Sometimes I think sports bars operate in a parallel universe, one where hordes of flat screens, all with the sound turned off, are the norm.
Visitors to this universe watch those silent TVs between sips of booze, bites of wings and nibbles of nachos, never questioning the oddness of it all.
Of course, no one enjoys watching big-time sports with the sound turned off, unless, of course, you encounter sportscaster Chris Berman butchering another British Open.
So what is the point of a soundless TV in a public space? To entertain us? Distract us? Soothe us until we get home and watch more TV?
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This occurred to me recently when I sat near the bar at the Firestone Public House, 21 TVs strong, and watched a guy watching hockey with no volume. Hockey needs play-by-play, the sounds of bodies crashing into the boards, of pucks pinging off posts, those fun Canadian accents.
Nearby, there was baseball. And across the room, I saw basketball, the swishes silenced, the squeaks of rubber soles on wood floors muted.
This seemed plain wrong.
The Firestone Public House is actually not called a sports bar. It's a public house, which is a hip, relatively meaningless term, in this case one describing a restaurant and bar featuring sports on TVs.
If you want a wonderful example of a 21st century pub, you only have to walk next door to de Vere's, owned by the de Vere White family. And if you want a wonderful take on an urban bar with eclectic décor and modern style, you need only walk up a flight of stairs to Mix Downtown, owned by brothers Mason, Curtis and Alan Wong.
Situated on the corner of L and 16th streets, FPH is a potentially beautiful thing. Its art deco building is a redesigned and reimagined tire dealership, and the bar where the guy was watching hockey was once the open-air spot where people pulled up in their vehicles. It's been enclosed by glass so skillfully that it looks as if the building was always constructed this way.
The Firestone Public House is a partnership between the de Vere Whites and the Wong family, which also owns Cafeteria 15L, Ma Jong's, the Park Lounge, and the little walk-up eatery GoGi's Korean BBQ.
Given this wealth of talent and know-how, one would expect FPH to look great, and it does; function efficiently and professionally, and it does; have a great selection of cocktails, wines and beers, which it does; and have an interesting and delicious assortment of food, which remains a work in progress.
In a wonderful setting, with good service, great crowds and – TVs notwithstanding – a rather pleasing ambiance, this public house and sports bar needs to strengthen its menu and offer a more dynamic, imaginative and distinctive food program to live up to its strong beer and cocktail offerings.
Let's start with the very good – the bar. When that guy watching hockey orders a beer, he will choose from an excellent variety of craft beers – there are 60 on tap, and many rotate in and out.
Especially appealing in this setting are the beer flights. During one visit, I had the India Pale Ale flight ($8) of four small pours, including Green Flash and Dogfish Head; it's an entertaining way to work your way through the differences evident in this style of ale. The weakness of the beer selection is the glaring absence of local beers, several of which can more than hold their own with ones they're trucking in from afar.
Those IPAs paired well with rich and spicy dishes, including tender, meaty braised short ribs and sweet potato risotto and broccoli rabe. Less appealing was the butternut squash gnocchi, an overly busy dish featuring sage, bacon, an herb pesto and – uh-oh – a rather prominent piece of rubber gasket, U-shaped and a tad chewy, which I managed to catch in my front teeth before swallowing.
While I tend to urge restaurants to stretch their boundaries and challenge diners with new and uncommon ingredients, this is not what I was getting at. Since I was still two visits from finishing this review, I didn't make a fuss, though curiosity seekers can track it down via my Twitter feed.
But hey, it was the first visit; a place can bounce back from a faux pas like this.
Next time, I played it safe – give me the obligatory giant burger ($10.95) with the works, assuming that means things I can actually chew and digest, and add bacon ($1.95 extra) and mushrooms (another $1.95) to make it look even more monstrous.
This burger is good, probably among the top 15 in town. It's a thick patty with plenty of flavor, lots of add-ons working in harmony, a great big bun and no reasonable way of eating it without making a mess and smudging condiments all over your face.
Those short ribs are tasty, though the portion was on the skimpy, haute-cuisine side. The beer-battered fish and chips were solid – nicely cooked, crisp and clean eating, with a nice bit of flavor.
The steak was a letdown. Why not showcase a big, showy steak the way you do the burger? Instead, it's undersized and a little prissy looking, covered with a pale sauce and something called "brandy mushrooms."
The only other component on the plate was mashed potatoes, making the dish seem unbalanced and, yes, a bit meager without another vegetable.
The pizzas have shown signs of improvement since FPH opened nearly a year ago. The crust has a tenderness and chewiness now that give it character, the tomato sauce has mild flavor, and the toppings (like the salami and pork sausage on the $12.95 "Italian") made for an appealing eating experience with beer.
Still, the pizzas are not baked consistently. Sometimes the crust is charred and crisp, sometimes pale and limp.
The "famous brandy fried chicken" is an odd name for a dish at a new eatery. Some might call it infamous. When our server delivered it to our table, he mistakenly called it fish and chips because that's what it looks like – heavily battered pieces of chicken deep-fried until it is exceptionally crispy, practically crinkly.
This will be a divisive dish. Some diners will find it irresistible and a bit edgy, nearly crustaceanlike with that outer shell enveloping tender, juicy meat. Others will find it an ungainly overreach of a classic dish.
Imperfections aside, FPH is an amazing success. It serves up 300 to 400 brunches on Sunday. It does 100 lunches daily on weekdays. For dinner, the record so far is 515 served, with a slow night clocking in at 250.
When an NBA committee voted against Seattle's effort to uproot the Kings, Mayor Kevin Johnson gave his press conference on the matter here.
In the years ahead, Firestone must evolve if it is going to keep this early success going. In the kitchen, it could assert itself with more panache.
For now, it's racking up Hall of Fame numbers with plenty of potential to do better.
Firestone Public House
1132 16th St., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Tuesday; 11 a.m.- 2 a.m. Wednesday-Friday; 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday- Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar, including 60 beers on tap.
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat
Noise level: Loud but manageable
Overall : Two 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Great location, a wonderful reuse of an old art deco building and a smart, energetic bar program are the major draws to this instantly successful enterprise. A more interesting menu and better execution in the kitchen will take it to the next level.
Food: Two stars
We enjoyed the burger, liked the pizzas, filled up on the giant pretzel that tastes more like a dinner roll, but had trouble loving much else on the menu, from the over-dressed Cobb salad to the butternut squash gnocchi with a piece of rubber nestled in the pesto sauce. More distinctive food will give this place character. The beer selection is very good, though it could throw some local craft beers into the mix.
Service: Three stars
The servers can talk about the beer and drinks, and they know the menu well. We were especially impressed with the assistant waiters (food runners) who were prompt and attentive.
Ambiance: Three 1/2 stars
Lots of energy and an attractive setting, but what's with the 21 TVs, all on mute?
Value: Two 1/2 stars
Most entrees range from the mid- to high teens and top out at $21.95 for the steak. Sandwiches are $9.95 to $14.95. Value is uneven – a giant burger for $10.95, a skimpy, underachieving steak for twice that. The beer flights for $8 are a good value and a fun way to get to know the selection.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.