Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dining Out Alone? There's an App for That!

Washington Post: Heather E. Henderson sat down for lunch one recent afternoon at Bourbon Steak, the Georgetown Four Seasons restaurant where she’s a regular. She ordered raw oysters, Singapore noodles and one of the head bartender’s house-made apple sodas.

Then, she engaged her lunch companion: the iPhone that has commanded — or at least divided — Henderson’s attention on countless eating excursions.

Swipe, tap tap.

Swipe swipe, tap tap tap.

“I’m a multi-tasker,” said Henderson, the 39-year-old co-owner of an event-management company, who was Facebooking and tweeting throughout the meal. “I’m a bit of a foodie, but most of my friends are not. If limited myself to only going out with physical dining companions, I wouldn’t go out nearly as often as I do.”

Dining out alone? There’s an app for that.

In just about any restaurant these days — even fancier places where the multi-course proffer is something like performance art — you’re likely to find parties of one fiddling with their digital devices. (That’s to say nothing of people texting at the table, or otherwise checking their phones, when they’re sharing a meal with others, a related, more widely reviled phenomenon.)

The lonely experience of passively reading while waiting for the bread basket has given way to e-mailing or playing Angry Birds before attacking a 28-ounce, dry-aged, butter-poached slab of prime porterhouse ($65 at Bourbon Steak).

“It’s almost rare now that a single diner will walk in without some type of device,” said Mark Politzer, Bourbon Steak’s general manager. “It’s really changed the experience for single diners. It’s less awkward for them, but they’re more engaged in work or whatever else they’re doing on their device than in having a conversation with us or focusing on the meal.”

The development churns some restaurateurs’ stomachs. At Rogue 24 — a theatrical, envelope-pushing Washington restaurant, where the chefs work at the center of the 52-seat dining room — proprietor R.J. Cooper has even banned electronic devices. But some diners have gone, well, rogue.

“There’s not a lot we can do,” Cooper said. “They’re paying our bills. Here’s the thing: People are so attached to their damn smartphones and tablets that they’re going to use them regardless. We’re not cops about it. We can’t make them turn them off.

“I do understand it gives solo diners something to do besides eat. But we have a lot going on. Our dining experience is so interactive. ... It bothers me if they’re tweeting and Facebooking and not really getting into the experience.”

Politzer, the Bourbon Steak general manager, is more sanguine. In fact, he went shopping recently for cordless chargers that diners could use at their tables. “Ten years ago, I might have found this appalling, but restaurants have to be open-minded and adjust,” he said. “This is a common practice now and it isn’t going away.”

Eric Ziebold sees it all the time from his kitchen at CityZen, his four-star restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest Washington: Solo diners with smartphones, tablets, even laptops.

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