Illustration By Mark Roessler
Like some people can’t stand the stench of cigarette smoke and others pucker up when perfume or cologne permeate their airspace, I have a similar aversion to professional sports—particularly the televised variety. Unless it’s pornography, I simply can’t see the enjoyment in watching strangers exerting themselves physically in hopes of scoring.
But few others seem concerned about the growing prevalence of wide screen, high-definition athletics in public places. Rather, judging by how ubiquitous ESPN is these days, it would seem there’s a strong contingent out there demanding that restaurants and bars constantly expose all their patrons to a view of sweat-drenched, over-paid athletes—whether the patrons want it or not.
Last week, to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary, my wife and I packed the child off to stay with his grandparents and headed out to dinner. Though we knew it would bruise our budget, we decided to indulge ourselves and try the restaurant we’d most often heard praise lavished on—Chez Albert in Amherst, many times voted purveyor of the best French cuisine in the Valley. Our excitement was almost as palpable as our hunger.
As far as the food, drink and service were concerned, Chez Albert lived up to its reputation. The carefully crafted atmosphere, though, was seriously undermined by a pack of dribbling giants running around in the bar—not slovenly, over-active diners, but the professional basketball team on the big-screen television. No one but my wife and I were watching. We couldn’t avoid it.
We were seated in a window overlooking the town’s main drag. She faced the restaurant and kept tilting her head to the side so she could look at me without seeing the screen. I faced the window, but instead of a view of this quintessential New England college town framing my beloved’s face, reflected in the glass were sweeping vistas of a Technicolor basketball court overrun by panting competitors.
Presumably it’s different for others, but we found that this ambiance didn’t go so well with our oysters on the half-shell or the crème brulee we shared. If watching TV was what we had been after, for the price we paid for dinner, we could have gotten three months of cable instead.
What was most perplexing about this culinary debacle was that on its elegantly composed menu, Chez Albert insisted that diners not use Wifi devices during their meal lest they disturb the other patrons. Like someone who needs a nicotine fix or must make a cell phone call, shouldn’t sports fanatics also be asked to step outside if they simply need to know the score?
To be fair, Chez Albert is only the perpetrator of this dining crime I’ve most recently witnessed. Many of my favorite eateries share this guilt. Whenever my colleague and I dine at La Veracruzana, we try to get one of the tables that is just out of view of the soccer games being played seemingly non-stop in that restaurant.
And as excited as I can get heading into the Northampton Brewery to try Donald Pacher’s latest beer, I know there’s no escape from the multiple screens surrounding the bar.
It may be too far-reaching to ask that television be banned from restaurants, but let me suggest a compromise. As regularly as I see televisions playing in public spaces, I rarely see anyone actually watching. The televisions at the Brewery during lunchtime often aren’t even showing games, but have talk shows on, reviewing the week in sports. With the audio off, what the talking heads are going on about is unintelligible. Noiseless noise.
Instead of the default being that the televisions are always on, why not leave them off until someone requests otherwise? And if restaurant owners simply can’t handle having a blank screen hanging over their bar or dining room, they should take advantage of modern technology and display a slow-paced, understated slide show of images that might enhance the dining experience—works by local artist, travel snapshots, pictures of the Valley—rather than frantic scenes of perspiring players knocking a ball around some court thousands of miles away.•