I spend a lot of time in cheap, no-atmosphere joints and a very little bit in high society. What Anna’s Taqueria and the Locke-Ober Cafe have in common, other than my money, is a lack of flat-panel televisions and sports, and somewhere in between are those scattered Cafe Algiers and Enormous Rooms, whose rarefied vibes similarly conspire to block that intrusive broadcast signal.
It’s this that puts another kind of establishment into high contrast: the stylish eatery with pretensions to elegance — but an ambiance overrun by teams of hulkish men chasing footballs, baseballs or pucks across garish green and white.
Cambridge 1, the wood-and-slate pizza grill in Harvard Square; News 24/7, the sleek all-purpose clubhouse open around the clock, kind of, near South Station; and Teatro, the gleaming technicolor window on the Boston Common. They have all gouged open their souls to let in the evil eye of ESPN. It hunts through the austerity of Cambridge 1, the careful plantings of News 24/7, the azure glow of Teatro and insinuates itself, distracts, dominates. Ugh.
Greater Boston is sports-crazed. But are these establishments so unsure of their appeal that they must sell themselves so cheap? They’re demure and self-possessed as you approach, but when you’re actually inside you find those damnable screens coming on to you, an oppressive and constant too-wet drunken kiss. No self-control, no self-esteem, they go all the way and beg you to see them again. But the sports television they offer is exactly what’s offered at countless other bars and restaurants across the region, a reflection of — prepare for a shift in metaphor — the great American entrepreneurship that says you can take anything and put a clock in it. These businesses should think instead about what sets them apart, and the generic sports fixation is anyway at odds with their atmospheres.
At Cambridge 1, they are convinced business would suffer with the removal of their sports television, or so a server told me, as though the careful, clever menu might as well be burgers and curly fries. At Teatro, the screen was searching constantly for satellite connection and the bartender finally turned it off — but no one was paying attention anyway, since, vital Sox game or no, the limpid hall was nearly empty near closing time on a Saturday. At News 24/7, where after sports “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” plays silently (and unsettlingly) amid languid trip-hop, the receipts ask, “Are you cool enough?” and I must answer, no, I just have money.
But if this is what’s cool, this eatery of easy virtue, this backward-baseball-cap doofus of an establishment, I can think of better places to spend that money, places where cool is — as cool is supposed to be — not what everyone else is doing, and secure enough to know better.