“Hi, I’m Stacy, and I’ll be your server. Can I get you something to drink while you look at the menu?” she yelled over the high-decibel music. Over Stacy’s shoulder I could see seven large-screen TVs, each showing a different sports event — football, basketball, soccer, skiing, snowboarding, hockey and pingpong. Many more were scattered around the restaurant out of my line of sight.
It’s odd, but when we eat at home, I can’t tell you how often we turn on the television and the radio at the same time, or how often we turn up the music volume to 11. Oh, wait, I can tell you. Never.
It was hard to hear Screamin’ Stacy over the music, but I think she explained that the Drink o’ the Day was a chocolate milkshake made with double shots of brandy and tequila. Drink three, and the fourth one’s on the house. That sounded a little heavy for lunch, so we stuck with diet sodas.
While Stacy was fetching our drinks, we scanned the menus. I suddenly remembered reading that the filthiest things in most restaurants aren’t the bathrooms, but the menus. Unlike the bathrooms, the menus never get cleaned. Mine was a little sticky and smelled vaguely of popcorn shrimp. Maybe restaurants should put a bottle of Purell in the condiment tray along with the ketchup and hot sauce. Which brings up another question: How many people have handled that hot sauce bottle today, in the middle of flu season?
The giant televisions were starting to annoy me — not simply because they were on, but because of the lack of variety. Why wasn’t “The Voice” on any of the TVs? Or “The View”? Or “NCIS” or “Dr. Phil,” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or a thousand other shows? Why was it all sports? “Because you don’t need the sound to watch sports,” Sue said.
“You don’t need it to watch Dr. Phil, either,” I said. “You know he’s going to say to every guest, ‘How’s that working out for you?’ But why do they have TVs at all? We came to eat lunch, not watch highlights of last Saturday’s football games.”
“Most of the time you have to wait in line to get into this place,” Sue said. “It must be doing something right.”
You can’t argue with success, but is this how people decide where to eat now? By how many televisions the place has? And if televisions are the deciding factor, wouldn’t people want to watch something specific? What if the customer said, “I’ll give you a bigger tip if you put on ‘American Pickers.’” Would that attract more customers or drive them away?
Actually, there’s a good chance that the American pickers owned the place we were in. Everything on the wall looked as if it came out of one of those old barns full of junk they find in dirt-road country. There was an old Schwinn bike and a tin sign for Moxie hanging between two of the TV sets, and every other square inch of wall space was covered in memorabilia from the 1950s and ‘60s reminding people of a simpler time, a time before they put TV sets in restaurants.
Two guys were sitting at the bar drinking the brandy/tequila milkshakes and ignoring all the entertainment around them. They were intently watching something on their smartphones. I passed them on my way to try to wash some of the deadly menu viruses off my hands.
One guy was playing “Words With Friends”; the other was scoping out his Facebook wall. Now that almost everyone has a little TV with a thousand channels in their pocket, do we even still need the big ones?
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.