The rise of TV-free bars in the Twin Cities

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Merlin’s Rest, an 8-year-old pub on Minneapolis’ East Lake Street founded by British expats, is part of the quiet trend of bars without TVs.

Monday was a big sports day on TV. The Twins played their first game, the Wild had a chance to clinch a berth in the playoffs, and the NCAA men’s basketball championship went down, featuring the locally hated Badgers against nationally hated Duke. But in Merlin’s Rest pub, nobody noticed. Instead, people were drinking and eating and talking with each other, doing anachronistic things like making eye contact and holding their food with both hands.

Merlin’s Rest, an 8-year-old pub on Minneapolis’ East Lake Street founded by British expats, is part of the quiet trend of bars without TVs. Increasingly these days, you can find places carefully curated to provide oases within our media-soaked city. And while each of these bars has unique reasons for eschewing the screen, they share a belief that there’s something almost sacred about crafting conviviality.

The science of screens

In 1985, Joshua Meyrowitz wrote “No Sense of Place,” one of the definite works on how TV screens shape space. Meyrowitz’s key idea was that television (and all live media, to some extent) changes our everyday “situational geography” by doubling our sense of presence. While we watch TV we almost exist in two places at the same time: at the bar staring up at the screen, and at the game itself, which might be dozens or thousands of miles away. For a long time, this kind of dual presence was seen as eroding our traditional sense of place, coming at the expense of qualities like neighborliness.

But at the same time televisions foster comity around the screen itself. For example, think of a group of friends meeting up to watching a World Cup soccer match. In her book “Ambient Television,” the media scholar Anna McCarthy describes this kind of double effect as a “capillary-like action” that creates community. She writes:

“Spectacles on overhead screens both symbolically join spaces together in long-distance communication and fragment the social atmosphere of their immediate environments. … The paradoxical effect of the multiscreen apparatus is to anchor us in place, making us unable to take off.”

But as screens have proliferated, and particularly with the omnipresence of hyper-mobile smartphones, many of our “third places” (like coffee shops, restaurants, bars and libraries) seem more fragmented than ever. It’s easy to understand why some people might want places to escape from screens.

Craft beer but no TVs at Republic

Going “TV free” isn’t just the provenance of nostalgic Brits. There are a few other places scattered around the Twin Cities that share Merlin’s predilection for unmediated conversation. And the trend seems to be accelerating with the increasing interest in craft beers and cocktails, where connoisseurs spend more time appreciating things like flavor and complexity. When Matty O’Reilly bought the old Sgt. Preston’s bar on Cedar and Washington, one of the first things he did was to remove the dozen large TVs.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
While Republic does miss out during big sporting events, they more than make up the difference with steady customers who appreciate the food and great beer selection.

“We were on the fence about it at first,” O’Reilly told me this week. “We inherited a beautiful bar filled with stained glass, brick and wood. It seemed like the TVs distracted people from the natural look of the room.”

While Republic does miss out during big sporting events, they more than make up the difference with steady customers who appreciate the food and great beer selection. According to O’Reilly, Republic boasts about three times the sales volume as the sports bar before it. 

“I feel all of us are surrounded by and addicted to screens and quick access to information,” O’Reilly said. “I personally think there should be more spaces where you can just sit and talk and eat without distraction. I guess we’re happy with our decision.”

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
“We inherited a beautiful bar filled with stained glass, brick and wood. It seemed like the TVs distracted people from the natural look of the room.”

Amsterdam’s ceaseless social networking

Across town in downtown St. Paul, Jon Oulman shares O’Reilly’s animosity to the boob tube. Inside the misleadingly cavernous Amsterdam Bar and Hall on Wabasha and 6th street, there’s not a television in sight. (Indeed, when I went there to watch the Dutch world cup matches, they were shown via portable projector.)

“Digital Underground called television the drug of the nation,” Oulman told me, “These days, even when you put fuel in your vehicle, there’s a television screen screaming at you.”

Instead of televised sports, Oulman’s bars focus on events like trivia, live music, and even a “drinking spelling bee.” (Confession: I tried it once, and failed in the very first round. The pitfall was “khaki.”) 

“I realize for a lot of guys it’s hard to have anything to talk about unless they‘re talking about men wearing matching uniforms and getting physical,” Oulman said, smiling. “But I think people tend to interact with each other more when they don’t have a television to stare up at. People find things to talk about.”

A nostalgic future

It seems places like Merlin’s Rest appeal both to our nostalgic past and to our technologically saturated future. When Lee Tomlin and Bill Watkins designed Merlin’s, they explicitly tried to recreate the British pubs that they remembered as kids.

Tomlin recalled his local pub in Hartfordshire, with its lively mix of patrons. “There were no TVs in that pub; that’s what its all about,” he said. “A British pub is a community center; it just facilitates great conversation.”

According to Tomlin, when Merlin’s Rest first opened, the TV repairman came in from his shop across the street and sat down next to the rug cleaner from two blocks away. They ended up meeting each other and chatting for the first time, despite years of working on the same street.

“I don’t have anything against sports bars,” Tomlin told me during Tuesday’s whiskey tasting. “There should be a market for sports bars, and a market for non sports bars.”

These days the TV repairman might be out of business, but TVs are more common than ever. Except in a few small pockets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where you can still find places where “everybody knows your name,” but nobody knows the score of the game. 

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 04/10/2015 - 09:47 am.

    Also on the list:

    The Rabbit Hole and the Black Forest Inn. Great bars, no TVs.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/10/2015 - 10:15 am.

    Sans TV Sanity

    Imagine: Places to enjoy a pint and an old-fashioned chinwag.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/10/2015 - 10:24 am.

    Nice to hear

    TVs are every-bleeping-where, and it’s gone from annoying, past sickening, and lighting somewhere near madness-inducing. You can’t walk the skyways or put gas in the car without having video “entertainment” shoved down your throat. It’s nice to hear there are some places where one can go without that constant barrage.

  4. Submitted by Nickey Robo on 04/10/2015 - 11:41 am.

    Bars with TVs but no sports

    I moved here from Portland a few years ago, where I felt like there were a lot more bars that didn’t have TVs, so I was surprised by their omnipresence here. I can think of at least one great bar in Portland that had a projection screen they would use for big games or events but otherwise kept off. What I’m most confused by- and I would LOVE it if you talked to some bars about this if you do another story in the future, because I’m really confused by the practice- is bars that keep the TVs on all the time regardless of what’s on. I swear the Chatterbox in Minneapolis always has a TV on playing crappy cable channels like Spike and TBS, never sports. Do people like this? Does it add to the ambiance? Why bother? I say all of this as someone who loves TV, but I like to keep it at home 99% of the time.

    • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 04/10/2015 - 12:33 pm.

      I’m on exactly the same page. If there’s an event that a lot of people want to gather around, I don’t see any reason not have one TV or projector available. But so many of these bars have 20 TVs tuned to ESPN, where there’s just this pointless omnipresence.

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/10/2015 - 01:14 pm.

    Distracting

    I hate TVs in bars and restaurants/pubs. I find them distracting. I’ll be having a conversation and movement behind their head makes me look up, breaking the momentum of the conversation.

    I went to Merlin’s Rest the other day for the first time to have a geeky planning session for the location-based game by Google’s Niantic, called Ingress. We were able to have a reasonable planning session even while a group in the neighboring room was singing sea shanties. A couple of people at the bar played chess–we had to retrieve the board for them behind our table–and when they finished, we chatted briefly with one of them (a stranger to us) about how the game went. A few people pored over MR’s Scotch bible and tried some distinguished whiskeys. All with no TVs, and probably BECAUSE of no TVs. I’d definitely go back.

  6. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/10/2015 - 04:10 pm.

    Bars & TV

    I, for one, wouldn’t mind doing without the distraction of a TV. It seems every drinking hole, no matter how utilitarian or high end, feels they need to have at least a couple of the boob tubes over the par to dazzle the rubes and sports aficionados. I like to think I’m not the former and I’m definitely not the latter, so I just find them an annoyance when there’s real fun at hand to be had: talking to friends!

  7. Submitted by Will Stancil on 04/10/2015 - 04:22 pm.

    I am not actually a fan of these bars

    There’s only one problem here: Republic and Amsterdam are two of the lamest, most forgettable bars in the Twin Cities. They both seem premised on the idea that all you need to build a superior establishment is a dash of careful branding, some overpriced and underspiced entrees, perpetual dimness, and a generous helping of self-satisfied patrons who wouldn’t be caught dead in a sports bar. I like conversation as much as the next guy, but frankly, I find any period of time in either establishment to be a rather potent sedative; I’d sooner rather hang out a Buffalo Wild Wings. A great bar can have no TVs, but these bars seem to rely too much on the mistaken belief that “no TVs” automatically makes a bar great.

    • Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 04/12/2015 - 09:46 am.

      different strokes…

      …for different folks. I’m not much of a “bar” person (restaurant – yes!). I personally find Wild Wings too noisy (often with undisciplined kids), too pricey, and not great food. I do like Merlin’s!

  8. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 04/10/2015 - 06:02 pm.

    Old times!

    Oh for a bar with no TV, and with bartenders who aren’t constantly absorbed in their cell phones! Hey, maybe even a jukebox, if it’s not blasting at 92dB. I miss the old “watering hole” kind of bar. People screaming to be heard over 12 TVs tuned to different stations does NOT make for a pleasant or restful atmosphere.

  9. Submitted by Paul Strebe on 04/11/2015 - 01:56 pm.

    Except for soccer…

    Great piece. But Merlin’s DOES bring in a TV during the World Cup. Apparently, that is on a whole different level. This was confirmed the following year when I called to ask if they would be showing an (American) football playoff game They smugly responded that they didn’t have TVs. Ha!

  10. Submitted by Paul Wentzel on 04/11/2015 - 03:21 pm.

    Irony

    This article talks about how great it is to not have TV’s so people will enjoy each other more at the bar. The picture of the Republic shows exactly what’s happened. With the exception of the first two, it appears that everyone sitting at the bar is staring at a screen of some kind. They just all brought their own.

  11. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/12/2015 - 09:13 am.

    Dating Personal Devices

    Perhaps a wry smile is the best response to a guy who dates his micro screen. Doesn’t everyone, more or less? After all, isn’t this the current version of reading a favorite book or newspaper over a pint?
    A dude who must date his device is to be pitied…and ignored.

    Were I a publican, I’d feature my “Twitter Tankard” (“Cyber Soda for abstainers) and “Facebook Finger Food” at happy hour ,.

    Cheers!

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