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7th Dec 2018

Regular readers of this column will know that I am not a fan of chain restaurants.  As a rule they are run by accountants with a love of money, not chefs with a love of food.  As a result, what you get on your plate is created to a lowest common (financial) denominator, staff are often woefully underpaid and badly managed, and the concept of creating a pleasant dining environment is sacrificed at the altar of getting you out as soon as possible so that someone else can have your table.

But today I’m going to sing the praises of one such chain.  The Italian-American outfit Frankie & Benny’s last week announced that in an attempt to encourage families actually to talk to each other during their meal – and presumably hoping to remove annoying distractions for other diners – they would offer free children’s meals to parent who were willing to surrender their mobile phones for the duration of their meal.

Now this could be dismissed as a clever PR stunt (it certainly has gained many column inches, to which I am adding right now), but even if it is, three cheers to the chain for highlighting a pernicious and growing problem not just in restaurants, but over dining tables right across the nation.

We have all witnessed that couple or that family at the next table who say barely a word to each other during the entire meal, so absorbed are they in their insistent electronic devices.  For other diners, it either results in a cacophony of beeps, bongs and ring tones, or else creates a permafrost which drifts across the entire restaurant, destroying the warm, cosy atmosphere that we all hope to find when we eat out.

For those staring at their phones and ignoring their fellow diners, the damage is even more serious.  I worry that we have created a whole generation who are incapable of casual conversation unless it is conducted via Snapchat or Whatsapp. 

That fundamental pleasure of enjoying good conversation over a shared meal is in danger of being extinguished by our addict-like fascination with whoever is on the other end of the phone line – even when it’s probably a Russian bot.

Even the act of placing your mobile phone on the table in front of you conveys the message that the mere potential of someone messaging us from afar is more valued than talking to your fellow diners.

As I’ve said before, if the person at the other end of your Facebook feed is so fascinating, why aren’t you having dinner with them?

At least when adults do this amongst themselves, we understand that it’s just rudeness.  But when parents ignore their children in favour of whatever is happening on their five inch screens, it sends a clear message which kids will not miss: you are not important, I couldn’t be bothered to engage with you, it’s OK to be rude and anti-social.  And that behaviour will become the norm for those youngsters.

So well done, Frankie & Benny’s, for at least highlighting the problem.  I would love to see some brave establishment ban mobile phones altogether, although I suspect that would be difficult to enforce, and given our worship of the things, probably commercial suicide as well. 

But it can’t be beyond the wit of science to invent a signal jammer which means that these mobile phone pests have to go outside for their fix, just like those other pariahs, the smokers.  Leaving the rest of us enjoying an environment stripped of another irritating pollutant.

Hamper Happiness

Thank you to all those who got in touch after my last column, in which I suggested ten things which would be in my perfect Norfolk Christmas hamper.  As I predicted, you came up with many great Norfolk products which I didn’t mention.

The feedback demonstrated a bit of a fixation with Norfolk gin.  Several of you suggested that you would include Bullards’ new ‘Old Tom’ gin, which is sweetened with Norfolk honey, mango and vanilla, coupled with pink peppercorn spiciness and grapefruit peel dryness.  I hadn’t tried it, but have now, and can confirm it’s delicious.

Other suggestions included Nelson’s Gold vodka liqueur (made from Norfolk barley and sugar beet), Archer’s sausages and Moongazer Ale from Norfolk Brewhouse – all great suggestions.

It seems that many of us are destined to receive delicious Norfolk goodness in our stockings this year.  I can’t think of a better gift.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.