I don’t do restaurant reviews, per se: they’re usually largely focused on the quality of the food, and this is not a “food” blog. However, this is a “public space” blog, so I may, from time to time, review retail establishments (including food service) to discuss how they do at creating good meeting places.
Big Daddy’s BBQ and Banquet Hall sits downtown on Wickersham Street, between First and Second Avenues. It’s between five and ten minutes’ walk from my house, which makes it a candidate for what sociologist Ray Oldenburg would call my “third place”. Third places are hangouts — places outside of home (your first place) and work (your second) where you’re likely to spend a lot of your free time. They invite casual conversation: in fact, besides the establishments’ anchoring purposes (e.g., groceries, eating, haircutting, coffee, books, beer), there is little to do there but talk.
One of the key features of third places is that they are local. While restaurants and bars that require a special trip by transit or car can be excellent, they fail as third places for two reasons. First, true third places give neighbors a chance to interact. When an establishment is out of walking range of a neighborhood, the neighbors cannot easily spend time there. Every trip there must be planned (and probably driven), which automatically cuts down the number of visits. Second, the more an establishment draws in business from outside the neighborhood, the lower will be the proportion of familiar faces. Familiarity with their fellow patrons inclines people to frequent a place, whereas a constant stream of strangers inclines them to think another place would be just as good. Third places are about the people you find there.
How does Big Daddy’s do as a third place?
My wife and I went a few weeks ago. We needed a date, some time away from the kids just to talk, and fancy food was not important. In fact, I can’t remember what we ate — probably a plate of nachos, or a dish of greasy-fried-whatever. The food was adequate, and, more importantly for a third place, reasonably cheap. (For eateries, food must be cheap enough that neighbors of all classes can afford to go there.) The beer, on the other hand, was more average-priced, a little costlier than the beer I get at the UAF Pub. And the cocktails sent our tab through the roof; I’d have expected such prices at Lavelle’s, but not at Big Daddy’s. (This is not necessarily a strike against Big Daddy’s. I don’t think it’s necessary for every one of a third place’s offerings to be cheap. There should just be enough cheap items available that everybody in the neighborhood can afford to come often.)
The space is large, but that seemed appropriate for the crowd. It was a Friday night, and they were hosting a banquet — so it was full. We ran into a couple of other families who run in our (mostly white-collar) social circles, and there also people who looked a little more working class. (Though one of the joys of Fairbanks is that you really can’t tell people’s station by their dress.)
I think age-mixing in public places is a good thing: people are more likely to behave in a civilized and respectful way than if they only spend time in homogeneous groups. There was certainly good age mixing at Big Daddy’s that night: not only did younger and older adults show up, but couples with babes-in-arms and groups of teenagers, too. A few people that night brought toddlers and other young children. These youngsters were allowed to roam freely, and any running or other dangerous behavior was reined in by whatever adults happened to be close.
Overall, I was pleased enough with the casual, sociable, low-cost environment of Big Daddy’s to overlook its failings.
I returned there about two weeks ago, having left work early and hoping to see what Big Daddy’s might be like as a neighborhood tavern — the kind you stop at for a beer after work. This time, I was more impressed by the failings.
To start with, it was loud — not from the raised voices of the crowd within, but from the televisions. Televisions are kind of a no-no for third places (although I won’t be dogmatic and say that they can never have a role), since they create non-human distraction from the flesh-and-blood company present. As I said, there’s little to do in ideal third places but talk — visual and auditory distractions only take away from the chance to interact. And if the noise is too much, it discourages talking between, or across, tables, so it ends up isolating groups of customers. This is why “sports bars” are unlikely to be genuine hangouts, as wonderful as they might be for watching the World Series.
Not only was the sports programming visually unappealing, but there was something about the decor that also turned me off. It’s not that the curtains didn’t match the carpets, or the trim was done in orchid rather than in heliotrope. I’m no esthete. The problem with the decor of Big Daddy’s is that it all looks so contrived. Everywhere on the walls were sports paraphernelia (including team T-shirts and souvenir pennants) and barbecue-themed paraphernelia (including cook-off awards and symbolic pigs).
There’s nothing wrong with a sports pennant or a stylized hog’s head as a decoration. But such a density of decorations with exactly the same theme bespeaks an establishment’s desperate attempt to create a theme ex nihilo. “Hey, look!” it shouts. “This is a sports bar! With barbecue stuff!” If sports are really what the regulars like to talk about, then the newcomer will detect that, and choose to come (or avoid) for that reason, without any visual cues at all. The over-emphasis on themed decor suggests that Big Daddy’s lacks a distinct character of its own.
(If you remember Hogg Bros. Café in Anchorage when it was on Spenard near Fireweed, think of how little conspicuous decoration it needed to convince you it was a rough, seedy joint where a Hell’s Angel or a trucker could get steak, eggs, and a bloody Mary for breakfast. Contrast it with its later incarnation on Northern Lights, whose atmosphere is sanitized and contrived: a Denny’s, but with piggy stuff.)
That’s not to say that Big Daddy’s can’t grow some authentic character. But it will take some time. They need to cut out the forced “theme-ishness” and the over-loud noise of television and music, so that its human character can grow. I hope so, since it’s the nearest bar to my house, and it may be the best thing I’ve got.