Dining at Bateau the other night with a connoisseur from San Francisco, I noticed a solo diner at the end of the bar, quietly working at a laptop. “Ugh,” grunted my companion. “If he’s going to work why did he even come out to a restaurant?”
It’s a popular opinion, according to Miss Manners, who has decried the practice. “The ideas behind the laptop ban are, first, that one does not do business in a place where others are engaged in the ritual of dining, and second, that one does not ignore one’s table companions,” she wrote in a 1992 syndicated column. If the diner is alone and the restaurant isn’t beating back a line for the table and it’s a fast-food or convenience joint that has no particular ambiance to uphold—then it’s possibly okay, she conceded.
But in a fine-dining destination? No.
My companion, incensed, agreed. “A diner with a laptop is an insult to the artistry of the chef,” he fumed. From where I was sitting, however, I could see the guy. Quietly reading, carefully cutting bites off his steak, enjoying himself. “You know,” I told my companion, “he looks like a guy who was dying for a Bateau steak but who didn’t happen to have a dining companion for the evening.” It was a Monday; he was at the end of the bar. Who was he hurting?
One might even argue that, having overcome self-consciousness and convention and possibly boredom to come to this restaurant alone, he was evincing a purer appreciation for the chef than anyone else in the place. This guy clearly wanted to be there.
“Ten years ago I would’ve been out of my mind,” laughed Bateau owner Renee Erickson when I called to ask her opinion. “But now we’re used to computers and phones and kids on iPads…it feels normal. I mean if they’re listening to noisy video, God forbid…but if it’s just a computer, I guess there are so many other things to worry about. I used to get more worked up about rules; now I’m just happy they’re coming to eat.”
Erickson has even seen folks with computers at her perpetually slammed Ballard bar, the Walrus and the Carpenter. “When it’s slow,” she clarified. (When it’s slow?) The fact is, it’s a more plugged-in world since Miss Manners weighed in, and—my dining companion’s disapproval notwithstanding—restaurateurs are adapting, even designing for it.
“We made the bar in Tallulah’s really quite long because I wanted people to feel they could sit at the bar at night and work on their laptops,” said Linda Derschang, the longtime Seattle restaurant impresario. “We see it at Oddfellows all the time, and even at Smith.” Dershang designs her restaurants to accommodate groups, yes, but also intentionally for parties-of-one. “It’s gotten more common, going out alone…but it’s not always easy.”