When I see someone texting while driving, I treat myself to a pang of self-righteous anger – especially when said driver is stalling at a green light. Hypocritical rage is as essential to American roadways as wooden statues of eagles and bears are to the townships that magically appear along them. I do not text while I drive, but I often find myself diddling in Spotify and through podcasts while cruising on busy highways. Which is just as bad.
Recently, I was in the even more precarious situation of Googling whether the A&L tavern, my neighborhood sports bar, serves cold deli sandwiches. This was a pressing matter, as this knowledge would inform whether I’d duck off the freeway and into the A&L for the last period of a tense Capitals-Penguins playoff matchup, or just stream the game illegally from my apartment and treat myself to a saran-wrapped roast beef from the grocery store.
My wildly ill-advised web search did not yield a menu pic, but I took the exit anyways and lucked out: for only $6.50 the A&L offers a perfectly mediocre turkey sandwich on white, with a side of potato salad for just a dollar more! There are sports bars, and then there are sports bars.
The A&L is a sports bar; it is not merely a bar with TVs that play sports. There are about ten screens inside, and they can all play any major game that an eager patron wants to watch. This is the critical distinction, and a necessary one for the scrupulous tastes of city-dwellers young and old. A couple years ago, my friend Matt walked several blocks to an attractive new “sports bar” that had recently opened up in his region of Brooklyn. When he arrived and requested the Redskins game be put on one of the myriad screens, a surprised barmaiden desperately surfed through channels only to inform him that they only get the Giants game. I chuckled as Matt vented to me over the phone a few days later: “how can they call themselves a sports bar if they don’t pay for Sunday Ticket??”
Watching sports is often portrayed as – but usually is not – a passive activity. In this sense it is not unlike drinking. Matt chose to devote his Sunday afternoon to the game, his diet to fried food and beer, and even if he’d stayed in his apartment he would still be actively choosing the hapless Redskins over a host of other activities – reading, painting, jogging, walking to the park, throwing a frisbee, shopping, cleaning. While being a devoted fan requires a degree of obsession and irrationality, sports are a totally worthy, entertaining diversion in a world often bereft of meaningful occasion. Sports bars are the reification of this social reality, and its implied logic that meaningful diversions are best paired with alcohol.
However, not all sports bars are garish chicken dispensaries or neon-ringed pits of despair. While the former aesthetic is willingly brandished by every Buffalo Wild Wings commercial ever, I’ve learned that the latter aesthetic is often a deliberate byproduct of a sports bar’s duty to shield its patrons from public view. The A&L’s exterior is bold-yet-shabby, painted-over rust-red brick surrounding black, barred windows. On my most recent trip, I realized just how ingenious these windows are: they are tinted and reflective, allowing plenty of natural light in. Behind a row of Penguins fans, I was able to watch the Capitals come back from a 2-0 deficit while snickering at busgoers and pedestrians on 60th and Glisan as they were flummoxed by a sudden downpour; these same pedestrians were not able to see me sitting alone, shoveling a tray of potato salad into my mouth and washing it down with a tumbler of Old Crow. This is the essence of dignity.
Sports bars get a bad rap for the exact reason they are necessary: they appeal to the lowest common denominator. The first-ever bar I visited in Portland was the Jolly Roger, a not-so-charming yet extremely lucrative dive situated in the very center of Portland’s Central Eastside. To my right sat a chunky thirties-something Packers fan who bragged about how all the waitresses were really into him at the Hawthorne Fish House. To my left sat an older guy who, when I asked which team he was pulling for, replied “oh, I’m just kinda…here.” Between them, about ten drinks were ordered (half of them Fireball shots) in the course of ninety minutes. And sitting between them I realized I was, at least for that ninety minutes, not much better off, in my Ravens jersey nursing a PBR with a cheap bike helmet dangling beneath my thighs. At a sports bar, an alcoholic can venture in alone and spend hours pretending to be entertained by whatever’s flashing across the screens. So can a 25-year-old who, presumably, has better ways to spend his time.
Yes, sports bars can be dingy and depressing, if not gaudy and awful. It’s part of the aesthetic of accommodating everyone. Hang too many bare tungsten bulbs from the ceiling, and people won’t be able to see the screens. Paint a mural on the side of the building, and folks walking by won’t assume they can watch all 32 NFL teams. The quality of a sports bar must be appraised using a rubric of relative shabbiness. It’s not “do they have vegetarian options?,” but “do they have enough fresh vegetables around to fill up a hoagie roll?” It’s not “how was the service?” but “how many times were you pestered for another round?” How fast did the fries come out? Can you get a tall boy and a shot for $5? Do the waitresses look like burned-out strippers, or cool moms?
When I visited Matt last October, he took me to a little tavern in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens to watch the Redskins play the Eagles, a formative divisional matchup (by then he had mapped out most of the sports bar imposters between the two boroughs). The stools were loaded with lumpy old Polish guys, and behind the bar was a beautiful redhead who deftly countered their drunken jibberish with wit and good humor – at least, that’s what it sounded like to my less-than-Polish ears. She set us up in the corner with a large TV, a tray of 50-cent wings, and steins of Staropramen. The tables were a dark mahogany, clean, and the booths (as I remember) a plush green vinyl. No table service to interrupt our conversation, but the bar was only a few paces away. Our TV even had sound! After a few hours and a decisive Redskins victory, we left for the subway to take us to Manhattan and its Russian baths. It was the most relaxing bar experience I’ve had in years.
A big part of the reason I love the A&L (and why Matt loves his Ridgewood spot) is that it’s close to my apartment. A similar beerstube may exist in a corner of Beaverton, and for that reason alone it becomes far less attractive. One of the implicit components of a suburb being “boring” to a twenties-something and a city being “fun” is that cities are more friendly to whims and trends of young people, and thereby feature more whimsical and trendy bars. If a suburban strip mall hosts a watering hole, it is most likely a sports bar or a “pub.” Again, this makes a lot of sense, since any given town’s one-two punch of sports bar and pub is designed to appeal to everyone except for people in their twenties who are trying to get laid.
Which is why a great city-bound sports bar is a thing to treasure, and its wonderful features should be talked-about and celebrated so more potential barowners can follow its example. While the A&L’s extremely-likable staff of graybeards and hockey moms is hard to replicate, their open-kitchen approach adds an element of coziness and transparency that most “black box” sports bars badly need. For every Monday Night Football matchup, they raffle off a jersey for each team. Their burgers are huge and sloppy, but their crispy cod sandwich – paired with a $2 can of Rainier – is a refreshing hangover cure on a hot summer morning. It helps that the interior is dark, cool, and spacious, and they never play music.
The gross tackiness of a Buffalo Wild Wings should be more of an exception to the rule of sports bars than the A&L’s quiet sanctuary, or the cute wooden room in Ridgewood. For me, the worst places on Earth are those that install LCD screens over the urinals. A truly great sports bar is a hard recipe: it requires marrying the mindlessness of drinking with the mindlessness of television, then mixing in the weird compulsiveness of possessed fans in hopes of producing a feeling of security and togetherness, a spirit of welcome and fun.
Now that I have come to embrace sports bars’ spectrum of shabbiness, my main qualm is with the menu. A cheeseburger or a basket of onion rings at a neighborhood pub is a sure thing, but why can’t I count on a nice cold Italian hero with a pickle spear? I mean, it doesn’t have to be Boar’s Head. Just keep some cold meat in the fridge with your tomatoes and lettuce, and charge a couple bucks less than you would for a burger. Is this too much to ask??
In Part 2 I will dive head-first into this head-scratcher, and investigate the curious mystique of the cold deli sandwich. Stay tuned!