If you’re out to dinner on Valentine’s Day and fall in love with the pine nut-crusted rack of lamb or blood orange mousse that your server sets before you, go ahead — take a picture.
Chances are, if you’re dining in southern Maine, the chef won’t mind.
Just don’t use a flash.
Despite the possibility that your photo may look a little, um, unappetizing, or might be posted with a so-so review, southern Maine restaurants tend to look the other way when snap-happy foodies drop by their dining rooms.
“We get a lot of people who photograph the food,” says Krista Desjarlais, the chef-owner of Bresca in Portland. “I guess I have mixed emotions about it sometimes, but ultimately I’m glad that they’re happy and want to do it. At night it gets trickier, and we grimace if someone uses a flash, being such a small room. I think people are understanding how intrusive it is, especially at night, to use a flash.”
A recent story in The New York Times noted that New York restaurants, especially the high-end ones, are becoming a little camera-shy as more and more diners with iPhones in their pockets insist on documenting every bite they take. Some places have instituted “no flash” policies, while others have banned photos altogether.
Some of the backlash may have to do with concern about where the photos will end up — no one wants a bad review on Yelp or Facebook or Trip Advisor — but a lot of it reflects concern for other customers who may have spent a good deal of money on their meals and just want to enjoy them in peace.
“I know there are some chefs — there’s quite a few more at Michelin star level — who are not allowing (photos),” Desjarlais said. “I have worked at that level, so I can understand because it does disrupt. Especially at that price point, it probably does get some people extremely annoyed sitting next to a couple who might be cataloguing an entire dinner.”
Steve Corry, chef/owner of Five Fifty-Five in Portland, said photography in Portland restaurants was more of an issue about three years ago, when “everybody had a food blog.” Although the picture-taking has tapered off, customers still like snapping photos of their food, and of each other (a lot of people get engaged at Corry’s restaurant), and no one seems to mind.
“We don’t have a hard-and-fast policy per se,” Corry said. “We certainly take great pride in the preparation and presentation of our dishes, so I don’t mind if people are taking photographs for that reason. When it becomes an issue is when another table has an issue with it.”
That happened on one memorable occasion a couple of years ago, when a young couple seated next to an older couple on the balcony of the restaurant began taking pictures of everything. When the 30-something man excused himself to go to the restroom, the older couple got up to leave and complained to the man’s wife.
When the young man returned to his table, his wife told him what happened.
“He chased them all the way down to the lounge,” Corry recalled, “and if someone didn’t step in from our staff, they were going to get in a fistfight over this. It was a big scene, all over taking pictures in the restaurant.”
At the Portland restaurant Grace, located in a stunning 19th-century church, diners want to take photos of the venue as well as the food. Proprietor Anne Verrill says that “unless you’re doing something horribly awful,” they tend to look the other way.
“We have had a couple of people come in here with extremely professional set-ups, where they have someone standing on the other end of the balcony with a remote flash and they’re taking a picture,” Verrill said. “At that point, it’s easy to say, ‘This is a little too much, you’re bothering diners.’ But for the most part, it’s just people’s iPhones or their point-and-shoot camera.”
COMMEMORATING AN OCCASION
Destination restaurants where people celebrate birthdays and anniversaries say they expect diners to pull out smart phones or cameras at some point during the evening.
Grand chef Jonathan Cartwright of the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk said that people come to the restaurant, which has a dress code, “already in that mindset where they need to mind their P’s and Q’s.”
“Most people come to celebrate a special occasion, so they want a little bit of memory of that,” he said. “As long as they’re not disturbing other guests, we’re quite happy to let them go ahead and do that.”
If there is an issue, it’s up to the maitre d’ to deal with it. Deciding when to step in can be a tough call, Cartwright said. When does too much hospitality for one table create an inhospitable environment for another?
“If someone’s too loud at a table, you don’t want to damper their evening because they’re out celebrating,” Cartwright said. “But if they’re disturbing other people, it’s a tough call for a restaurant manager to make. How much are you disturbing other people, and how much are you going to ruin their night by asking them to pull it back a little bit? With pictures, it’s the same thing.”
Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street said policing diners taking photos of food with their smart phone seems “unfriendly and punitive.” He said Fore Street diners regularly want to take photos of their celebrations and of the layout of the restaurant, which with its open kitchen and wood-burning oven is all “flame and action.”
But sometimes a line has to be drawn.
“Once or twice over the years, I recall diners coming right up to the front line to capture images of the wood-burning oven or the turnspit, and that really has to be discouraged,” he said. “That’s an area that has to be kept clear. The servers use it to pick up plates and speak with the expeditor, and the traffic and equipment there are heavy, hot and sharp. It’s really a safety issue.”
Arrows in Ogunquit has had a longtime “no cellphones in the dining room” policy, but chef/co-owner Clark Frasier says the rule extends back to the early days of cellphones, when “people were obnoxious about their use.”
Frasier said he’s never been annoyed by people taking photos of their food or each other. “For a lot of people, dinner at Arrows is a special occasion,” he said. “I like that part of it We just don’t want people yakking on the phone: ‘Hey, we’ve got to seal this deal. I sent you the email, and blah blah blah,’ like it’s an airport lounge or something.”
ASK FIRST, SHOOT LATER
Meredith Perdue and her partner Michael Cain, who write a food and travel blog called Map & Menu, are careful to mind their manners when visiting local restaurants.
Perdue, a professional photographer, never uses a flash when she photographs her meals and always politely asks the wait staff if it’s OK to use her camera.
“We actually make sure to go at off times so we’re not super-intrusive,” she said. “If a place opens at 11 or 11:30 for lunch, we’re usually the first people through the door. That’s our own comfort just as much as not being a disruption. I feel like I’m on display if I’m photographing my meal, so it’s more comfortable for me to go when it’s a quieter time.”
Most chefs would be happy to have their food on the Map & Menu blog. Not only are the photos professional quality, but the couple do not consider themselves to be food critics, so they only post photos of and write reviews about food they really like.
That’s unusual — these days, it seems as if everyone’s a critic — but it turns out Maine chefs don’t worry too much about bad or amateurish photos of their food appearing online anyway.
“It’s discouraging when it goes on some blog with a nasty review, especially if it’s a bad picture taken with an iPhone,” said Anne Verrill of Grace. “But it’s also done really great things for us blog-wise. I think if people have the opportunity to review you in a thousand different venues anyhow, positive or negative, I don’t think the picture is going to be the thing that hurts you, ultimately.”
It’s not likely food photos are going away anytime soon. Last week, the restaurant reservation site OpenTable announced it was buying Foodspotting, an app for sharing restaurant food photos, for $10 million. Maybe OpenTable will be able to weed out some of the worst shots of peoples’ burgers and foie gras.
Maine chefs think this focus on food brings up some broader issues in the community.
Desjarlais wonders, when she sees someone so fussy that they must photograph every morsel, if this is a sign of what food has become in our society — the star of the evening instead of a pleasant vehicle for social interaction. “Food is a great partner” when it is shared with good companions having good conversation, she said. “When it takes such center stage, it feels uncomfortable sometimes.”
A NEW ERA IN DINING
David Turin, owner of David’s and David’s Opus 10 in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland, says he has always taken it as “an enormous compliment” when someone posts a picture of his food on Facebook or Twitter, even though he doesn’t always understand why.
“I’m frequently surprised at what people will take a picture of,” he said. “The most beautiful Caesar salad in the world is still a Caesar salad. I’ve had people Facebook things like that, or you’ll see it on Yelp.”
Turin reflected how things have changed over his career, which now spans 30 years. When he started out, chefs were “schlubs” who worked in windowless kitchens “and god forbid anyone should ever see behind the curtain.”
Today there are open kitchens everywhere, and chef’s tables right next to where the food is being prepped. And it’s almost a guarantee that the people eating at that table will have cameras.
“There’s this whole era we’ve had of chef as celebrity, which I think is great fun — it’s almost unbelievable to me — but the next incarnation of that, the furthest iteration, is chef as egomaniac,” Turin said, laughing.
Turin said he supposes food lovers today see what’s on their plate as “fungible art” created by chefs who are, in their own way, creative artists. “You eat it, it’s gone,” he said. “So how do you remember it? Well, take a picture.”
Even chefs, it turns out, are not immune to the temptation to pick up a camera.
Clark Frasier found that out last August, when he and partner Mark Gaier were in Los Angeles for a food and wine festival.
“We went to dinner (at Red Medicine),” Frasier recalled. “The presentation was so great, I was just like ‘Oh wow, this is just visually a knock-out presentation.’
“I just took pictures of it all.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org