Leadoff Platter

In the early Eighties, when some bars began to concentrate on bringing sporting events to a cheering, tipsy public, they were obviously a man's domain -- a place to pound a beer, a buddy on the back, a fist on the table (or now and then in someone's face). And they were a reflection of their lapsed-athlete customers. Floors were unpolished, sawdust-scuffed; chairs and tables sagged under the weight of past injuries and assurances of future ones. Even the center of attention -- the television -- was likely to be a scarred relic, which nonetheless riveted all eyes the way a good coach might gain the attention of poorly performing players -- with a penetrating glare.

Back then a woman's role in the emerging genre of sports bars was limited, to say the least. She wasn't a starter, not even a benchwarmer. But then a funny thing happened. Bar owners discovered wide-screen television, then the satellite dish, and then the advantages of multiple televisions. The NFL's Monday Night Football became a sensation. Money poured in along with a changing and lucrative crowd: men with dates or wives, then women in groups, then men and women looking to meet each other. Polos and button-downs began to replace three-quarter-sleeve mesh jerseys with nicknames like "Killer" and "Bulldog" stenciled on the back. Women met dates there after work, wore stockings and heels. The bars themselves began to dress, some installing dance floors and providing DJs during halftime. Not all went upscale, but most swept the floors. And flirtation became the sport of choice.

Perhaps the most interesting evolution of sports bars concerned food. Wooden bowls of cardboard popcorn were replaced by short lists of appetizers, mostly fried -- chicken fingers, nachos, buffalo wings. If this proved successful, full-scale menus often followed, offering wider and healthier selections, including salads and main courses. It was only a matter of time before a place like the Marlins Steakhouse & Sports Bar would become a viable option for casual dining.

Two blocks south of U.S. 1 on 27th Avenue, the Marlins Steakhouse & Sports Bar opened in late April, coinciding with the debut of South Florida's expansion team. Formerly Carlos in the Grove, the restaurant's transition from Spanish to sports was probably less surprising than the relative success of the Marlins themselves. And in keeping with the industry trend, this streamlined establishment bears little resemblance to the grungy watering holes of old, boasting valet parking, a hostess with a plunging red-and-rhinestone neckline, and a dignified, well-dressed clientele. On our recent visit, either backward Marlins caps had been checked at the door, or those who wore them departed on the "Marlins Wagon" that for twenty bucks provides you with round-trip transportation to the game, free beer on the bus, and an after-game cocktail upon your return.

I had expected something more typically Grovelike -- college-age and boisterous, especially considering that a Marlins game was beaming from the televisions. But most parties appeared more interested in the food than in foul balls, which in some cases, unfortunately, seemed indistinguishable from each other.

Aside from the TV screens over the bar, the menu evokes the sporting life more than any other item in the restaurant. Though the bar itself thankfully lacks the Hall of Fame memorabilia decor (and the merchandising) of a Dan Marino's, the menu forcibly reminds you of your purpose: to eat, breathe, and drink sports. As a theme taken from starting gun to photo finish, it can prove difficult reading.

Some descriptions are humorous: such as "Eagle chicken wings," which explains that "use of the hands on these birds is not illegal," even if I didn't find the wings themselves anything other than battered, bony specimens served with a mediocre hot sauce on the side. However, the "skybox oysters" presented us with a win-win situation. The briny bivalves, baked Rockefeller-style with butter, bread crumbs, and spinach, were cleverly billed as fare that team owners feast upon. Though the Rockefeller preparation originated at New Orleans's famed Antoine's and has no known link to baseball, we still felt privileged. The oysters were moist and tender.

Other descriptions of dishes simply didn't work at all. The "nacho punt, returned with rocket jalapeno clippings, refried beans, first down guacamole, and fumble cream," should also include a translation guide. We ordered it anyway, being familiar enough with nachos to anticipate a typical platter of chips, cheese, beans, hot peppers, avocado dip, and sour cream. What we didn't anticipate was a tinny, runny guacamole, commercial-tasting chips, and bland refried beans. Chosen from the menu category called "Pre-game Hoopla," we also were surprised that a bar named after a baseball team would include other sports in the theme. Unless, of course, the place will be transformed into the Dolphins Steakhouse & Sports Bar come football season. Or perhaps the Hurricanes Steakhouse, given the proximity to UM and the edible reminder of the 'Canes tragic loss to Doug Flutie's Boston College team: the "fried Hail Mary zucchini."

The arrival of our main courses permitted us to score the appetizers as sacrifice flies. Chicken fajitas, "clocked over 90 on the radar gun," were spiced and right. Wrapped in fresh tortillas, they made a fulfilling meal, even if accompanied by the same flat beans. Done less juicy but in a flavorful barbecue sauce, "chicken in the nickel," a grilled flattened breast of chicken, would have been preferable cooked with the bone in to keep it moist. Prepared Marlins Steakhouse-fashion, it reminded us of the Mets pitching staff -- no backbone.

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