, stuck on our Zoom calls and binging our Netflix, when we should be getting those 30 minutes of daily exercise and indulging in a good book before bed. Yes, an actual hardcover on the nightstand, imagine that!
This article isn’t to tell you a litany of facts around screen time, you already know those. The goal of this article is to remind us of a beautiful opportunity that will soon present itself.
“I encourage you to not bring your iPad from home and force your child to sit through dinner like everyone else.”
Once restaurants reopen and we return to in-person dining, I encourage you to not bring your iPad from home and force your child to sit through dinner like everyone else. Let them take in the entire experience from start to finish. Moreover, I encourage you to leave your cell phone in your jacket pocket in the coat room or better yet, locked in your glove compartment of your car.
Why should I put my phone away or subject the rest of the adults to my squirmy kid you ask?
Because restaurants are uniquely interactive and special social spaces to gather, where a lot of positive social queues can be observed. They are one of the last bastions of social etiquette in our casual western society from eras gone by. Notions such as arriving on time, waiting for everyone to be served before eating, or more importantly, respecting others and the small bubbles within which they are having an enjoyable experience themselves.
Close your eyes and picture your favourite dining room. As you turn, observe all of the micro interactions taking place between waiters and guests, or groups at the tables themselves. There’s storytelling and laughter, words of affirmation between strangers, faces of pure ecstasy after indulging in something delicious, and those beautiful old couples who can sit through 60 years of telling the same stories to one another with a smile. These are just a few snapshots of the social languages communicated in a dining room. And although these subtle gestures may seem inconsequential to our adult brains, we know our children are observing, absorbing, and mimicking everything they see like sponges. So if your phone is out, they will want one, and if you aren’t chatting, why would they?
There was a time not long ago, when a Gameboy at the dining table was considered unacceptable by many. Growing up, to kill the boredom, my own parents would often encourage me to go up to a server and share a recent anecdote. The goal of the exercise was to make me feel comfortable engaging in conversation with a stranger, in a safe, supervised setting of course. We forget that our egos have not fully developed at that young age, so there’s nothing to make us feel truly embarrassed or worried about what the other person might think. Let’s just say our anxiety mosquito has yet to give us its first prick and we have an ideal opportunity to still develop some crucial social skills.
“We forget that our egos have not fully developed at that young age, so there’s nothing to make us feel truly embarrassed or worried about what the other person might think.”
Good servers in many ways are trained conversationalists, having to make small talk with dozens of strangers every night. In fine dining restaurants, where I learned the ropes, we were also trained in social etiquette, as it was key to a diner’s experience. It was not enough to provide exquisite food alone, it had to be done with grace and style to make the diners’ visit more memorable.
During Covid, for many, we have lost the art of conversation. Being face to face, where one can engage a full range of body language and not be limited to latency or choppy audio, can create an entirely different dynamic of discussion from what a screen on your smartphone can emulate. Organizing a large group outing, ordering a plethora of small bites, and engaging in great conversation over wine with friends, is exactly what I am eagerly awaiting for when restaurants reopen.
In addition to satisfying our innate human desire for social interaction and sustenance, restaurants provide practical training grounds for youth to learn how to interact in a safe social setting, where they can also exercise their own autonomy. Furthermore, if we lose these valuable pillars in our society, we lose a big part of our history and culture. These public spaces where special moments, traditions, memories, and celebrations are made, are at risk of disappearing and being replaced by ghost kitchens, shipping our food by drone to the comfort of our couch (okay, maybe not that dystopian). Notwithstanding, I do hope the next generation will not miss out on a special and irreplaceable aspect of our society. This is the time to re-introduce and reinvent our relationship to the culinary industry. Let’s put those devices away, take that first bite, and look forward to what the evening has to offer, right in front of us.
An expert in dining room economics and the guest experience, Frazer Nagy is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of Tablz, a Transparent Kitchen company, committed to a vision of changing the way the story of your dish is communicated and helping restaurants finally become profitable businesses.