Last weekend, my older brother came down from New York for a visit. My mom told us that we could use her credit card to go out for a nice dinner, so naturally we treated ourselves to a three-course meal at Georgetown’s quintessential gastronomic splurge spot, 1789.
The restaurant was packed on Friday night, but I noticed a 20-something man sitting at a table across from us, enjoying his locally raised, braised-to-perfection loin of lamb … alone. His dinner companion was lying on the table next to his bread plate—an iPhone that consumed his attention throughout the course of the meal.
I was perplexed. Under normal circumstances, most of us wouldn’t think of dining out alone.
In the past, I’ve questioned why we feel the need to surround ourselves with other people during meals. Perhaps we don’t eat alone more often because we are taught not to. After growing up surrounded by people at nearly every meal, eating alone is a new and daunting experience for most college students. Eating alone can be read not as a sign of strength or independence, but as a lack of social standing.
A solitary meal in a restaurant can be enjoyable, however. It’s a classic way to experience moments of contemplation and to refresh, restore, and gather yourself. At a restaurant like 1789, you are paying top dollar not just for their sustainable fish farming practices and succulent cider-braised pork belly, but also for the pleasure that the atmosphere and experience that the locale provides.
Now with the advent of limitless, portable access to our favorite blogs, books, and TV series, all literally at our fingertips, solo dining can offer an entirely new experience. It seems like more people are opting for tapping and swiping at their handheld devices over casual mealtime banter or quiet contemplation. The Washington Post even ran a trend piece on the phenomenon last month.
Gadgets give us something to do when we’re eating alone, but some restaurants have taken the trend to the next level. For example, CityZen, the four-star restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest D.C., recently added an iPad as an option for parties of one, letting patrons pair their $110 six-course tasting menu with a side of Google Reader.
While we might feel like a mealtime is the perfect opportunity to catch up on our blog reading or rewatch the latest episode of Modern Family, I can’t help but wonder what the effects of this constant technological exposure will have on our ability to socialize. For years we have been reading articles about how the popularity of digital devices has shortened our attention spans and resulted in a constant need for stimulation, and now there is growing evidence that our gadgets are responsible for an inability to relate to each other on a personal level. Our world of seamless wireless access to the web, email, and 2,000 of our closest Facebook friends’ photo albums might make it harder not only to relate to others but also just to be alone with ourselves.
For me, the point of going out to a restaurant is the experience. I am just as guilty of checking my phone at the dinner table as the next person, but the idea of being glued to my computer screen while sitting alone at a restaurant, surrounded by people and bustle and ambiance, is borderline nauseating. My most memorable meals are those I have shared with real people, face to face, completely in the moment. Even a solo meal—especially when you’re at a restaurant like 1789—can deserve your undivided attention.
On Friday, I watched, fascinated, as our fellow diner clicked, tapped, and swiped his way through his lamb, chocolate sticky toffee pudding, and decaf cappuccino, unaware of his surroundings and thoroughly engrossed by an epic game of Angry Birds or a riveting social media stalking session. As I pulled out my own phone to snap and tweet a picture of the spectacle, I caught myself—was I inadvertently sinking to this man’s level? Or, as restaurants like CityZen and people like this man suggest, is our society’s construction of daily activities like mealtimes unquestionably and irrevocably altered by our phones, tablets, and computers?
In ten years I worry that I, dining with friends in a sea of solo, digitally stimulated eaters, will be the subject of a college newspaper column—an antiquated relic of yore, still out to eat with her friends. The prospect was enough to make me pocket my phone … and struggle not to check for new messages.