Over the last couple of years, a coterie of cool hotels has opened in downtown Seattle, all replete with phone-camera lures. Inside the Palihotel on Pine Street, the lobby displays books with spines turned inward—as if some puritanical guest couldn’t bear the site of Lolita and Tropic of Cancer. Just to the left, the Hart and the Hunter restaurant both compels and confounds with checkerboard floors, a model clipper ship, and a wooden wall sign that reads “Western.” What is happening? Unclear. But you want to take a picture of it. Nearby, at new cafe Ben Paris in the State Hotel, they’ve papered one wall in a pattern of blossoming vines that host foxes, hares, snakes, and a giant pheasant. Pull me out, your phone whispers from your pocket, we need a pic of that big-ass pheasant.
Then, this past May, the Thompson Seattle hotel on Stewart, which first opened in 2016, replaced its shuttered eatery, Scout. The new restaurant: Conversation, a fine-dining venture where “human connection takes priority.” Put another way: Take your phone off the table and talk to each other.
Twelve years after the iPhone’s debut, we’ve all developed a trigger finger, sharing pics of our dinners, our babies sleeping, the moment we unboxed our slouchy new boots. It wasn’t so long ago that restaurants bristled when you snapped pictures of their food; indeed, we all thought it uncivilized to show your phone in a room full of people attempting a relaxing evening out. But while we still see the odd chef-bans-phones story, most have bowed to Instagram’s unstoppable publicity power. So how, in the era of Instagram, can a restaurant succeed with a conversation-forward gambit?
That question was on the mind of Serena McCabe, director of sales and marketing for Thompson Seattle, when she asked her kitchen staff to consider a new concept: A dozen or so questions intended to promote conversation at the new restaurant, and printed out on small cards. She thought she’d try them internally first to see what happened. She learned, for instance, that if executive chef Derek Simcik could pick one wild animal to tame, it’d be an alligator. Also, if a cantankerous kitchen crew found the cards fun—and they did—they’d likely fly with customers too.
I’d heard about the prompt cards before I dined at Conversation. The night we went, my friend and I arrived giddy to see how staff could possibly pull this off without mortifying all involved. Each time our energetic server returned, we anticipated him asking about death row meals or seeking to play some polite variation of “Fuck, Marry, Kill.” It never happened, and we left a little let down, despite the fact that Simcik and his team had cooked some very nice food. From housemade rigatoni topped with slow-cooked lamb sugo to an umami-sweet mushroom dish with peaches and pecans, the meal felt ambitious but inviting—not unlike, if I may, an exciting conversation. Perhaps all the tastiness accounted for the fact that we missed the 12 conversation-prompting cards that had been tucked into an insert of our menus the whole time.
McCabe told me that while they do ask staff to point the cards out to every guest, they don’t force the experience (on my second visit to the restaurant, prompt cards were once again absent from the conversation). The idea, she says, is to help people connect, not barrage them with ridiculous icebreaker questions in between forkfuls of chilled porchetta. My friend and I had plenty to talk about, after all, and the server no doubt noticed that he didn’t need to barrel in with “The cast of How I Met Your Mother: FMK?”
When we did break out our phones, it was at his suggestion—he was about to present us with the cotton candy–topped London Fog dessert and thought we might want to capture the show. And a show it was: As he poured “vanilla bean milk” over the plate, the floss deflated to the edges to reveal a glossy Earl Grey mousse, encircled with oat streusel, and topped with a quenelle of lemon ice cream. I mean, come on. You’ve gotta post a video of that.