Ahead of lush descriptions of the pasta, glowing reviews of the wine list, and compliments on the fluffy foccacia, the thing you hear most about Bucato, the newest chef-driven restaurant in Culver City, is that ownership wants you to keep your phone in your pocket. Even the most tech-savvy diner can appreciate the importance and, at this stage, luxury of one-on-one communication. But Bucato is the only non-sushi restaurant in the city to dictate how its patrons can communicate. Other places have requirements about shoes and shirts—but phones and photos? This rule has caused something of an uproar. So we went to the source. Owners Ed Keebler and Evan Funke (who also serves as the restaurant’s masterful chef), gave it to us straight.
You two are partners in Bucato, did you both come up with the no cell phone rule, or how did it come about?
Ed Keebler: We both had the exact same idea at the same time. We looked at each other in a meeting and I said “cell phones.” And he said “no way,” and I said, “exactly.” But we had two different reasons for why we didn’t want to do it. One had to do with operations and the kitchen. One was functionality.
Evan Funke: Should I be diplomatic or not?
EK: It’s my job to be not diplomatic.
EF: [Laughs] Ok, I’ll be diplomatic. We put a lot of thought into this restaurant. Ed and I have been planning this restaurant for over two years. The cell phone policy is just one of the things we talked about it. For us, it’s a really small stone, but everyone’s been making a big deal about it. So we’re glad to have an opportunity to squash it and get on with the eating. Here’s my thinking: First, my cooks, my servers, everyone here takes a lot of care to get the food to you hot and perfect. By the time someone has taken a photo of it and posted it online, the dish is already cold and not perfect. So I wanted to tailor the experience as much as possible. I want the diner to eat the food upon its arrival to the table.
Second, I can’t compete with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Yelp—it’s become such a huge part of everyone’s lives. I’m going to lose.
What do you mean by compete? Lose?
EF: What I mean is, you’re at a restaurant and you see every single person painted with the glow of a cell phone screen. No one is paying attention to their food or the experience. They’re only taking a snapshot of what’s happening to them, instead of experiencing the restaurant or the dish. You’re taking a snapshot so that you can maybe take a look at it later. But you never felt anything when you were taking that photo, you didn’t experience that moment. That’s what I mean when I say I can’t compete with social media. So, it’s my restaurant, and I’m going to say: You need to relax and unplug and experience this restaurant and enjoy the food at its prime level and talk to each other. Talk to each other, enjoy each other’s company. That’s what it’s all about it. We wanted to take back the dining scene and create an atmosphere where you can have that experience.
How does this rule fit into the type of restaurant you want Bucato to become? EK: From my perspective, every policy is about the thought put into the policy and how you’re going to enforce it. When we were building Bucato, we decided that it should be predicated on five things: genuine hospitality, exquisite food, a friendly atmosphere, carefully sourced and prepared beverages, and a commitment to an economic value cycle in our community. If you’re talking about experience and hospitality and conviviality, it becomes difficult to do that if everyone is not fully engaged. Also, from a pragmatic standpoint, we have a lot of celebrity clientele, and we need a method to defend them from other clientele who may have other motives.
How do you feel when you see a photo of Bucato that was, let’s say, unauthorized?
EK: We are mindful of our messaging and what we put out about our restaurant. As I said once off the record—to go on the record about it—there is a disconnect between modern food culture, between critique, observation, and opinion. We’re happy to engage in mindful critique because it makes us better. Observation? OK. But food bloggers and a variety of other food writers…a lot of them are good at what they’re doing, but a lot of them are sharing their critique without being mindful. We’re happy to engage in mindful observation and criticism. But just anybody who wants to use their camera phone to give voice to an opinion that may not be a legit critique, we’re not welcoming that. The way we can address this is if you want to do a critique, we’re happy to arrange a photo shoot. But the one off camera shot? It’s not what we’re looking to put out there.
EF: Not everyone is a photographer.
EK: They could have, say, 800 followers on their blog—which has its own questionable value—but we’ve never turned away a request for a photo shoot. But the cell phone, it affects the way other diners experience the restaurant. Talking on your cell phone, turning on your flash, standing on the chair to get an overhead shot—it affects service. Ultimately, we have a right to say: “These are the basic manners that we expect from you.” There are other places in the world that have no cell phone policies. There are other places in the world that have no hat policies.
How are you enforcing this rule?
EF: It’s really on the honor system. It’s about respecting your experience and respecting your fellow diners.
EK: We’re not standing around and pointing at people and telling them to put their phones away. When solo diners are sitting at the bar and checking their phone or email, we haven’t said anything. When someone out of habit reaches for their phone, it’s not a big deal. It is the people that find the rule objectionable and have made a bigger thing out of it. For the half dozen or dozen diners that have voiced some objection to that, we have hundreds of diners that have expressed a positive response. One side has been adolescent, and one has been hyperbolic. You are going to have a reaction to any policy you make.
Evan, when you were at Rustic Canyon, did you ever think of instituting a no cell phone policy?
EF: Rustic Canyon and Bucato are two totally different restaurants. Obviously, my cooking style hasn’t changed overnight. But cell phone policy had nothing to do with my experience there. Here, I’m interested in elevating the dining experience in L.A.
EK: Dining has regressed.
EF: For a second, try not going out to eat with your gastro-ADD. Don’t just order something and snap a photo of it and move on to the next thing. We truly want to provide an excellent experience at this restaurant. If you whip out your phone, if you stand on your chair and are standing over my food to take a photo of the food, by the time you’ve busted out your phone, the pasta has started to die. So I will say, “Put your fucking phone away.”
EK: We have a place outside where you can take a call. You can interrupt your dining, excuse yourself from the table, and take a call if you need to take a call.
Do you wish cell phone/camera phone technology didn’t exist?
EK: The greatest advances in civilization—besides medicine—have been in communications. I run four businesses. I get about 1,300 emails a day and 500-600 text messages a day. We are not Luddites. We have the latest iOS platforms. We will be doing mobile payments soon at Bucato. We utilize technology and will expand our use of technology. But there is a time and place for it. I am grateful for the opportunity when I come to dine at my restaurant and disconnect for a couple hours and enjoy the company of my friends and family.
What has the response been to the no cell phone rule since the restaurant opened?
EF: One night recently, I had a group of eight ladies who called me out. They were celebrating a couple of birthdays and asked to see me, and I went out to the table and the first thing they said was, “Thank you for not letting us use our cell phone.” Why? “Because we actually got to talk to each other.”
When you eat out with family or friends, do you say anything if someone at the table pulls out their cell phone?
EF: It bothers me more when I’m with my family. I have very few friends because I don’t have a lot of time as you can imagine. So they become family, and if I’m going to put aside time to spend with my family and they get on their phone…I’m going to tell them to get the fuck off their cell phone. My brothers are the worst.
EK: I discreetly use my phone because I have kids and I sometimes have to communicate with the baby sitter, but I will be respectful about it. If I have to take a call, I will take it outside or I will miss it and call them back later. I actually read Emily Post’s Ettiquette—I have manners. When others don’t, I have the ability to say something about it because they’re my friends and family. Peasantry is not about poverty; it’s about not conducting yourself like an adult. Adults are supposed to know basic manners. If people were not so plugged into their cell phones and more aware of the world maybe they would have better manners.
What would you say to the people who are bucking the rules on purpose?
EK: People who do it anyway? They’re conducting themselves in an adolescent way. Every place has rules. You disrespect us when you disrespect those rules. Choosing to do that is a very adolescent thing to do. To the people that are offended: That’s not a “me” problem; that’s not our problem. That you’re offended when you chose to violate our policy doesn’t have anything to do with me.
EF: I’m just wondering what people say to the sushi chefs who don’t allow cell phones at their sushi bar. I’m curious to see why this is a thing for us and not for others.
Evan, you have an award-winning Instagram feed. How has that affected your perspective on taking photos of food?
EF: Nobody curates anything. That’s why I was voted best Instagram. It’s not irony—I curate things and I take good pictures. Not everybody curates, and they just put everything they snap a photo of out there and think that it has some type of value. People are entitled to do that, but not in our restaurant. So now people are saying “Oh, only you’re allowed to take photos of your food.” Well, I always do it after hours. And, it’s my house. But if I’ve taken a photo in the dining room, it’s after hours—never during service.
We knew it was going to piss people off, but we didn’t do it to be controversial. Just like I cook the way that I cook—sustainably, locally, organically—not to be political, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Bucato, 280 Helms Ave., Culver City, 310-876-0286, bucato.la.