Like most lucky little boys and girls when their birthdays came around, I was allowed to pick the restaurant for my special night growing up. On any given birthday, my sister Sarah might have picked Crystal’s because what kid doesn’t love pizza and arcade games? My other sister Rachel often opted for Charleston’s, great for her emerging vegetarianism.
Me? On my birthday every year I picked a smoky sports bar.
It didn’t seem that weird at the time. Why wouldn’t a sports-loving kid’s favorite restaurant be a sports bar? Unfortunately, that might not be possible these days – sports bars are clearly dying.
Buffalo Wild Wings, a prototypical chain sports bar, has had declining sales of late. While last year, in a Washington Post story titled “America’s trendiest new bar is your living room,” writer Christopher Ingraham reported there are 12,000 fewer bars in America today than there were in 1998. People aren’t drinking less by any means, they’re just drinking less while out. There’s no need to go to a sports bar when you have a bigger TV at home, and perhaps a better beer selection in your fridge as well. If you’re some Steiner Sports purchasing dude with a sick man cave, you might even have cooler memorabilia on your walls.
This wasn’t the case back in the 1980s, though, when The Original Varsity Sports Grill fit all my needs, hopes, dreams, and desires for what a restaurant could be. Especially as it related to decoration.
In Oklahoma City where we lived, chains like Chili’s and TGI Friday’s ruled, complete with ersatz antiques. A few “classier” joints in town had boring artwork. The Varsity, on the other hand, offered framed jerseys, game-used memorabilia, and autographed player glossies absolutely wallpapering every inch of flat space.
For someone who had never been to a Hall of Fame – any of them – this was as good as it got. I could walk the restaurant before our food arrived, peeking over diners on dates to check out a signed Barry Sanders football, peering around deadbeat dads getting drunk so I could marvel at a Brian Bosworth signed headband. There were even red LED scoreboards streaming live game results from around the country, like a real-life “bottom line,” except it was actually closer to the ceiling.
My family was always seated in the non-smoking room, as far away from the seedy bar-in-the-round as possible. We dined on glass-covered table-tops almost acting as a display case for a tablecloth made of lacquered-down Topps cards. Common cards of players like Bill Doran and Cecilio Guante, sure, but still cooler than a swath of tan butcher paper that was the de rigeur table covering at most of the other restaurants we frequented. The food served on these tables would be cheeseburgers, loaded nachos, and hand-cut potato chips. 32-ounce plastic mugs of Dr. Pepper to wash it all down. Unlimited free refills, natch.
Most importantly, countless televisions hung from the ceiling, back during a time when screens weren’t so ubiquitous: before the 24-hour news cycle, before streaming services, before massive sports “packages,” before the internet, smartphones, and tablets. Hell, before there was even a second ESPN channel.
These cruddy tube TVs – perhaps 30 inches at best – were always tuned to obscure sporting events, pumped in via a giant satellite dish erected in one corner of the parking lot, a necessity for any top-flight sports bar back in the ’80s.
It didn’t matter what time of day or night it was, there would still be a sport on these screens. International soccer, rugby, cricket, maybe just West Coast baseball. They even had a projector that shot the night’s one “big” game onto a canvas screen in such a washed-out white that you could barely see what the hell was going on.
It was truly incredible. Back home we had a cable box with a turn-dial, no remote control, and a mere 25 channels. There was at best one regional game on at a time.
Thus, as you can imagine, The Varsity was heaven. Not just for me, for many people who helped sports bars boom during this decade.
People demand good food & drink these days, no matter where they’re at, & sports bars were never known for that.”
Of course, returning back home as an adult several years back, in desperate need of finding a place to watch some meaningless early-season Syracuse hoops game, I returned to The Varsity. I was aghast the second I walked in. Aghast to see that my favorite, my absolutely favorite restaurant as a little kid, the restaurant I would always make my parents drag me to on my birthday, was really nothing more than a smoky dump.
Windowless and set in the bottom of an office complex, it was filled with depressing divorcees playing Erotic Photo Hunt and flirting over games of sawdust shuffleboard. The food was lackluster, merely there to soak up the bottom-shelf booze, and the beer list was even worst: pitchers of dirty draughts and buckets of dollar “longnecks.”
Not even the memorabilia on the walls held charm any more. I think that UV light-faded Mookie Blaylock autographed basketball had been there for two decades. Had it always been this terrible? Probably.
By 2007, The Original Varsity Sports Grill would be out of business.
I still love sports, but these days I detest sports bars. Which might not really matter, because true sports bars have begun to disappear. I write this while sitting in a coffee shop across the street from some place called Bleachers. It has numerous TV screens, serves buffalo wings and, literally, has bleachers in the fucking bar. I’ve never seen it all too packed and never had a desire to go inside.
People demand good food and drinks these days, no matter where they’re at, and sports bars were never exactly known for that. Now when you want to watch sports while you're out at a bar drinking, you no longer need to be in a quote-unquote “sports bar.” Most all bars have way too many TVs these days and, yes, they are usually all tuned to sports.
We’ve moved beyond the late-’90s and early-aughties sports bar heyday.”
Not to mention, every single one of us has a tiny TV in our pocket or purse.
In fact, one of the greatest sports-watching-in-a-bar moments of my life happened while I was in a dimly-lit and TV-less cocktail spot on a romantic Friday night with my wife (this will also relate how bad of husband I am). A friend had texted me that Georgetown was about to get upset by Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA tournament. I quickly pulled CBS’s March Madness app up on my iPhone, and gleefully sipped on my $15 Sazerac as my Dunk City humiliated the Hoyas.
This is how many folks casually consume sports in public these days. Pick a good bar or restaurant first; follow sports on Twitter or a streaming app if you truly need to or can’t find a TV. It even translates to the bars around sports arenas.
Go to the brilliant Haymaker in midtown Manhattan, right near Madison Square Garden. On a game day it’ll be packed with dudes in Porzingis jerseys, but they’d rather be pre-gaming in a spot with a beer list featuring Hill Farmstead and Other Half, as opposed to one with a massive big screen. Bluejacket Brewery, right down the street from Nationals Park, is likewise always crammed with guys in fitted caps, but they’re usually more interested in fruited sours and Mexican stouts than hearing the analysts discuss the day’s upcoming pitching matchup.
We’ve moved beyond the late-’90s and early-aughties sports bar heyday, when Times Square had both the Gretzky- and Shaq-owned Official All Star Café and an ESPN Zone. These were entire multi-story theme restaurants lavishly devoted to watching sports, eating sports, drinking sports, and consuming sports. The All Star Café chain was done by 2007 and ESPN Zones across the nation were shuttered by 2010.
Still, if committed sports bars’ days are numbered, one man is trying to stay the execution. Near Bleachers, and on the same block as Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, sits Dale Talde’s latest venture. The chef, restaurateur, and Top Chef alum behind such foodie-beloved establishments as Talde, opened Atlantic Social with his business partners just this February. As Talde’s partner David Massoni told Brooklyn Based:
“We want this place to be for the die hard sports fan but also the people who could give two shits.”
The large-for-Brooklyn 250-seat establishment is quite welcoming, even if it’s at the bottom of an ugly coop building, in space that previously held a Tony Roma’s across the street from a seemingly unending construction project.
Inside, the place is intentionally family friendly. The design is muted, with white brick and red-painted walls, Edison lights hanging, and black iron backless bar stools, the exact same as many hip bars these days. A back room is filled with cozy couches and games like shuffleboard, pool, even an NBA Jam arcade unit. Perhaps the only thing that would clue you in that you’re at a “sports bar” are the subtly-displayed pennants, a couple walls with framed flotsam and jetsam, and, of course, the TVs.
I decided to take my one-year-old daughter over there one Friday afternoon. The TVs were showing some European World Cup qualifying, though the few customers inside weren’t really watching. I wheeled her stroller over to a high-top and grabbed a menu.
The food was crowd-pleasing, for sure, though not the deep-fried crap that’s long been served at sports bars. It’s way more ambitious. So potato skins, but served “a la brava,” i.e. topped with chorizo, manchego, anchovies, and marcona almonds. You won’t see that at a Hooters. In turn, the buffalo wings come General Tso’s style. They’re quite tasty. There’s a solid beer list of mainstream locals like Sixpoint Bengali Tiger and Brooklyn Sorachi Ace and even some fairly ambitious craft cocktails.
Talde seems to realize than even meatheads in ill-fitting Islanders sweaters want high-quality, Instagrammable cuisine these days and something better to wash it down with than a pitcher of skunked PBR. I think he’s mostly successful at his intended goal. It’s certainly nicer than The Varsity was, and seems like it could define a new breed of higher-end sports bars.
Still, even if it’s not smoky, and even if the food is better... I do really hope my daughter picks another restaurant when her next birthday rolls around.