Friday, August 19, 2022 Aug 19, 2022
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Family Takes an iPad to a Restaurant. Things Got Noisy. Who’s In the Wrong?

A quiet night at a neighborhood hang takes a turn.
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There is a tiny neighborhood restaurant located beneath the offices in the 3300 block of Oak Lawn Ave., between Cedar Springs and Lemmon. This is Si Lom, and it has been slinging pad thai and scooping mango sticky rice here, in this basement dwelling, since 2012.

Over the seven years that patrons have descended its concrete stairs, below the bustling street, the Thai restaurant has been unfalteringly consistent and eternally cozy. Lemongrass and coconut Tom Kha soup gets topped with leafy cilantro and glistening beads of burnt orange chili oil—a perfect opening dish. The lychee martini comes garnished with three plump and fleshy ivory fruits. The servers shoot a skeptical glance when you ask for the green curry extra spicy, but they’re always swift to bring out a side of chilies.

Large, brightly colored paintings of koi fish hang from the walls. Fresh cut flowers are placed in glass vases and adorn each table. Miniature crystal chandeliers dangle from above and distract from the drop ceiling tiles, which are painted a shade similar to that of red soil. Plush orange bench seats line the perimeter of the dining room. There are mirrors and bamboo and statues of Buddha.

The space is comfortable, unpretentious, and, on a good night, relaxing.

Initially, this is what this story set out to say. But a couple weeks ago, a family of four passed through the dining room and soon sent this piece on a different path. The man and woman had two boys who appeared to be between four and seven. They were seated at a table directly across from mine on the other side of the room. It didn’t take long for the iPad to come out.

The restaurant was busy. Nearby, two women in their twenties scrolled on their phones. Across from them were two women and a teeny-tiny baby, with the fluffiest red hair I’d seen on something other than my dog. There was a guy who was presumably on a date with a woman whose laugh resembled that of a cackling dolphin. A table of people silently slurped noodles with chopsticks. The entire bar was full—neighborhood regulars watched a football game on flatscreen TVs. It wasn’t noisy, by any means, but the soundscape was lively.

Somehow, a faint yet piercing melody drifted over the clinking of silverware and the occasional squeals from the red-haired baby. It was a tinkling, high-pitched refrain. One, which I’m sure if I could make out, would end up getting lodged somewhere between my Tympanic cavity and Auditory tube, where it would play over and over and over again. (I literally just Googled “anatomy of the ear.” I have no idea if these ear parts make sense in this situation. If any otolaryngologists out there would like to chime in, I’m all ears. (Sorry. But not really.))

The sound came from that iPad, held by the eldest of the two boys. He was watching a movie—all I could make out is that it was a cartoon—with the volume up, and no headphones on.

Surely the parents were going to rectify this any second now. But when 10 seconds turned to 40 seconds, and two minutes turned to five, it became clear that they were totally okay with what was going on. Heck, the father was so okay with it, that he jumped on his cell phone and had a full-on conversation, next to the kid who was watching the movie. The mother and younger son snuggled across from them in the booth.

Nobody seemed to mind. The woman and her date were lost in conversation, the two girls next to me were still scrolling on their phones, the red-haired baby had already left. (Surely, she would have been pissed.)

I couldn’t be the only person who found this family’s blatant lack of consideration for the intimate environment, and the people dining around them, to be mind-bogglingly rude. Each chirp and bop and cheerfully animated sound effect blaring from the iPad hit harder than the last. I practiced some deep breathing exercises. This helped. And then posted on social media. This also helped. My rant was met with a deluge of reactions, everything from white-hot rage to logical solutions. (I never once thought to talk to the manager, but this is something that people have done before in situations similar to mine.)

My post started a discourse. The most popular reaction was that this behavior is, in fact, rude. But some commenters tried their best to see the situation from the other side.

Technology at the dinner table is a spicy topic. A study by two researchers at the University of British Columbia, published last year on Time‘s website, concludes that phone use during meals leads to less enjoyable experiences. And while some restaurants, like British chain Frankie & Benny’s, are toying with the idea of technology bans (even if their main goal is promotional gain), others are ramping up the screens. Some even provide them for the guests.

My instinct is that I hate phones at the table, and people should appreciate their meal and the company of friends and family. But I am always first to hover my camera over a plate, moving around glassware so that the tablescape is more aesthetically pleasing. I’ve been known to puncture the yolk of an egg so that the shot is “more active.” I also sent, and received, multiple texts throughout my meal at Si Lom. I was dining solo, so it wasn’t disrespectful to a companion. But was it disrespectful to the people around me? To my server? To the cooks who spent time lovingly simmering ginger and broth and coconut milk in a saucepan so that I could slurp it?

That’s a lot to unpack. Instead, let’s revisit that very specific experience at a tiny, full neighborhood restaurant, with a young boy who was watching a movie on an iPad with no headphones.

I reached out to a handful of colleagues, restaurateurs, and people who generally love to dine out and also have kids, for their thoughts on the situation. These are their takes.

“Restaurant dining can be a great developmental opportunity. It’s a safe place to practice reading, asking unfamiliar adults good questions, making decisions, and being courteous to everyone around us. We train our TJ’s staff to make it a fun ‘grown up’ experience for them. After they order food? Break out the (muted) screen…Paw Patrol, we’re on a roll.” – Jon Alexis, owner TJ’s Seafood and Malibu Poke

“Huge pet peeve. No one wants to hear someone else’s entertainment (in restaurants, on flights, in doctor’s waiting rooms), and it’s up to adults to be considerate of others’ experience. I’m raising a hellboy, so I totally understand parents breaking out devices to keep little ones calm during dinner, but geez, there are so many drawing apps and games out there that don’t require sound if you find yourself without headphones.” – Holland Murphy, associate editor, D Magazine

“Yeah, I have feelings about it. I think it sucks when other diners let their kids play any electronic device at volume levels that impact other’s dining experiences. It is rude, selfish, inconsiderate, selfish. But, I guess it doesn’t matter to them, so who’s got the problem? Kinda like talking/texting at the movies, except restaurants don’t have giant screens projecting notifications to everyone to not text or talk during dinner.

We would not let our daughter use an electronic device any time we were at the table. She was expected to participate and be an active part of the experience of being at the table. Now, that being said, if we, as the adults, went long and started pushing her tolerance levels toward the end of the meal, we would make an exception and she could use one of our phones with no volume while we finished up. I personally ask myself to be tolerant. But, my toleration level is commensurate with the level of dining. Burger House or a taco shop? Whatever. $27 dollar entrées and $14 glasses of wine? I’ve got problems. I am oft compelled to give them a stern glowering they’ll certainly not soon forget!” – Brian C. Luscher, chef-owner The Grape

As always, my husband says it well and I totally agree. I will say that our restaurant is lucky, as most of our guests who dine with their children/young adults, slap on the headphones immediately with the electronic devices. Honestly, maybe too quickly in my opinion. How can we expect the younger generation to learn how to communicate and interact during a dining experience if we are just tuning them out? We have had a few devices with volumes at a level that have been disturbing to others, but it has actually been adults, watching videos or talking to someone on speaker. Seriously?! Now this has been in the bar area, which can be a bit of a different dynamic, but I believe you need to have the same standard across the board. They were politely asked to turn it down. And I probably got the stern glowering from them but hey, my place my rules, which applies to all ages. – Courtney Luscher, owner The Grape

“Those parents should be sterilized and then forced to live in a reeducation camp in Dalworthington Gardens.” – Tim Rogers, editor, D Magazine

“Of course I want to say it’s atrocious. Of course I want to say that you should never have your cell phone out, ever, at a dinner table, regardless of your age. Of course I would’ve had opinions about this before I had kids. But. I’ve definitely been guilty of throwing my phone in front of my toddler in an effort to pacify him when he was on the verge of a meltdown. I’ve softened my stance on most parenting judgment since becoming one. You just don’t know what kind of day those people had. Some days it’s all you can do to survive.

In my mind, the three factors here are: the age of the kid, volume management, and the restaurant. If you must resort to the phone or tablet—and listen, we’ve all done it—a kid older than toddler age should be able to handle headphones or earbuds. (They should also be capable of participating in conversation and controlling their behavior for an hour without a digital pacifier, but again, no judging.) Forgot headphones? Volume down, or pick an app that doesn’t require sound. The setting is probably the biggest factor. If it’s a loud, family-oriented place, I’m letting most things slide. If it’s your quiet neighborhood bistro and the volume is to a level that it’s disruptive, that’s bad form.

Maybe I’ve just gotten so used to people ruining things—talking through movies, driving like they own the road, crowding the aisle the second the plane lands—that my bar for behavior has sunk embarrassingly low.” – Jessica Otte, executive editor, D Home and D Weddings

“My two-and-a-half year old and I go to restaurants and coffee shops pretty often.

Taking kids to restaurants is tough, and I believe most parents are just doing their best. Which means: working moms trying to shovel a few forkfuls of food into their own mouths, maybe enjoying interesting (but interrupted) conversation, and getting the heck out of there before the kid gets too antsy. My daughter Hayley is allowed to play on my iPhone for short brackets of time at restaurants. She’s little enough that she only watches two things: nursery rhyme cartoons on YouTube and an educational ABC game. I tell myself that she’s learning something—and she probably is!—and it allows me to experience a restaurant and taste the food, which I’m often doing for work, as the food writer for The Dallas Morning News.

We do keep some ground rules. We don’t go to restaurants after bedtime. So you’ll never see me drag my toddler to a restaurant when she’s sleepy, then plunk a smartphone in front of her. We try to put the phone away during dinnertime, too. I love food so much, and I want Hayley to develop an appreciation for it. She’s encouraged to taste food off of our plates, and we sometimes skip the kids menu in favor of more interesting options. (Although: there’s a time and a place for chicken fingers and french fries. No shade.) Also, we don’t take her to restaurants that aren’t inherently kid-friendly. We do a lot of fast-casuals, chain restaurants, and small mom and pops in our Dallas neighborhood, all of which seem okay to pull out the iPhone while we’re waiting on food. When it’s time to go to a fabulous restaurant, where we’ll be spending a fair amount of money, we always get a babysitter.” – Sarah Blaskovich, food writer, The Dallas Morning News

“We don’t do it. I mean, we’ve managed to keep screens out of the hands of our five-year-olds for the most part and have no plans to allow screens in restaurants. But I try not to judge too harshly because my kids get a ton more practice behaving in restaurants than most. Besides, I’ve only made it five years so far and it’s sorta one-day-at-a-time with kids.” – Foodbitch, contributor CentralTrack.

There you have it. Do you have a hot take on technology at the table? Let’s discuss.

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