The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it a fantasy to wish for restaurants without TVs?

With screens pervasive in every other part of modern life, some diners don’t want them crashing an evening out. (Washington Post/iStockphoto illustration)

A few years back while on break, Kelly Young remembers pulling into an Italian steakhouse off Route 54 in Delaware. It was date night for him and his wife, Megan. They made their way to a table, sat down and, within seconds, realized they couldn’t eat there.

Over on a wall, “there was the biggest TV that I’ve ever seen,” Young recalls. “It’s like me, her and the TBS movie of the week.”

Media, whether it’s beaming on a wall or streaming on your phone, has become the insufferable party crasher at our table, and Young would like to show it the door. When I started hunting for questions for this mailbag column, he sent one via Facebook that struck a chord with many: I s it time for a backlash against TVs in restaurants and bars?

He even provided a hint: “I believe the answer is yes.”

It’s nearly impossible, I think, to discuss this subject without addressing the elephant in the room. You know the one: It’s gray, wrinkled and sagging a little around the eyes. Folks of a certain age remember when their experience at restaurants was not repeatedly interrupted by a Twitter alert or the news ticker at the bottom of a CNN broadcast. Some people pine for the days when their primary sources of engagement at restaurants were the food and the person across the table. At 51, Young is one of those.

Yet millions of millennials — you know, the generation that loves to dine out — basically grew up in the glare of an electronic screen, both large and small, and they’re comforted by the warmth of its blue glow. Some may even prefer it to flesh-and-blood company, or at least to the awkward give-and-take of human conversation.

Which can put restaurant and bar owners in something of a bind when it comes to televisions. (They have no control over smartphones, though some restaurants and bars have banned or limited their usage.) As much as owners may loathe the effect that the squawk box has on the ambiance of their place, some feel compelled to install one. A few owners have even fought over the issue.

“Overall I hate TVs in restaurants,” texted Rose Previte, owner of Compass Rose and Maydan in Washington, as she crossed the ocean on a flight to Japan. “At Compass Rose, though, my business partner felt strongly that we have one. I thought [the restaurant] was so pretty and meant to be a neighborhood gathering place that it broke my heart to think of having one. But with partnership comes compromise.”

The compromise that Previte reached with business partner Mike Schuster — a man who made his bones in the bar business, where TVs are as important as salty fries — is an elegant one. A single flat-screen, with an ornate frame around it, sits behind the bar. When the TV is off, it looks like a mirror. The TV, Previte says, is mostly off, except for major sporting events.

“The minute it goes on, everything changes,” Previte writes. “People stop talking, or talk but make less eye contact with each other.”

At age 39, Previte straddles the line between millennials and Gen Xers. She’s part of a small, perhaps growing, band that’s revolting against a mediated life. These revolutionaries are not just middle-age folks with wear on their tires, either. The younger generation is coming to grips with the potential side effects of a wired existence: anxiety, loneliness and depression, not to mention a loss of privacy and personal time. In his battle against the idiot box, Young has the mental-health community on his side: Less couch-potato time and more engagement in life appear to make you happier.

But restaurants and bars are not therapeutic settings, even if they make us feel good for a night. They’re businesses with all the anxieties and neuroses that go with running them. If installing a TV will increase the number of customers who enter their establishments, most owners, I presume, will call Best Buy in a heartbeat, especially in this competitive city, where even good restaurants can’t make a go of it.

Consider Ruth Gresser and her small Pizzeria Paradiso chain. A Baltimore native who didn’t grow up with a steady diet of television, Gresser operated her pizzerias for decades without a single TV. Then, in about 2012, she placed one at her Old Town restaurant. Seven years later, Gresser has installed flat-screens over the bars at every location, save for Dupont Circle, an intimate space that remains a boob-tube-free oasis.

To Gresser, 59, TVs were never part of the “entertainment value of restaurants, but it does seem that people of late are more involved in electronics, and that includes television,” she says. “So where you might have previously had a bar where they are talking to each other, it seems now like there’s a little bit of isolation that comes with our technological society.”

To frame this another way, the restaurant or bar owner who operates without televisions runs the risk of alienating a segment of the dining public that desires them. With the intense competition for diners, that may be an unacceptable risk for many. Then again, if there’s a trend that will bring comfort to Young’s troubled, media-saturated soul, it’s this: In recent years, chefs have been opening smaller, more personal restaurants with nary a TV in sight. Think the Dabney, Rose’s Luxury, Elle, Himitsu, Maydan, Little Serow, Centrolina, Bresca and countless others. But also keep this in mind: You’ll pay a higher price to eat and drink in these medialess environments.

So, to answer your question, Kelly, is it time for a backlash against TVs in restaurants and bars? Yes, it’s time. Just as it’s time to reduce the number of hours we spend on our phones. But the gulf between what we know is good for us and our actual behavior can be enormous. Combine that with an incentive for restaurateurs to cater to the TV-addicted among us, and I think heads in many of our drinking and dining establishments will remain largely in the same two positions: either tilted up to watch TV or bent down to scroll through our phones.