When you pick up the menu, put down the cell phone.
That's the message from restaurant patrons in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, who told the most recent Zagat Survey that they think it's rude to text, tweet, check e-mail or talk on cell phones during a meal.
It may not matter. Tim Zagat, who founded the survey with his wife, Nina, said the presence -- and use -- of phones at the table is part of the changing culture of restaurants, like T-shirts instead of coats and ties. And while a few restaurants have rules against talking on cell phones, none regulate texting.
"You're not going to tell a young person not to text at a meal," he said in a telephone interview. "And if you do, you're likely to lose a client for life."
Sitting with two friends at a cafe in the Chelsea neighborhood recently, Beau Frank agreed that it's rude to use a cell phone at dinner -- though his was in front of him.
"It bothers me, but I would be the first to admit that I do it," Frank said. "I would never take a phone call, but I would answer a text."
Of the 40,569 surveyors who rated restaurants for the 2011 Zagat guide to New York City restaurants, 64 percent said that texting, checking e-mail or talking on the phone is rude and inappropriate in a restaurant. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, 67 percent and 63 percent of surveyors agreed, respectively.
Another 32 percent of New Yorkers said the behavior is acceptable in moderation, 2 percent said it is perfectly acceptable and 2 percent had no opinion.
The New York City guide, released last Wednesday, rates restaurants for food, decor, service and cost. It found that the sputtering economy continues to take a toll.
The average cost of a meal dipped by a nickel this year, from $41.81 to $41.76. Zagat said the only other time the cost declined in New York was after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Also dropping was the number of restaurant meals surveyors ate. Out of all their lunches and dinners in a given week, the meals that were eaten at or ordered from restaurants fell from 53 percent in the 2010 survey to 52 percent in 2011.
The drop in patrons means restaurants are less crowded. Just 23 percent of surveyors listed "noise/crowds" as the thing that irritates them most about restaurants, down from 33 percent two year ago.
The new edition of the flagship New York restaurant guide lists 2,115 eateries. The ratings are based on average scores of survey participants who voted on each establishment.
Gramercy Tavern repeated as the city's most popular restaurant. Part of Danny Meyer's growing empire, Gramercy Tavern was No. 1 in 2010 and has been either No. 1 or No. 2 in the most-popular category every year since 2000.
Diners said the flower-filled restaurant's ambiance, service and sophisticated new American cuisine justified the $112 average price tag.
Eric Ripert's French seafood temple Le Bernardin was rated best for food, also repeating its 2010 ranking.
The guide lists the top restaurant in each of 36 categories, including barbecue, lobster rolls and noodle shops.
Tim Zagat suggested that the presence of phones reflects an overall trend toward a casual atmosphere even in New York, where high-end restaurants once made men wear jackets and ties.
"Virtually no restaurant requires a tie anymore," Zagat said. "I call it the Los Angelization of New York."