On a busy Thursday night, the Ale House Columbia vibrates with energy. At the bar and in the dining area, tables are packed with friends and families chatting away. Servers hustle from table to table delivering drinks and appetizers. And just above eye level, all around, dozens of televisions flicker.
The decision to include lots of TVs in the restaurant, which opened in late 2012, was customer-driven, says managing partner Greg Keating. "It's about giving people what they're looking for," he says. "At lunchtime, it's the stock market, current events, news — much like what you'd have on at home to keep in touch. In the evening, we shift our focus to sporting events."
At the Ale House, television sparks conversations, says Keating, and lets diners catch up with the world at large while they dine.
But not everyone is completely sold on the value of TV in restaurants.
"Do you want to actually talk with people at dinner — have real conversations?" asks Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing partner at Context Research Group, a Baltimore-based ethnographic consulting firm. "When there's a TV present, you can't avoid it being the center of attention or a major distraction. That's not always a bad thing, but sometimes TV-free is a good idea."
Tony Foreman, who owns five Baltimore restaurants with partner Cindy Wolf, observes that as a society, our social skills appear to be declining.
"We like to be in company — in physical space with other people," he says. "But we're beginning to become less socially skilled than we were."
Foreman believes that restaurants without TVs offer diners an opportunity to "practice social skills. To make small talk. It's an underrated skill."
Whether at home or out, people often find themselves eating in front of a screen. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 67 percent of Americans said in 2012 that they regularly watch TV while eating dinner. However, in the same survey, 49 percent of Americans said they think they watch too much TV. It's not surprising, then, that there is some backlash against the apparent trend toward TVs in restaurants.
Televisions in restaurants are not a new phenomenon, says Brian Laug, principal of Heath Design Group, a Baltimore architecture and interior design firm that has worked with restaurant clients like the Greene Turtle, Lemongrass and Tsunami.
"When TVs became a staple in the American household, takeout dining became wildly popular," he says. "The addition of TVs in restaurants was an initial response to that loss of dine-in customers."
Over the past several decades, Laug says, the appearance of TVs in restaurants has steadily risen, and they are now nearly ubiquitous. Restaurants now compete with home televisions as well as smartphones and other types of technology, he said, so proprietors see the addition of television screens as a way to keep people connected to the restaurants.
"Recently, customers have started to complain that this trend is intrusive to their dining experience, which has given restaurateurs reason to rethink the inclusion of televisions in their design scheme," he says.
Winston Blick, who co-owns the Hamilton restaurant Clementine with partner Cristin Dadant, has a strict no-TV policy. "We'd rather have people come to our restaurant to eat food and enjoy what we do," he says. "It's more personal and intimate that way."
Foreman agrees. "There's a reason you go to a restaurant," he says. "To take in the place together with whoever you're choosing to socialize with. The purpose probably doesn't have a lot to do with ESPN."
Some restaurateurs think diners' attitudes toward televisions are influenced by age. Brad Black, the manager of the Prime Rib in Baltimore, says that he thinks the restaurant's one TV in the bar is used more by younger diners. "I think it's generational," he says. "The younger clientele watches a little more. We have people who know the O's are playing and will get up to check the score."
The Prime Rib added television just three years ago. "Overall, I think it's a plus," says Black, noting that people don't come to the restaurant specifically to watch TV, but it is convenient for diners who want to keep up with some events.
At Chazz: A Bronx Original in Harbor East, televisions were incorporated into the decor for more than sports or news. "They help tell the story of the restaurant," says Brian Thim, design director for Rita St. Clair Associates, the Baltimore interior design and architecture firm responsible for the restaurant's style. Some of Chazz's televisions, located at eye level in dining areas, often air "A Bronx Tale," the movie starring restaurant owner Chazz Palminteri. "When we designed that restaurant, each area was almost like a little stage set," says Thim.
Even restaurateurs that are primarily anti-TV concede that there is a place for televisions in some eateries. Though most of Foreman and Wolf's restaurants are TV-free, when they opened their fifth restaurant, Johnny's, in Roland Park in 2012, they included two small TVs behind the bar and one larger TV in the cafe portion of the restaurant.
"We'd like people to come to Johnny's to use it like home," Foreman says. "When you have breakfast in the kitchen and you turn on the TV, that's not unusual. It's not a social event. It's a more relaxed situation."
At Johnny's, Foreman says, televisions remain on mute. Other restaurants have gotten creative, developing ways to incorporate TVs in the most unobtrusive way. At Ouzo Bay in Harbor East, two televisions, mounted above the bar, are hidden by covered panels, says Rita St. Clair's Thim. "But if there is something really worthwhile on TV, they open that portion of the cabinet up," Thim says. "It gives them the best of both worlds." Thim says the development of flat-screen TV technology has made creative solutions such as this one more feasible.
Ultimately, diners seek out different experiences at different times, so there is room for both TV-centric and TV-phobic restaurants. "It really depends on the type of restaurant," says Thim. "At restaurants like Petit Louis, there's a certain charm and character they're trying to capture. A TV might be nice, but it would be foreign within the design."
But at a more casual restaurant, like the Ale House, televisions are a welcome part of the scene — and even a source of the buzz.
TV's affect on eating habits
The intersection of television and dining has been a hot topic for decades, with numerous scientific studies devoted to exploring the influence of TV on eating and health. Most recent studies suggest that spending too much time in front of the TV can have a detrimental impact on eating choices. Here are a few recent findings:
Eating more but enjoying less: According to a 2012 study conducted in the Netherlands, when people ate while conducting other tasks — including watching TV — they rated the food they were eating as less intensely flavorful, and they consumed more of it.
Unhealthy choices: A study published by British researchers in 2011 found that people who watch more TV were more likely to consume energy-dense snacks, drinks and fast food but less likely to eat fruit and vegetables.
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Kids eat more: A Pennsylvania State University study published in 2006 found that children ages 3 to 5 ate more while watching television than when they were not watching TV. The study's authors believed that those watching TV may have been less likely to realize they were full. A 2004 Stanford University study, building on previous research linking increased television viewing with childhood obesity, found that elementary school-age kids eat almost 20 percent of their daily calories while watching TV.