The Few, the Proud: Pubs That Still Resist the Pull of the Television Screen
In this season of relentless doomsday news alerts, hoist a glass to New York’s increasingly rare social backdrops: saloons that have resisted television’s push into every corner of life.
At the Swift Hibernian Lounge, for one, Julia Messmer sipped a pint of Original Sin Hard Cider, unlighted by the glow of a single video screen. Neither Dow Jones nor March Madness made the slightest inroad on conviviality.
Then there was Bernard Kandler at the northernmost outpost of the Manhattan bar, in the spot he has habitually occupied for 12 years. He was holding forth splendidly — uninterrupted by Fios Guy or the visage of Alex Rodriguez — in the company of a friend who would rather not give her name, thank you very much.
“Not having television — that’s the pure bar environment, where conversation is most important,” said Danny McDonald, 43, co-owner of the lounge, at 34 East Fourth Street in NoHo. “We’ve never had a television because we wanted to inspire something that is close to the conviviality of pubs in Ireland.”
He shook his head. “And now even pubs over there are putting in TVs.”
While the New York State Liquor Authority permits the flow of alcohol in 10,320 bars, taverns and food-service establishments in the city, it does not track how many have rebuffed the Screen.
But sales representatives of the Brooklyn Brewery report that televisionless bars in the five boroughs are a vanishing species, said Stephen K. Hindy, the company’s president. His employees visit thousands of bars while tending the taps dispensing the company’s brews.
“The older I get, the more I look for a place where you can hear yourself think — a clean, well-lighted place,” said Mr. Hindy, channeling Hemingway.
Indeed, given the ubiquity of sports-addicted customers, “television is the standard,” said Patrick Daley, owner of Kettle of Fish, a venerable West Village hangout at 59 Christopher Street. It flaunts two front-of-house televisions and one in the back room, and for Green Bay Packers games, Mr. Daley goes so far as to drag out six more. Blame the diehard Cheeseheads who line up for hours before the bar opens on game days.
But even in fanless pubs, “there is a lot of pressure to televise the World Series and the Super Bowl,” said Mr. McDonald of the Swift, who will ardently recite verses by the Anglo-Irish satirist and cleric, Jonathan — who inspired the bar’s name — at the drop of a tap handle.
“But the onus is on the publican,” he said, “to supply something that not everyone can get at home.”
Even McSorley’s Old Ale House, a Manhattan saloon immortalized by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker, has succumbed to the television invasion — with limits.
“We have one, but it’s usually not on,” said Bepe Zwaryczuk, a bartender. “If an airliner lands in the Hudson? Hey, it comes on.”
The legendary White Horse Tavern at 567 Hudson Street in the West Village, magnet for such literary boozers as Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac, has a television. Even the Lion’s Head, that famous writers’ watering hole, had one in its last days before it closed in 1996 (Kettle of Fish now occupies the space).
Of course, some upscale elbow-bending oases have vigilantly snubbed the television age, including the 80-seat Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel, reopened after a lengthy renovation. And in the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel, “there would be an uprising if we dared to even think of putting a TV there,” said Benjamin Sinclair, director of its sales and marketing.
Downscale televisionless watering holes may be more exotic, but word of mouth keeps customers coming. “People can’t stop looking at TV in a bar — they stare at it like zombies,” said Ms. Messmer, 42, who works for a legal publisher and has been devoted to the Swift for a decade.
Mr. Kandler, 55, a leather-goods manufacturer, added that television “is distracting, glaring, too bright.”
He paused, without commercial interruption, to sip and reflect. “Actually, the only good thing about a TV is that if you want to dump a girl, you can pretend to be watching it,” he said, smiling. His companion laughed.
New York was once dominated by a tavern culture, “and television was one of the things that cut into the social function of the saloon,” said the writer Pete Hamill, a chronicler of drinkery who wrote a 1994 memoir, “A Drinking Life.”
He argued that television was, even worse, a destroyer of an entire ambience that extended into the neighborhoods of New York.
“When I went away to the Navy in 1952, everyone sat outside on summer nights, and we had an aural culture,” he recalled, and though radio was endemic, “people made their own entertainment.”
But “when I came back in early 1955, all of them were gone because television had come along,” Mr. Hamill said. “There was a blue glow in the apartments upstairs, and a blue glow in the bars. And no one on the streets. Television had won.”
Mr. Hamill gave up drink and the drinking life 36 years ago because “I had come to the end of it,” he said, adding that “with friends, I still visit pubs, but they all have TVs.”
Well, not all: At Beer Table, on Seventh Avenue near 14th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Justin Philips, the 30-year-old owner, said having a TV at his 20-seat bar would be downright antisocial. “Occasionally I’ll get a phone call asking if we have a TV for some sports event, and I have a hard time not laughing,” he said.
And at Scratcher, on East Fifth Street just two blocks from the Swift, “we have a dart board, pool table and a juke box,” said Todd Eddings, a 29-year-old barkeep. “But our customers go somewhere else if they want a TV.”