Craig LaBan eats out a lot. In fact, he’s paid to do so as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic –- so he’s wise to a lot of restaurants’ tricks. But he was surprised recently by one high-end eatery’s gesture: they handed him a cell charger on a silver platter, literally, for his dying phone.
LaBan was so taken aback that he opened his review for the restaurant with the anecdote as a fitting metaphor for the rest of his meal at Volver.
“It happened heading toward midnight almost at the fourth hour of a meal that had hallmarks of other self-indulgent, ‘look at me’ qualities to it,” LaBan told ABC News. “Phones used to be considered a real intrusion, and here’s a restaurant that’s embracing it. I sort of felt it smacked of self-promotion.”
"You can use the metaphor of feeding people and their devices," LaBan added. "They’re all wrapped up into this sort of complex social commentary that doesn’t necessarily have to do with hospitality anymore, or the sort of pure pleasure of taking wonderful ingredients and making people happy by knowing how to cook them in delightful and surprising ways."
LaBan isn’t the first restaurant critic to take note of this growing trend. Pete Wells, The New York Times’ critic, recently dedicated an entire article to the topic, even coining a term for dishes that seem to take a photo into account more than flavor: camera cuisine.
“A side effect of the digital age in food photography, camera cuisine is any dish that was inspired by a picture or aspires to be one,” Wells wrote. “Like any genre of cooking, camera cuisine varies widely in quality, but in its purest form it is both exquisitely photogenic and peculiarly bland and lifeless.”
LaBan noted that he’s as guilty as the next diner -– he used that charger Volver provided, and continued documenting his meal -– but he thinks the restaurant crossed a line with this gesture.
“There have been chefs who banned cell phone pictures from the room because they feel it’s an intrusion, especially when people use flashes. I totally understand that, but this is the opposite direction,” he said. “I definitely think this was a restaurant that wanted to embrace the promotional opportunities of social media. Here you have hundreds of people coming through your restaurant promoting you for what you used to pay marketing agencies for.”
And he may not be far from the truth. Though Volver did not immediately return ABC News’ request for comment, the restaurant does address its policy on phones in the restaurant in the “FAQ’s” section of its website.
“We encourage you to share your experience with us, but please note that in order to avoid disrupting anyone’s experience, we DO NOT allow flash photography. Additionally, we ask that you please keep cell phones and cameras off of your table and the kitchen counter during your meal,” they wrote, before continuing, “Please tag us in your social media posts (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), but please also consider waiting to post until you have finished enjoying your time with us.”
LaBan does note the positives of the new Instagram culture, namely that people who may not be able to afford these experiences can now vicariously partake.
“I think that’s great you can take a peek into this world that maybe you don’t have access to because it’s just so darn expensive,” he said. “But when that becomes the goal or the priority, I think it corrupts it a little bit.”