One of the things I like about film noir from the 1940s and ’50s is how there’s usually a bar, café, restaurant or nightclub that functions as a portal to danger for the steel-hearted, world-weary protagonist. There, his fate is often intimated by a haunting torch song performed by a sultry chanteuse leaning against a piano. The tables have candles on them, cocktails are served in proper glassware and the conversation is subdued. You might see a murder in one of these establishments, but never a television.
It’s true that those interiors were three-walled Hollywood fabrications, but they were based on real places. Most of the bars and cafés that formed the basis for those dreams are gone or ruined now, but there are a few extant throwbacks here and there, and I seek them out. One of my favorites— speaking of Hollywood—is Musso & Frank Grill, “the oldest restaurant in Hollywood.” It opened in 1919 and hasn’t changed much at all. There are old-world menu options, coat racks at the booths, elegant wood décor and smartly uniformed waiters who have worked there for decades. But the best thing about Musso & Frank is that they never bothered to put a television in there.
When you sit at the bar at Musso & Frank Grill, you might be sitting on the same barstools where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall perhaps took a load off from shooting To Have and Have Not to clink martinis and fall in love. In that movie, it’s the bar inside the Hotel Martinique where they meet. In Casablanca, the woman is Ingrid Bergman and the bar is Rick’s American Café. In that picture, Bogart came up with the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid”—it wasn’t in the script—and we can easily imagine him repeating those iconic words to his future wife at the bar at Musso & Frank. In this scenario, we can be certain he’s indeed looking at her and not a Dodgers game.
Another bar as awesome as Musso & Frank is Tosca in San Francisco’s North Beach. It so successfully retains its 1930s ambience that it feels haunted. There’s opera on the jukebox, and chocolate brandy drinks are lined up along the long, elegant old bar. It’s always dark inside, and, of course, there’s no TV.
You get the point: I like endearing aspects of our culture that are fading away, and a main one is a bar without a television.
Now, mind you, I’m not an anti-TV crusader. TV offers higher-quality storytelling than the movie industry these days, which mostly turns out gazillion-dollar computer-generated comic books. TCM alone is worth whatever concomitant headaches the ubiquity of TV has caused.
And as a Padres fan, I like watching games with friends over a few cheap beers and fried snacks now and then at a rowdy sports bar. My personal favorite is Kristy’s MVP on Midway Drive. If you’ve never seen the bar’s namesake punish a naughty customer with a wooden paddle, put it on your San Diego bucket list. What would Kristy’s be without TVs? Just a bar owned by a woman who likes to spank the clientele.
But here’s my point: Not every single nook or cranny in the universe needs to have a TV stuffed into it, and, in particular, not every place that pours grownup drinks. Where’s San Diego’s Musso & Frank or Tosca? The lobby of the La Valencia Hotel, for one. But the Babcock & Story bar in the Hotel Del Coronado is littered with obtrusive flat-screen TVs that have forever compromised that once-grand establishment. The benefit of TV to the sports-loving customer is completely overwhelmed by the cost of TV to the integrity of the bar.
I’m a crusader for this cause. I have a Facebook page called “Bars without televisions” that I don’t update very often because there are so few places to talk about. I should give my ex-girlfriend credit—she came up with the idea. In a bar without a TV, I can sip my martini and remember that time that she and I—never mind. Televisions in bars coddle you with forgetting; television-free bars invite you to remember the art of communicating or contemplating a dream.
Bars like the ones in San Diego’s Starlite and Jaynes restaurants, to name two favorites, are run by owners who get it. A café or bar alive with the sound of conversation creates a qualitatively different mood than one burdened with the sound of truck ads. But for every one bar without a TV, there are 5,000 others that have them. The future looks dim.
I’m writing this column at Rudford’s, an oldschool, TV-free diner on El Cajon Boulevard. In the booth next to mine, however, is a more desirable distraction: two stylish, beautiful young women, probably in their early 20s, both of whom would’ve looked perfect sipping daiquiris at the Hotel Martinique in To Have and Have Not. They’re remarkably articulate and soft-spoken. They don’t seem Californian at all. Where are they from? Were they transported from 1949 to star in my column?
I introduce myself and ask them a simple question: Would this diner be better or worse with a TV?
“Worse,” one of the beauties said. I asked why, and she responded, “It would take away from the old diner ambience of the place.“ “I don’t like the way things are going,” the other beauty said. “Everything’s depersonalized. People don’t talk to each other.”
“We work in a place where there are TVs everywhere,” the first beauty said.
“People want to sit right by the TVs,” the other added.
“I have this device called a TV-B-Gone,” said the first. “Sometimes I turn off the TVs in bars.”
There may be hope for the future after all.