It’s a pleasant evening in a hip new restaurant in Omaha, and I’m sitting across from my dining partner. The food is good, the atmosphere fun, the company entertaining.
Slowly, though, my eyes keep drifting away from my companion and my attention away from our conversation, toward something else: the glowing television set hanging above the bar, playing a sporting event that I could not have cared less about but looked at anyway.
This scenario has repeated itself enough times in the past year that I got to thinking: Why do so many Omaha restaurants have television sets in the dining room? I wanted to find out.
I wondered if other customers demand television sets, so before I interviewed restaurateurs, I took to my Twitter account for a completely unscientific survey. Close to 20 readers responded in quick succession with a single voice: They don’t like televisions in restaurant dining rooms, either.
Said David McGee: “Only in a sports bar. Or Village Inn.”
Mark Andrews tweeted: “Utter contempt. Turn the TV off.”
Caroline Hinrichs said it’s a distraction during a nice dinner with her husband. One reader, Megan Hunter, said she chooses restaurants specifically because they don’t have TVs.
Most said they are OK with television sets in the bar area of a restaurant, and everyone who weighed in was fine with televisions in sports bars. A handful of people said they like being able to glance at a television while dining out to check the score of their favorite sporting event.
For restaurant owners, the decision to put televisions in dining rooms seems personal.
Dario Schicke, who runs Avoli Osteria and Dario’s Brasserie, both in Dundee, said he never even considered hanging televisions in his restaurants, not even in the separate bar areas that both have.
“If you put a 60-inch TV in Dario’s,” he said, “it’s totally going to kill the ambiance, even without volume. In a dining room, I think it’s just a disaster.”
Nick Bartholomew, who runs both Over Easy and the Market House, decided not to put televisions in his first restaurant, Over Easy. The space has lots of artistic detail, he said, which provides visual interest.
“By the time a diner orders, looks at the wood wall and the bar and the artwork, the food should be on the table,” he said.
He was also against televisions at Market House, which is in the Old Market, but his business partners disagreed. The restaurant has two television sets hanging above the bar. He said when Nebraska games are on or during the College World Series, the televisions are on.
“But the deal was if those things weren’t happening, or if we weren’t landing on the moon or something, the TVs would be off,” he said.
But in practice, the televisions are on more often than that. They were on during a recent brunch service. Bartholomew said they’re also often on during the restaurant’s happy hour, when lots of diners opt to sit at the bar and eat alone.
Schicke said he understood why diners eating alone might appreciate the television set — but not enough for him to ever install one.
“Someone who just stops by themselves and wants a glass of beer and a burger, I don’t see where that’s a problem,” he said. “But that’s the only occasion.”
Omaha restaurateur Greg Cutchall said solo diners at restaurants often do watch televisions, and that’s one reason he added larger screens to the midtown location of Jams and left the 11 sets in place at the second location of Jams, in the Old Market, which opened late last year.
Cutchall said that if he had opened the second Jams in an area that was less of an entertainment district than the Old Market, he’d probably have fewer TVs in the space.
“I guess I can’t imagine having a restaurant that serves alcohol that doesn’t have TVs,” he said. “I am sure there are. But we do believe the televisions are a draw.”
He said the volume on the televisions at the downtown Jams as well as the one near 78th and Dodge are generally off. By and large, the televisions in most of the restaurants Cutchall runs, including Burger Star and Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles, are tuned to sporting events.
There are a couple of exceptions. First Watch, another local breakfast spot, doesn’t have TVs, Cutchall said, nor do some locations of Paradise Bakery that he runs. Customers spend less time in those restaurants, he said, and the menus aren’t designed for lingering.
Cutchall said he’s sure some of his customers are bothered by the televisions.
“They might be trying to have dinner with their husband and he’s watching the TV,” Cutchall said. “But for most diners, I think its almost like background.”
Bartholomew said the Market House is taking a different approach to televisions on its outdoor patio, slated to open in the spring. The patio will have a projection television, he said, but instead of showing sporting events or cable news, it will beam old black-and-white movies onto a brick wall.
“It’s a kind of way to embrace it,” he said. “Maybe a little more creative and romantic.”
No matter what, Bartholomew said he always wants the TVs in his restaurants to be the afterthought.
“People aren’t coming for the ability to use a TV,” he said. “They are coming for the experience.”
That’s what Shicke thinks. When Dario’s opened, he said, he didn’t even want to hang art on the walls. Later, he hung a wall of mirrors over the banquette.
“People can create their own ambiance,” he said. “I would look out in the dining room and everyone had their own little experience. I decided to focus on service and food and let the customer create their own ambiance. That’s what they are paying for.”