The Uneven Bars
Admit it. You caught Olympic fever when the torch ran by on the Fourth of July.
And now the main event is upon us! The centennial Olympic games begin tomorrow in Atlanta. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Up close and personal with NBC's beloved Bob Costas. How much is that official Olympic tchotchke in the window?
But now that you've caught Olympicitis, what the heck are you going to do with it? Just how are you going handle those 171-plus televised hours? Not home alone, if you can help it.
Watching the Olympics at home is tempting. Total control over your 32-inch TV. Fridge full of beer. A busy barbecue grill. Your favorite chair. No dress code. No problem.
And no fun. No one to sit with. No one to cheer with. No one to argue with. Not one person to commiserate with when Greece wins the gold in basketball (just kidding).
You are going to want to be out and about -- with people who share your obsession for watching, watching, watching till the last medal is awarded and they douse that flame. You are going to be in the market for places that specialize in catering to sports fans.
You might say all you really need is a restaurant with a TV or two. And indeed, many local establishments will be temporarily transformed into venues for people to meet to celebrate their national heritage and absorb the human drama of athletic competition. But why bother with those when actual edifices have been designed expressly for sports-watching purposes? Places where fans gather year-round to watch sporting events piped in via satellite to very big, very well-positioned TV sets. Places that serve up good food and good fun.
In other words, sports bars.
Then again, not all so-called sports bars are created equal. Real sports bars don't lure in true fans only to betray them by serving up all manner of unsporting activities: Would Bob Mathias (decathlon gold medalist, 1948 and 1952) have danced in front of a TV broadcasting the Olympic trials? And then there's the matter of TV reception and background noise: Would Wilma Rudolph (100 and 200-meter women's run gold medalist, 1960) have stood for a lousy picture and a bar that neglected to supply closed-captioning so one could "hear" the action in a boisterous environment? And the drinking: Would Janet Evans (400- and 800-meter women's swimmer) pound pitchers till she barfed? And the food: Would Pat Riley stomach chicken wings accompanied by a wilted stalk of celery that suffered from a bad case of split ends?
How does Miami measure up to the sports bar ideal? On the eve of the Olympics, New Times set out to see. We surveyed a dozen establishments, considering every conceivable criterion, from general sports ambiance to quality of chicken wings and coldness of beer. Bottom line? We looked for a primary focus on sports, executed with integrity and class. (Note: The criteria, while appropriate to a discussion of the genre, did unfairly penalize one establishment in particular, the Sport Cafe on Miami Beach, which defies categorization but is eminently worthy of a visit.)
Below, in alphabetical order, are capsule reviews of a dozen area watering holes, as well as a chart indicating which are (and are not) of championship caliber.
Let the Games begin!
Clevelander Hotel Sports Bar
1020 Ocean Dr.
This smallish place is part of a hotel lobby, which helps explain why all kinds of people are forever going in and out, and all kinds of nonsports things are going on. You know, South Beach. So if you're looking for a genuine sports-bar experience, this ain't it. But if you're already on South Beach and need to catch a game, the Clevelander is a whole lot better than nothing.
Five large TV sets (plus a bigger one in the back) attend an average-size bar, six tables, and a pool table. (Nice fish tank behind the bar.) Beer taps serve up microbrews for $2.75 a glass. In fact, the Clevelander now touts its own beer: South Beach Brew and (look out!) Tough Guy Ale, both $2.50 on draft. When the taps are actually working, that is.
The menu is on the heavy-duty side. As in lobster and Dom Perignon. Grilled portobello mushrooms are a little more down-to-earth, but still expensive at $8.95. Pizzas go for $4.95 to $7.95. An order of fries will cost you $2.95. But the fish dip ($4.95) is tasty and, if you ask for more bread, it goes a long way. Breakfast is served until 2:00 p.m.
Parking: A torture chamber
Best Bargain: Don't look for 'em. Well, besides the happy hour, there's a three-dollar rum runner. And a live band every night outside. That's it, sports fans.
Boooooo! No pitchers; two-drink minimum
Olympic Fever? Depends on Budweiser promos (Oh, goodie!)
Dan Marino's American Sports Bar & Grill
3015 Grand Ave.
This spacious, classy place falls short of sports-bar perfection in only two areas: (1) The management doesn't pay close enough attention to what's happening in the sports world, and (2) it's in CocoWalk.
On a recent Monday night, the main event was a World Wrestling Federation extravaganza (complete with sound!) that was broadcast on most of the multitudinous screens -- instead of the Marlins-Astros game, or one between the Cuban and American Olympic baseball teams. Wrestling interest seemed to come mostly from management, staff, and one five-year-old.
Is it worth braving CocoWalk for a trip to Dan Marino's? On one hand, the mall offers plenty of fun for the entire family. (In fact, Dan Marino's is the only sports bar we surveyed that reaches out to children: All summer long kids accompanied by an adult eat free from 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on weekends.) On the other hand, parking is no picnic, and if you don't care for tourist-trap hysteria, this place is not for you.
But on special occasions -- a Dolphins playoff game or the NCAA basketball finals -- Dan Marino's excels. It's got plenty of room, lots of windows, and three bar areas. Not to mention four pool tables, electronic dart games, and an enclosed video game room. What other Miami sports bar boasts a life-size figure of a mountaineer climbing one of the walls next to a faux window that depicts a stunning view of the Matterhorn? Plus, the patio bar is a great vantage point for watching events like the Olympic torch run and the King Mango Strut. (Alas, that's the only outdoor area, and it's very, very small.)
Marino's food is not cheap, but it's good. Hot artichoke/spinach dip ($5.95) is a winner -- spicy, covered with melted cheese, and surrounded by homemade tortilla chips. Or splurge on an enormous (twenty-ounce) Porterhouse ($14.95). Fries cost $1.75, ice cream $1.50 for three scoops.
Most promotions are "spontaneous." In the meantime there's free pool every Wednesday from 9:00 p.m. till closing.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. (till 3:00 a.m. Thursday through Saturday)
Happy Hour: Monday through Friday 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., free buffet and dollar drafts
Parking: A nightmare (do you really want to walk three blocks to your car after 10:00 on a weeknight?)
Best Bargain: The ice cream!
Boooooo! No pitchers
Olympic Fever? Plans in the works; they're "in discussion with Coca-Cola"
Don Shula's All-Star Cafe
15255 Bull Run Rd. (off Miami Lakes Drive)
If you're a purist, Shu's is the place to be. Sports is in first place here -- not music or other gimmicks designed to fill the house at any cost. And the aura of the legendary Don Shula -- who reportedly does lunch here regularly -- goes a long, long way. In the good sense.
Okay, Dave is a little much sometimes. And he did sorta blanch at the mention of figure skating. But, hey, he is the Director of Sports Entertainment. His job is to make you happy. And he's got it all worked out: a plan for every day and occasion. Not many games on TV? He'll pull something down off the twin satellite system. In a pinch there's always the video library. And Shu's takes advantage of closed-captioning!
There are lots of TV sets, especially well-situated for barflies. The restaurant side features two sixteen-monitor displays, where two games can be shown simultaneously in different configurations. You can even call ahead to reserve an area for you and your pals to watch whatever event you want (assuming it's being broadcast). Shu's also boasts the best collection of authentic memorabilia of any sports bar in town.
The menu is not cheap, but it is big and substantial -- everything from fresh-fried tortilla chips and salsa ($2.95) to an eighteen-ounce T-bone ($17.95). Drinkwise, the Screaming Dolphin is a delicious frozen cocktail served in a fishbowl ($7.95 and you get to keep the souvenir glass). If you're good, Dave will bring you a bowl of munchies.
Promotions include Baseball Fan Night (Monday), Sports Trivia Night (Tuesday), Ladies Night (Wednesday) . . . and special events. During the recent broadcast of the NHL draft, the Panthers' 1996 Eastern Conference championship Prince of Wales trophy was on display, and team members were available for photos and autographs.
Parking: Plenty, and free
Best Bargain: Gotta love that fishbowl!
Boooooo! No pitchers at this "nice and classy bar"
Olympic Fever? Dave has big plans for the Olympics fortnight, including appearances by past gold-medal winners
Flanigan's Seafood Bar and Grill
13205 Biscayne Blvd.
Don't underrate Flanigan's and its four Dade locations. It may be a chain and it's not fancy. But it is friendly, cheap, attractive, and convenient. In a lot of ways it doubles as a family restaurant. Come in for one of Joe's Deals dinners, meet a friend after work, stop in for a nightcap, bring the family in for lunch -- and catch the Olympics or a Marlins game while you're at it. Ask for sound on the game and you'll actually get it. Hey, what a concept!
This particular Flanigan's has a good-size bar, accommodating about 30 people and equipped with two TV sets. The various seating areas are pleasant, and all have TVs. There's one electronic dart game. Decor involves a Florida-friendly fishing motif. (A few more windows would be nice.)
Meal deals beckon: $7.99 to $9.99 gets you anything from barbecue chicken to prime rib (including a beverage!). Burgers and sandwiches start at less than five dollars, salads two dollars. Thin-sliced, sorta greasy, but very tasty razor-thin-sliced onion rings go for $2.99, and fries are only $1.49. Cheap!
The Flanigan's folks have a soft spot in their hearts for sports, and a nice tradition: weekend raffles and free tickets to football and baseball games. Makes for a great afternoon.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. (till 3:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:00 a.m. Sunday)
Happy Hour: 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 until closing. Various beer and drink specials
Parking: Sufficient, and free
Best Bargain: Joe's Giant, a beverage special -- for $1.79 you get a 32-ounce plastic Flanigan's cup with as many refills of soda, lemonade, or iced tea as you can drink (bring the glass with you on your next visit and get the same deal for only $1.29)
Boooooo! "No [soda] sharing, please"
Olympic Fever? Not yet
Hooligan's Pub & Oyster Bar
9555 S. Dixie Hwy (in Dadeland Plaza)
This is quite a place -- a nifty mix of neighborhood bar and big-scale sports bar. We're talking 25 TV sets in all; it's easy to follow three or four baseball games at once. The front area boasts a couple of bars and a giant TV set placed up high for all to see. A second, equally large area contains three more bars, plus pool tables galore. Decor is cool and funky, highlighting all the local teams.
The menu is very large and moderately priced. You can get a dozen peel-and-eat shrimp for $1.99. For something different and very tasty (even if the portion is on the skimpy side), try Hoolie's Famous Fish Dip ($4.99). The full menu is offered until 3:30 a.m.
There are, for better or worse, lots of promotions ("A nightly smorgasbord of good times"). Tuesday brings 25-cent oysters, shrimp, clams, fish fingers, and wings from 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Flip the bartender (a coin, that is) for a free drink on Sunday. If you don't like the loud music, skip Wednesday ("Ladies Night," with free drinks for women from 9:00 p.m. till midnight). Bring your Dolphins, Panthers, Heat, or Marlins ticket stub after a game and get a free beer or cocktail.
What else? A fan-friendly security guy is posted at the door, service is very good, and "Pee Pee" signs show the way to the restrooms.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. (till 5:00 a.m. on the weekend)
Parking: Plenty, and free
Best Bargain: On Saturday a sixteen-ounce T-bone with a caesar salad and a baked potato goes for $9.99
Boooooo! It's a trek for most Miamians (a sister Hooligan's is located across from the Falls; call 251-8282 for more info)
Olympic Fever? "Not as of yet . . . whatever the crowd wants"
401 Biscayne Blvd. (in Bayside)
A server might inform you that Hooters is "a family restaurant," not a sports bar. Maybe that's why there aren't enough TV sets in this cavernous joint. But "family" simply does not jibe with all those lovely ladies running around in very tight orange shorts and tank tops with "Definitely tacky, yet refined" written on the back. And on a football afternoon, this particular Hooters (touted as "The #1 Hooters in America") can fill up with enough loud, obnoxious football types to make Butch Davis blush. Take your kids somewhere else.
Still, this really ain't a true sports bar. But if you're stuck downtown hankering to watch a ball game and eat chicken wings, Hooters does have something to offer: a seat at the patio bar with its lone TV and fabulous view of the Miami skyline. A little live reggae music, perhaps, from the Bayside stage down below. A nice breeze from the bay. Miami nice!
(And don't worry about those Hooters girls. They can take care of themselves. And they know customer service.)
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to midnight (till 1:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:00 p.m. Sunday)
Happy Hour: None (no promotions, either)
Parking: Easy, if you pay
Best Bargain: 20 chicken wing halves and a bottle of Dom Perignon for $125.01 -- can't beat that with a stick
Boooooo! That ever-inflating Hooters merchandise store. Who buys that stuff?
Olympic Fever? This is not a sports bar
Jimmy Johnson's Three Rings Bar & Grill
Eden Roc Resort & Spa
4525 Collins Ave.
You do kind of expect that at any moment J.J. himself will come flip-flopping into this comfortable, low-key place. Word is that he does show up once in a while, but two security guards keep fans away till he's done dining. But Coach will not be doing his weekly TV show from the Three Rings; he'll tape it at the office. He's too busy, the Dolphins say, to come to the bar. Is this the same guy that reportedly does his best work over nachos and beer?
Built on two levels, J.J.'s gets a high-five for that "Florida feel." There's even a window into the bottom of one of the hotel pools. But the highlight is a large patio area with a bar, many tables, and a bunch of TV sets. First and ten to the Atlantic Ocean!
Inside, there's a cute upstairs bar called "The Huddle." The downstairs area is quite large: pool tables, video games, darts (electronic and regular), another bar, a giant TV screen -- plus a veritable Jimmy Johnson museum guarded by a very large, very colorful fish tank.
The Three Rings menu is eclectic and offers wine. Food is good but not cheap; the least you can spend is $2.95 for salsa and chips. "J.J.'s Fries," cut from sweet potatoes, cost three bucks but are rather tasty. There are few bargains (a Friday night drink special and a buy-seven-lunches/get-one-free deal). All the Dallas Cowboy-related merchandise is finally outta there -- replaced by a whole line of Three Rings stuff. (Tourists will love it.)
The bad news is that Jimmy Johnson's seems to be a hotel accommodation first and an accessible sports bar second. The long walk from the Eden Roc's front door to the bar way out back will not be rewarded, for example, with access to HBO. (Even though you've been assured on the phone that they have it!) Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. CNN is fine, but not if you're expecting Wimbledon.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight (till 2:00 a.m. Saturday)
Happy Hour: Monday through Friday, 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., two-for-one drinks
Parking: Plenty next to the Eden Roc, but it's metered unless you do the valet thing. Bring plenty of quarters and steer clear of the spots against the side of the hotel that require coins till midnight
Best Bargain: Nothin'
Boooooo! Waaaaay over the J.J. photo quota
Olympic Fever? "No special events" (They will, of course, show the Olympics on TV -- except, perhaps, for a couple of hours on Saturday, August 3. That's JJ's date with destiny and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Key West Fishing Club
1601 Biscayne Blvd. (in the Crowne Plaza Hotel)
374-0000, ex. 477
Bet you never heard of this place. And there are good reasons for that -- they don't advertise, and they're located inside the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which oughta get arrested for hiding its front door. But if you zero in on the hotel driveway across from the Burger King, you can valet park and get your ticket validated. Take the elevator to the lobby, and your destination appears at your left. Having fun yet?
The Key West Fishing Club is spacious, clean, and festively decorated. As the name might suggest, there's no shortage of that Florida feel. If you eschew crowds, you'll love it, especially out of season, when the establishment tends to be empty. (Wanna have a private party to watch the Olympic opening ceremonies? Call up 50 of your closest friends and tell them to show up at the Fishing Club. You're likely to have the place to yourselves.)
The bar, tables, pool table/video game areas are nicely tied together by an adequate number of well-situated TV sets. A large, centrally located screen is visible from almost everywhere. There is, however, no satellite system or HBO. Just cable. So after the Olympics are over, concentrate on the local teams -- just like the decorators did.
The menu is typical but a little pricey, and ranges from onion rings ($1.95) to filet mignon ($16.95). You could do a lot worse than the "Sampler": $10.25 for a half-dozen chicken wing halves, four conch fritters, four onion rings, half a rack of ribs, and a dab of cole slaw.
Hours: 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. (till 1:30 a.m. on the weekend)
Happy Hour: Monday through Friday, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., assorted drink specials, free buffet
Parking: Free valet
Boooooo! Restrooms are way out in left field
Olympic Fever? Something is afoot
Lakes Sportsbar "N" Grill
15356 NW 79th Ct. (Just west of the Palmetto on Miami Lakes Drive)
Sports fans: What is wrong with this picture?
This is a roomy, comfortable establishment with a lot going for it. Seven booths that have their own TV sets! Thirty additional large TVs. Four pool tables. Lots of specials. One recent Saturday night featured Hector "Macho" Camacho vs. Roberto "No Mas" Duran, a closed-circuit bout you couldn't watch at home without paying for it. The menu is large, diverse, and moderately priced (nothing over $9.99). Great service. Even free O'Doul's for designated drivers in parties of four or more.
But the decor here is dominated by liquor company promos. Sports pages from several newspapers are available for customers to read, but why are they hanging by the bathroom doors? And doesn't anybody care about a TV picture that's too dark to see?
If you're in search of some serious Olympics-watching, you'll certainly want to give Lakes a miss on Friday, when the main focus is very loud music and a roomful of swingin' singles. Come to think of it, there's a special unsporty promotion for every night of the week. (Monday features "Boys Night Out," including a lingerie show.)
On the one hand, Lakes Sportsbar "N" Grill seems to be on the cutting edge (including a Website -- http://lakes-sportsbar.com -- complete with directions and a buy-one-drink/get-one-free coupon you can print out). On the other hand, the emphasis is on partying, not sports.
That might be okay for you, but we're here to call an aluminum bat an aluminum bat.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. (till 3:00 a.m. Friday)
Happy Hour: 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., double drafts/double shots, free buffet (weekends except during football season: 11:00 to 7:00 p.m., but no buffet)
Parking: Plenty, and free
Best Bargain: The website coupon's a nifty innovation
Boooooo! July 6 marked the first "Jumpin' Wild Ladies Night (A great new excuse to party)"
Olympic Fever? A special drink menu and "probably some games"
Shuckers Bar & Grill
Best Western Motel on the Bay Inn & Marina
1819 79th Street Causeway
North Bay Village
Sitting at the bar, eating chicken wings, looking out on the Intracoastal during a thundershower, a few palm trees, and Wimbledon on HBO (with closed-captioning!). Does it get any better than this?
Shuckers calls itself a "sports/neighborhood bar" -- as good a way as any to describe a place that's not fancy or professionally decorated but still takes very good care of sports fans. There's a regular clientele, but everybody's welcome.
The bar area is outdoors but covered, and supplemented by a few tables that lead out to a large uncovered patio with many more tables. Unfortunately, the further you get from the bar, the harder it is to see the half-dozen TV sets. A special big-screen setup, dedicated to local games and other important events, helps.
Three pool tables and the requisite video games are present. But the piece de resistance is a beach volleyball court off to the side. (In winter there's even a modest volleyball league. Point!)
The menu is substantive and fairly priced. Chicken quesadilla ($7.95) and steak tidbits served with grilled garlic bread ($6.50) are very good choices. The raw bar -- replete with oysters, clams, mussels, and shrimp -- features a boat of steamed shrimp for $14.95. Entrees, including pasta and prime rib, are served from 5:00 p.m. until midnight.
Drink and food specials are touted every night except Friday. Wednesday is Ladies Night, with free drafts at the bar for "unescorted ladies." And Tuesday and Thursday are Media Nights, which means a twenty-percent discount on all cocktails for "our friends from the media." (Mostly folks from Channel 6 and Channel 7, according to the management.)
Parking: Plenty, and free
Best Bargain: Bus trips to Joe Robbie and the arena. A recent excursion to a Marlins-Braves game cost $28 -- for a pregame buffet, the bus ride, drinks on the bus, and Club Level seats. Whatta steal!
Olympic Fever? They'll come up with something
538 Washington Ave.
Goaaaaaaaaaaaaal! The European Cup soccer tournament was followed religiously here for some weeks. For the final, the place (not all that big) was packed, leaving some unlucky fans outside with their faces pressed up against the windows. If you plan to catch the Olympics here, it might not be a bad idea to camp out early.
Though it doesn't score in the top three when judged according to strict sports-bar guidelines (see ratings), the truth is that the Sport Cafe is a delightful, moderately priced Italian restaurant with a sports theme. The menu is all-Italian, there are only three TVs (none serving the sidewalk tables), and the waiters don't speak a heck of a lot of English. But if your aim is to watch a game, eat well, and brush up on your Italian, this is the place.
The small menu befits the casual ambiance and includes appetizers, sandwiches, pizzas, and pastas. At $7.25, lasagna is the most expensive item; like all the pasta dishes, it comes with bread and a saucer of olive oil for dipping. Wine is also plentiful and affordable.
Just so you know, Luigi the bartender was born in Italy, raised in Venezuela, and roots for the Indians. It's the Omar Vizquel connection!
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.
Happy Hour: Nope (nobody seems to care, either)
Parking: The usual South Beach problems, with a dash of Campari
Best Bargain: Italian, German, Spanish, French newspapers (and the New York Times) sold -- at cost! -- at the bar
Boooooo! Are you kidding?
Olympic Fever? Natch
Fort Apache Marina
3025 NE 188th St.
This is one straaaaaange sports bar.
The setup here -- large bar area inside (eight TVs) plus a bunch of tables (one very large screen), a patio area (two TVs) with an outdoor bar (two more TVs), and what looks like a barbecue area, all of it off a modest marina -- has a lot of promise.
But where is everybody?
The crowd, such as it is, seems to favor hard drinkers over sports lovers. Sodas are served in telltale short cocktail glasses, and priced at $1.75.
The menu's a bit short, too, but it is quite serviceable. Appetizers, sandwiches, a couple of salads. Conch chowder for $3.50 and a twelve-ounce T-bone for $9.95. A half-pound of peel-and-eat-shrimp ($3.99) turned out to be a very pleasant experience.
Curtis, the manager, is willing to accommodate. If you're looking for games from faraway lands, he'll find 'em on his state-of-the-art three-dish satellite system. "It's a challenge," he says, "especially if they tell me I can't do it." (Curt seems like a nice enough guy, but what has he done to his hair?)
Still, if you come looking for a Marlins game on Channel 33, forget it. No Channel 33 here. Just the New York Yankees and a motley-looking live band called Time Machine. Oy.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. ("depending on the crowd")
Happy Hour: 3:00 to 7:00 p.m., two-for-one drinks
Parking: Plenty, and free (but be careful late at night)
Boooooo! No excuse for no Marlins game
Olympic Fever? Don't ask, 'cause Curt hates the summer Olympics. Too namby-pamby since the end of the Cold War. No more big Russian women with hair on their chests. (And no more Marlin-lovin' lady customers for Thunder Alley, either, Curt.)
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