Real People, Real Places

Ah, North Beach—San Francisco birthplace of the Beats. Historical hotspot of American intellectual counterculture. Home of jaunty staircase alleyways, Barbary Coast burlesques, walk-up crash pads, radical bookstores, postwar-era Italian cafes crammed with wool-capped characters and unwashed poets, and...

Television. Everywhere. Widescreens, flat-screens, retina-scorching digital screens large enough to hold up the walls in some places. Screens showing you food you’re about to eat (or, strangely enough, have just eaten). Walk into that neighborhood bistro, that old-school bar, and four, five, six flat-screens could give you a blinding welcome.

So, what’s with all the television in the restaurants here, and in more and more restaurants across the country? After a day spent staring at glowing rectangles – at our workstations, our laptops, at our iPhones – do we really need more adrenaline-pumping, jump-cutting media excitement as we savor a meal, take in a novel atmosphere, and try to reconnect with friends?

That place we once turned to as an escape from the stimulation of the outside world has now become one more battleground for our attention span. Is television in restaurants and cafés an inevitable part of the twenty-first-century landscape, or are enough of us annoyed by it to actually form a response?

A not-intimate moment in Pantarei

“They Don’t Match”

The Pantarei restaurant on Columbus Avenue embodies the fashion-forward dining experience that visitors come to North Beach for—the kind of hip place that begs for the high-tech excitement of a flat-screen.

Manager Lorenzo Lecce insists that the 52-inch TV over the bar, visible from the whole restaurant, is strictly for special events. On this Sunday afternoon, however, routine soccer matches are on heavy rotation—probably because (male) customers asked for them.

But ironically, neither Lecce nor the patrons are necessarily TV-in-restaurant believers.

“TV and restaurants, they don’t match,” says Lecce, expressing a personal preference for a media-free dining environment.

“Having a TV in a restaurant just isn’t classy,” opines one Pantarei bar patron, a former bartender and server with years behind him in the food industry.

But even the best of us are seduced by the screen. As the sun sets over North Beach, Pantarei switches on the Academy Awards, and this author finds herself completely bewitched by the glowing rectangle of high-definition, red-carpet glory blazing out from over the bar.

Factor in the fine wine and pasta, the mod décor, and the attractive young staff, and I feel I’m part of Oscar-time glamour in a way I just wouldn’t have felt if I’d stayed at home. Because we’re all watching, the TV ceases to be background noise and becomes the focal point of conversation and conviviality.

Cafe Divine

"Your TV Programming Needs"

At Pantarei, huge as the flat-screen is, it is only on one wall. You can face away from it.

Not so with the Healdsburg Bar & Grill, some 65 miles north of San Francisco. This upscale pub has papered every wall with flat-screen after massive flat-screen, and unless you eat outside (which is a tall order in winter) there is nowhere to run or hide if you don’t want a helping of HDTV overload with your burger. 

Meanwhile, at the Denny’s diner chain, customers are treated to the cranked-up sounds and sights of Denny’s-branded programming, which includes sports clips, travel features, music videos, a news crawl, weather, the time, and fairly constant Denny’s ads and logos. Lest you miss anything while nature calls, the soundtrack is piped into the bathroom, too.

Even if you don’t have sound to cope with, there is the blinding effectiveness of today’s television technology. Gone are the boxy, easily ignored boob tubes stuck in the corner of the bar. Having a TV in your restaurant’s bar is reasonable, but install the latest model and the brilliant, high-resolution square footage hogging the wall may very well dominate the dining area too.

So why have a TV or ad screen in your restaurant at all? DirecTV promises to “[Meet] Your Restaurant’s TV Programming Needs” and tells restaurant owners that diners like you and me will “be impressed by the satellite television…at your restaurant.” For eateries struggling in a tough industry and coping with a brutal economy, it’s a tough offer to refuse.

In a café setting, it’s more likely that the flat-screen behind the cash register, or in the coffee room, will be the doing of a company like RMG Networks. Knowing we’re “elusive consumers” burnt out on ad messaging, RMG promises the advertisers who come to them that their “location-based audience networks” will hit us with ads when we’re at our softest, whiling away an idle moment in line for a pastry.

Once you get that pastry, try to tune out the TV: It turns out that watching while eating is terrible for you. A study by Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine in 2000 found that overweight children were much more likely to eat in front of the TV than normal-weight children. “People who watch television while eating…tend to be unaware of what they eat, which encourages overeating,” says nutritionist Dr. Karen Cullen. Not only that, but mixing mealtime with tube-time cuts out important opportunities for parents to chat and bond with their kids.

The CDC’s online series Preventing Chronic Disease published a study in April 2006 that would seem to bear this out. It showed that those who watch more than two hours of TV per day had higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, or high blood cholesterol. The longer subjects spent each day watching TV, the higher their calorie intake and the less nutritional their food choices were.

“People Are Lonely”

In all likelihood, it’s not just the media industry that’s pushing for TV in restaurants. We’re changing, too. TV is now a mental comfort food.

“I guess [TV] makes people feel at home now,” says David Wright (left), owner of North Beach’s Café Divine, a very deliberately TV-free zone. “Everyone gets nervous [without TV], we’re unconnected. Whether it’s TV or a smart phone or an iPod, they’ve got to be plugged in somehow. It’s addictive stuff.”

Café Divine isn’t alone in saying no to TV. Other bar and restaurant owners are rejecting the flat-screens and positioning their establishments as shareable spaces. “The people who come here,” says Shawn Magee, owner of the Amnesia bar on San Francisco’s Valencia Street, “don’t want TV at all.”

One step inside Amnesia and you see why. Red lights pouring out of Barbary Coast-decadent lamp fixtures drench all patrons in an exotic, sensual light. Swathes of crimson gauze and velvet deck the ceiling and walls. Behind the bar a bank of souvenirs, sketches, postcards, and lost-and-found gewgaws personalize the counter. Onstage you’re likely to see anything from a freak-folk band to a string quartet to a traveling circus.

“I want people to feel an ownership in it,” says Magee, who never once considered putting a TV in Amnesia. Part of Magee’s inspiration when opening the club in 2000 was his grandfather’s Elks Club lodge in the old-industry town of New Rochelle, NJ. There was a bar but no TV, and members’ families all got to know each other.

“I always loved that place. There was an intense sense of community.” He adds sadly, “I’m sure there’s a TV there now. It’s not a social activity anymore once a TV is involved.”

Magee believes community is making a comeback. “People are searching it out. People are creating community, creating events, just to get out of the house and meet each other. People are lonely.”

Does he ever feel at an economic disadvantage for not having a TV? “On Super Bowl Sundays or the night of a big game. But there are ways to get around that.”

Café Divine’s Wright should know. This Super Bowl Sunday found him hanging a banner outside advertising the café as the “Super Bowl Free Zone,” positioning this neighborhood bistro as a guaranteed oasis from screaming announcers and blinding screens.

Wright is dismayed by the TV-in-restaurants phenomenon. “To go out to dinner and have this TV blaring, it just kills me. It becomes more important than the person you’re with.

“Part of going to a café is watching what’s going on around you. It’s seeing and being seen.”

There’s plenty to see at Divine, whose huge arched windows look right out on Washington Square. High ceilings, cream-colored walls, and splashy paintings make this place classy without being cold, an ideal first-date spot and a cozy venue for quiet live jazz on a rainy evening. TV of any kind would exorcise the friendly ghost of North Beach past that lingers here, the inheritance of refined rebellion and romance.

"Turn it Off"

I asked the National Restaurant Association whether they’ve received any complaints from consumers about TV appearing in their restaurants of choice. “Not that I have heard of,” replied Director of Media Relations Annika Stensson via an email, “but it would probably be addressed right then and there by turning down the volume or turning the TV set off.”

Anyone who has actually tried to ask this favor is familiar with the blank stares, knitting of baffled brows, or replies of “We have no control over it” that staff usually give you if you dare complain about placement of a blaring television in your restaurant, airport, elevator, church lobby, or anywhere else. We’re Americans, after all, and this is TV we’re talking about. Its very presence is supposed to silence you. Not liking it makes you a sort of person without a country.Which is why it’s likely that many more are annoyed with the restaurant TV outbreak than are willing to raise voices about it.

Radio host Robert Emmett is a friend of mine and a man in search of soul. Each Saturday, from Foothill College’s KFJC 89.7fm, he hosts the beloved Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show, including a mini-travel feature called Cool, Secret Places that highlights little-known Bay Area destinations still radiating that untainted sense of place and uniqueness.

Naturally he’s tried to complain about TV in public places. “They look at you with a blank expression,” says Emmett, “as if you are the only one that’s ever brought it to their attention, and then that roll of the eyes.”

But perhaps a new spirit is rising. “When I go in a bar or restaurant with a TV,” says Josh Mulholland, another friend and a Bay Area writer and teacher. “I only stay long enough to tell them why they aren’t getting my money.”

Could Robert and Josh be planting the seeds of a new, customer-drive movement to reclaim our public spaces from media saturation? Their experience suggests that we have to develop language and communication methods that don’t feel uncool or uncomfortable, when we express a preference for a media-free environment.

It might start with supporting our strongholds: Finding those places in your town like Café Divine and Amnesia that just say no to television, and giving them our business. Take all our friends there. Have our club meetings there. Use our online social networks. Demonstrate that competitors lose your dollars when they bombard you with the tube. Tell friends and associates about why your money goes where it does. Make the value of Real Places a conversational talking point.

But we might also find the courage to communicate to the management. Few of us are the “speaking up to manager” type, even if we’re being complimentary. That’s why, in the course of writing this article, I devised a polite little invention called the Dollar Hollar. The idea is very simple, so you can make your own.

The Dollar Hollar is a message to every conversation-friendly, media-free place of eating or drinking who need to know how much you appreciate their hospitality, sense of community ritual, confidence in their sense of place, and atmospherics. They represent the model public space, so we need to reinforce their values before they capitulate to the temptation of television.

Theoretically, the “please get rid of your damned TV” Dollar Hollar would come in handy, but we’re not swatting at gnats. We’re snowballing a positive ideal that needs to supplant the dominant weak and useless one.

Just take a piece of paper about 5.5 inches tall that says, “Thanks for Being a Real Place” at the top. Underneath, put four little boxes to check: No TV or TV Only Visible in Bar Area; No Advertising Screens or Other Distractions; Conversational Atmosphere; and (the most important one) I’m Going to Tell My Friends About This Place. Hopefully you’ll be honestly placing a checkmark by all four.

Fold the Dollar Hollar around your tip so that “Thanks for Being a Real Place” shows at the top with the money right under it. Leave your tip that way, whether on the table or folded up in the counter jar.

This does several things. It announces to restaurants that there are people out there with disposable income looking for some peace and quiet and conversation, and the industry ignores us at their peril. The connection to cold, hard cash is palpable: The words “Real Place” hang right over that flash of green.

The Dollar Hollar is also meant to promote concrete language for something most of us find hard to describe or speak out about: that particular quality of a place that makes us feel welcome, that in a hectic world connects us with our humanity again.

Just another night at Amnesia

In world crisis, the gradual disappearance of little community-fostering places in our localities seems to be a relative trifle, something hardly worth defining or mentioning, something we just have to accept.

But these places are about nothing less than our day-to-day mental health. If everywhere becomes a sports bar, then there’s no room to relish that eye contact with our waitperson, that funny remark from the next table over, the awkwardness of that couple over there on their first date, even the annoying laugh of the dude behind you. We miss out on the theatre of being human, on the realization that anywhere can be important if there are people in it.

A sense of answerability to our fellow person, however abstract, informs our decisions as citizens, family members, workers. But a restaurant using TV as a supposed atmospheric shouts to us: The people around you are not worth noticing or listening to; you have nothing to say; you are scared of silence and your own thoughts; we have provided thoughts and feelings for you and your fellow diners, since they don’t have thoughts or feelings either. Enjoy your meal.

We don’t have to accept this message. Speak up. You’re not crazy or alone, you’re just real. And real people need real places.

Next: Four Characteristics of Real Places 

183

Don't miss a Shareable thing!

Get Shareable in your inbox once a week

.