Armageddon was on the television.
In this scene, Bruce Willis kneels and runs his fingers through an ashy black silt as the camera pulls into a close up. His eyes narrow from behind the glass mask of an astronaut suit. And then a commercial break. A man dressed as a cowboy is on the screen, in front a Pepto Bismol banner. He’s doing the charade motions for heartburn and indigestion. For diarrhea, he smiles and bends over sideways.
We ordered cheese.
We were at Royce, one of my favorite bars with one of my favorite burgers and one of my favorite bartenders, Joey Parazo in town. It’s the perfect size and feels like an old friend’s living room. There’s a portrait of a Labrador retriever above the fireplace, flanked by a big leather couch. On every other wall there is a large, flat-screen TV. They’re usually on mute while Joey plays well-curated cross-genre playlists from behind the bar.
I do have fond memories of these TVs. I remember the Cubs World Series games back in 2016. My friends and I stopped in on our way to a Halloween party, and the bar was packed full of Cubs jerseys and attentive eyes looking just slightly above everybody else’s heads at one of the three screens.
My friend Kent wore a black executioner hood and lifted up the bottom to take sips of a beer, which seemed to really upset a woman sitting next to us. She yelled at him to take it off. He did, and the Cubs immediately made an error. The woman and her boyfriend changed their minds and yelled at him to put it back on—an executioner’s rally cap. The crowd swayed and leaned forward as Chicago just barely pulled it off, and Kent managed to take a drink through the hood, leaving the foam imprint of a mouth on the outside of the fabric.
Those moments of excitement and camaraderie—a mass of worked-up people huddled around the glowing TV—are truly special. But it’s hard to remember them, months later, as something called Cake Boss plays on all of the TVs in Royce.
I bring all of this up because I have a hypothesis. I think a bar without TVs is better than a bar with TVs.
I’ve been flirting with this idea for a while, and decided to start the search for this mythical, cozy, TV-less bar. First up on my mental checklist was Ceol. The lighting is great, and the happy hour is pretty unrivaled—$3 pints and free popcorn. Ceol is frequently my go-to for an after-work meet up. (OK, I don’t have a job.)
Ceol’s one drawback is that it’s a little bit cavernous. On a weekday, especially if you show up with one or zero other people, there’s a small reminder that there is more room if you just had more friends. It’s a good bar, but it’s not the sacred place I’m looking for.
The word “pub” is short for public house. “Public” meaning it's a social institution and “house” refers to the room itself. It’s a home away from home. Across the street and down a few blocks from Ceol, Public House is another one without TVs. It’s a cement room with big communal tables on one side and a bench area with small two-tops on the right. The only thing resembling a TV is a glowing arcade hunting game in the corner.
The night I was in, the room was pretty empty. I read a book in the corner, and everyone was quiet. It’s not quiet on weekends.
Public House is close, but two bars in, and I’m starting to think this mythical bar doesn’t exist.
Death & Taxes meets most of my checklist for this cozy, dark, no-TV bar. But, seeing as I don’t have a job (mentioned above), I decided I could not afford one of their very delicious cocktails for this story, especially after dropping eight whole dollars between the other two bars.
So, I start reaching outside of the go-to midtown institutions—looking for something with atmosphere, something older.
I thought of Louie’s Basque Corner, but remembered the two flat screens behind the bar playing interviews with NFL players during the off-season. I thought of the Santa Fe, but they’ve been “temporarily closed” for quite a while, and I can’t remember if there’s a television in there. Coney Island has three TVs, I believe. Then I got it.
The Halfway Club.
Upon arriving, my friends grabbed a booth and ordered Picons and cold, red table wine in a carafe. Working on the prompt of “folkloric family stories” we all told tragic tales of our grandparents in an America we wouldn’t recognize. We made stuff up. We laughed. We ordered more wine.
And then I saw it in the mirror—a tiny TV, playing USA curling. It was high and in the corner, and though every bar stool was taken, only one person was looking up at it. I snapped back into the conversation but started mentally running through my favorite bars in the world.
The JT in Gardnerville—a small TV high up in the corner. Zach’s Lucky Spur in Kingston, Nevada—a small TV high up and in the corner. Bar do Biu in São Paulo, Brazil—a slightly larger TV, but high up in a corner and mainly playing concert DVDs or soccer games. I have seen all of these TVs turned off during business hours. It’s selective.
And that was all I needed to disprove my hypothesis. A bar with no TVs is not necessarily better than a bar with TVs. I guess it depends on how many, how bright they are, and what’s playing on them.
Back in Royce, The Green Mile started to play. Multiple people asked about it, and somebody launched into a conversation about films they’ve seen recently. There was a group sitting around the fire, debating a Marvel movie. I caught up with an old friend, and the TV slipped from focus.
I have a vision of the perfect Reno bar. It’s a small, dark room near the river with a flickering neon sign out front. It has booths, a la Shea’s Tavern, has leather furniture and dark wood, like Royce, and plays Thelonious Monk when it’s raining out—or Disintegration, but quietly. When it’s snowing it plays Fionn Regan—and on a hot summer night, Glen Campbell or Earth. And there’s a fireplace with real wood that the barback has to carry up from the basement. And, of course, there is no TV. This place is for drinking—and telling stories.
On second thought, maybe there is a small TV somewhere in a corner, ready to play something good, every now and then. But there’s a remote control on the bar with the power button clearly marked.