At Silent Dinners, Conversation Not on the Menu

Dining phenomenon offers communal eating minus the conversation.

September 13, 2013, 2:14 AM
PHOTO: "Silent dinners" like the one seen here in Adelaide, Australia in 2013, are a new phenomenon where diners are asked not to speak or use electronic devices and just focus on eating food.
"Silent dinners" like the one seen here in Adelaide, Australia, in 2013 are a new phenomenon where diners are asked not to speak or use electronic devices and just focus on eating food.
Courtesy Honi Ryan

Sept. 13, 2013 — -- Please be seated and enjoy your meal. Just don't talk or tweet about it.

Such are the instructions at an increasingly popular dining phenomenon known as "silent dinners," communal gatherings around a meal that encourage guests not to speak for anywhere from one to two hours and to abstain from using electronic devices. Instead, the idea is to just focus on the food.

"Silent dinner parties are fast becoming a cross-cultural snapshot of an era that highlights communication, globalization and the essential space between people, in light of the digital shift," said Honi Ryan, who has hosted 32 silent dinner parties in 11 cities across eight countries, including Germany, Australia and the United States. "They simultaneously highlight cultural differences while revealing a base humanity across the globe."

They're also just plain peaceful.

According to a 2013 nationwide Zagat survey, restaurant noise came in second only to poor service among customer complaints, referencing a higher volume that has become the norm at many casual -- and, sometimes, not-so casual -- eating establishments. And 19 percent of diners who participated in the survey said noise and crowds irritated them most while eating out.

"I believe the interest in the experience is growing," said Ryan, who is planning dinners in Budapest, Hungary, and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by the end of the year. "The way we communicate is changing so rapidly that we need to stop and reflect on it, experientially."

While silent dinners may seem curious, the concept is not a new one. Yogis have long participated in silent meals as part of a deepened practice, with noise-free meals still included in modern-day retreats. In fact, it was a trip to a monastery in India by a staff member that inspired one Brooklyn restaurant recently to add a silent dinner to its event programming.

"We'll make a small speech at the beginning of the meal to make sure everyone understands what is happening and ask them not to speak or use their cell phones for at least an hour," said EAT Greenpoint owner Jordan Colon, who will be serving a four-course dinner of locally sourced, seasonal foods.

In addition to removing conversation, background music will be turned off, as well.

"It's funny, when I first opened [EAT], I didn't play music for a while and people had very different reactions to that," said Colon. "Some people who come out to eat are ready to party and without music it was this monastic environment. But I wanted to create a refuge where you could just chill out."

While personal responses to a silent dinner in the moment may vary, in general they tend to provoke a lot of conversation afterward, said Ryan.

"At the end of the night people always have a lot to say about silence!" Ryan told ABC News via e-mail. "But the most constant reaction is that they are always a good (silent) laugh."

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