2/28/2013 - Think of sports bars and you might picture men in jerseys drinking beer and cheering on their favorite team while watching the game on a big-screen TV. That’s part of the atmosphere, for sure, but by turning their focus to top-notch food, local bars are creating more of a women and family-friendly restaurant vibe.
Focus on food
Turns out it’s not just the dozens of flatscreen TVs or the endless beers on tap that draw men to sports bars — really, it’s the food that matters.
“You can go to any bar and have a cold beer, but how do you make it a restaurant?” asked Bill LeBerge, owner of Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester. “That’s the question, and the answer is simply to have the beer cold, and have good food to go with it. You want to be somewhere people know they can come in and have a hamburger or steak tips or chicken wings that are consistently good.”
Billy’s regular Philip Drumond said he especially likes the bar’s wings and nachos. He was camped out at a four-seat high-top with three friends on Super Bowl Sunday — nothing unusual for Drumond.
“I typically sit here on Sundays,” he said. “If the Pats were in it, I would actually be at the Super Bowl. But the wings here are great.”
In fact, the wings are why a lot of people go to Billy’s; there are six varieties of buffalo wings that can be ordered in dozens of different sizes and platters. The menu also includes plenty of other options, like four different ways to have your nachos, 10 sliders selections and a wealth of comfort-food entrees, like the half pound Billy Burger with barbecue sauce, Swiss cheese and Canadian bacon.
Other sports bar owners agree that they live or die on their food.
“Any neighborhood bar needs to have a menu that can establish itself,” said Andy Sanborn, owner of The Draft in Concord.
Sanborn’s menu is all food he enjoys cooking, and he said the more homemade touches one can incorporate into a restaurant, the better. Smoked, rubbed meats, including racks of baby back ribs and a pulled pork dinner plate, are served with six special sauces. Other sauces come with their wings: spicy, teriyaki, garlic and Parmesan, barbecue or lemon pepper cajun.
Six different gourmet burgers, sandwich classics and even an option to build a “Fantasy Sandwich” using any ingredients any which way, and there are fantasy pizzas too.
About a dozen of the taps feature New England craft beers.
“It’s the homemade feel. And it’s always great to support local breweries and craft beers — if people in New Hampshire don’t necessarily want a Bud while they stare at a 70-inch TV, they can have something else and enjoy the environment,” Sanborn said.
Buffalo Wild Wings, a national chain that opened in Concord last fall, focuses on its food and a family demographic, according to franchise co-owners Aaron Miller and Martti Matheson.
“Our strategy is to sell good food — we’re a sports restaurant. Eighty percent of our sales are food, and sports and food are what we’re about,” said Miller, who played in the NHL for the Colorado Avalanche, LA Kings and Vancouver Canucks before retiring.
The restaurant’s customizable wings are front and center on the menu; they’re available in 16 different flavors and levels of hotness. Other picks include Buffalitos, which are flour tortillas with chicken and some sauce; fried pickles; a number of wraps like pepper jack steak; and steak, nacho or blackbean burgers.
Not just for men
Christine Paull of Fort Lauderdale and Chad Whitfield of San Diego, sitting with kids and grandkids at Billy’s recently, shared a plate of boneless wings and had ordered 40 regular wings to bring home.
“We heard it was the best place to go for wings, and they are better than any I’ve had in Florida,” Paull said.
She was tipped off by her daughter, Athena Contarino, a formal local who relocated to the seacoast.
“It’s the food that people come for, but it’s a fun atmosphere because you get to mingle with a lot of people,” Contarino said.
Sports bars are attracting more than just dudes these days, as owners aim to offer something — food, atmosphere or otherwise — for everyone.
Attracting families means providing the sports-food connection with dining room seating that’s more open than a typical bar atmosphere.
“Families are what we’re all about, because our menu is consistent, and accommodating kids is a huge part of that,” Miller said.
When it comes to sporting events, Billy’s sees about as many women as men, on average.
“Most of the time i[the male-female ratio is] right down the middle. ... When it comes to football it’s 50-50. Other sports it about 70-30, but sometimes we even see more girls than guys,” LeBerge said.
“We have a ton of female fans,” said Sanborn. “I couldn’t give you percentage. Personally, I can say the women are more passionate at our place.”
The sports vibe matters
Sanborn said he has more than 55 televisions at The Draft to keep all sorts of games on and allow at least three to be visible from any seat. Bars will typically hold allegiances to home teams, but being able to screen every team has drawn established customers from all of them.
“On any given Sunday you’ll see Pats fans next to Colts fans and Miami fans and the Packers-Steelers people,” Sanborn said. “Every week they wear their colors, and it contributes to a feeling you can’t get at your house. I love to see that energy; it’s the great thing about sports — they are not sexist and it doesn’t matter your color or creed or size; at any level a fan is a fan.”