Restaurant News & Reviews

Counter Culture: Sports bar needs a new food game plan

The New York steak “sandwich bites” at Players sports bar are sliced to share.
The New York steak “sandwich bites” at Players sports bar are sliced to share.

As the televised college and NFL football seasons approach closure, we’re reminded of two things: We’d rather watch someone get body-slammed into the turf than actually experience it ourselves. And sometimes it’s a lot more fun and far less hassle to watch a game on a big-screen TV in a sports bar full of cheering fans than trek to and from a stadium to see it live. Though we do miss the Cracker Jack.

As sports-bar veterans well know, there’s plenty more football (and beer) left on the schedule: Saturday, it’s the Baltimore Ravens at the New England Patriots, and the Carolina Panthers at the Seattle Seahawks. On Sunday, the doubleheader is the Dallas Cowboys at the Green Pay Packers, and the Indianapolis Colts at the Denver Broncos.

In between those games and the NFC and AFC conference championship games on Jan. 18 (and the Super Bowl on Feb. 1) is the potentially more interesting inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday, with the Oregon Ducks taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes.

If you want to watch the action, sip a cold one and tear into a basket of hot wings, there’s an overtime of sports bars-grills in our area, from Field House (1310 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; 916-487-1045, and Clubhouse (5150 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; 916-979-1422,, to Bunz (311 Judah St., Roseville; 916-786-6655, and Firestone Public House (1132 16th St., Sacramento; 916-446-0888, Oh, and the Buffalo Wild Wings in Folsom, Citrus Heights and Natomas (

Lunch pal Chris O’Brien and I tossed a coin several times to figure a destination, and came up with Players Sports Bar & Grill, which has been around for like 30 years. We’re not sure, because nobody returned our calls later. Its motto: “A great place for adults to play.” Chris isn’t much of a football fan, but, like me, will eat pub grub whenever he gets the chance.

We parked the car in the jammed parking lot last Sunday and noticed a big sign out front: “Great food ‘til 1 a.m.”

“So what happens after 1 a.m.?” Chris asked. “They start serving not-so-great food?”

We walked into a dimly lit, loud, cavernous space jammed with tables and barstools, glowing beer signage, sports memorabilia, framed photos and football fans ranging from age 10 to 70. A wall menu of house attractions boasted nine pool tables, four basketball games, four dart boards, three shuffleboard tables and air hockey.

The Dallas Cowboys-Detroit Lions game was about to start on 36 HD TVs and three big screens (one occupies most of a wall). Judging by the many patrons in Cowboys jerseys and hats, and their hoots and hollers that followed, the crowd clearly was pro-Dallas.

We sat on stools at a table near the packed full bar and cruised the menu ($2.50 to $23). It’s filled with lots of deep-fried options, plus a prime rib sandwich, Philly cheesesteak, ribeye steak, spareribs, five kinds of chicken sandwiches, chili, a bunch of burgers, mini pork shanks and salads. Wait a minute ... You wouldn’t find greenery in sports bars in Detroit or Dallas, would you?

A personable server took our order, in between balancing pitchers of beer and delivering plastic plates of food to other tables. She was faster and more efficient than the Cowboys, who were soon down 14-zip in the first quarter.

We began sampling the spread: messy teriyaki wings with way too much salty teriyaki “syrup”; over-battered halibut “fillets” (fish fingers, really), which smelled of the oil in which they were fried; pretty good New York steak “sandwich bites” (juicy but over-salted); a split and grilled (and mealy) hot dog, with a side of chopped red onion but no pickle relish; crunchy and over-battered onion rings that had no flavor; and so-so french fries not nearly as good as the ones sold at McDonald’s.

“Does anybody come here for the food?” asked Chris, pushing the barely touched plates out of the way. “I think a shorter menu would help.”

Definitely, but only after a total menu makeover. In this case, the sports bar and grill is all about the sports and the bar, and not the grill. We left long before Dallas got lucky with a recalled defensive pass interference call and won the game.

Topping off a pizza

Excellent pizzas in many styles are plentiful around Sacramento, but three chains have brought a different template to the Italian classic, sort of the speed-dating version of a pizza romance. The national chains Blaze and Pieology, and the California mini-chain Blast 825, offer good-quality, bargain-priced, fast-fired pies, with quickness of delivery one of the main selling points.

In their build-your-own models, customers choose traditional or gluten-free crust topped with as many ingredients as they wish, chosen from an array of sauces, cheeses and toppings, all at a single price. The pizzas then go into hot ovens for three to five minutes, depending on the amounts of toppings.

My colleague Blair Anthony Robertson recently wrote a First Impressions column on the Pieology store in midtown, but we stopped by the Blaze unit in Gold River for our own similar experience.

We stood in the fast-moving line behind 17 customers (15 more dined on the patio) and watched as an assembly line of friendly, accommodating “pizzasmiths” furiously loaded pizza-dough rounds with heaps of toppings.

Our turn came. OK, let’s go with a traditional crust smeared with spicy red sauce and a drizzle of pesto. Next, add two kinds of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Move on to artichokes, kalamata olives, fresh basil, arugula, mushrooms, jalapeño and cherry tomato. As for meat, throw on some bacon, pepperoni and Italian sausage. All for $7.75. We’ll be back after we lose weight.

Blaze Pizza, Gold River Town Centre, 2137 Golden Centre Lane, (916) 631-1355,

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Players Sports Bar & Grill

4060 Sunrise Blvd., Fair Oaks; a sister pub is at 9729 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks, (916) 967-7870

Hours: The kitchen is open 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-1 a.m. weekends

Food: 1/2

Ambiance: (for its sports-bar template)

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 967-7870,