More and more with the proliferation of huge televisions, eating out feels less like a dining experience and more like watching headlines in Times Square, writes columnist Jeff Houck.Iím sitting with my family in a nice restaurant in Brandon.
By nice, I mean that it charges more than I usually like to pay for food on a weeknight, but the menu has interesting options and the atmosphere is casual enough for me to not care that much about what Iím wearing if I bump into someone I know. Not that I care much about that at other times.
Also, the restaurant is dimly lit so as to put me in a Don Draper-like mood for buying cocktails and appetizers Ė items that, on a Thursday night, I donít need and really canít afford. Anyone who knows me knows I am the opposite of Don Draper.
All of a sudden, in the middle of dinner, I see a blinding light in my left eye. The entire dining room, which previously was lit at witness relocation wattage, is bathed in a piercing, nuclear-white glow. Not knowing if this is a grand mal seizure, a bolt of lightning, an impromptu rave or an earth-killing asteroid, I jerk my head to see the source of the blinding glare.
Three 52-inch flat-screen TVs are on in the SUV-size bar that overlooks the dining room.
The TVs are showing golf highlights on ESPN. On the screen, the camera is doing that thing where it follows the ball from the ground to the sky. Apparently this ball was chipped with a Callaway 9 iron from the fairway rough directly onto the surface of the sun.
I stop eating. My focus isnít on the food. Itís on sunscreen and laser eye correction. The entire dining room, which at one point was dark enough for a doomsday prepper, now feels like a bare-bulb interrogation chamber.
I donít know when it happened that restaurants chose TV over ambiance, but it needs to stop. These days, with the proliferation of televisions big enough to cause an eclipse, eating away from home feels less like a dining experience and more like Iím watching headlines in Times Square.
I say this as someone who grew up in a home where the TV was never allowed on during dinner unless there was an absolutely important football game that my father had money on. I say this as someone who now, on most nights, eats like a mindless drone in the family roomís comfy chair while enjoying the condescending tones of Alex Trebek.
I also say this as someone who stood slack-jawed a decade ago after first setting foot inside Barnacles in Brandon and witnessing firsthand its then-staggering collection of 450 televisions showing all manner of sporting events. If a man can feel true love for a place, it happened at that moment for me.
But Barnacles and the like are places where TVs serve a purpose. They provide an electronic hearth to gather round with others who are equally starved for entertainment, adult beverages and delicious empty carbohydrates. There are times when a personís soul needs to watch Bassmasters, the X Games and figure skating simultaneously while coating the mouth and fingers with the exotic sauces of a chicken wing and screaming at referees who cannot hear you. I understand that need all the way to my marrow.
But when Iím paying $25 for a plate of food, I donít want to feel as if Iím eating at Best Buy. I want the sultry lighting. I want the low hum of conversation in the room. I want to feel as though Iím there to nourish my soul or discover a new flavor or enjoy dazzling service, not as if Iím waiting on gate information for a connecting flight to Cleveland.
If itís true that we first eat with our eyes, my eyes want to be dazzled by whatís on the plate, not by the highlights from ďRuPaulís Drag Race.Ē It boggles my mind to know that restaurant owners will spend millions to create a safe, warm, inviting space for their customers, only to trash it up with the mirrored ball of cable television.
Goliath TVs may have been a novelty at one time, but they are everywhere now. If I wanted to watch one, I would have stayed at home. All the entertainment restaurants need to captivate their customers is already being consumed. I tune it in with a knife and a fork and a glass.
Now, if youíll excuse me, I have to use my phone to upload a photo of my meal to Facebook. This is very important. It will only take a second.