We knew we would be missing the extremely important vice-presidential so-called debates when we decided to have dinner at Big Shots Sports Cafe last week. But we rebelliously chose an evening of probably mediocre food, out, instead of an evening of assuredly bad entertainment, in. Also, we were anxious about the Orioles and already in a huff about that bad call and out-of-control kid, and I figured that since I was already a little behind in checking out Big Shots because of a natural immunity to the concept, we'd play hooky from the political arena and watch the end of the game instead, by the way reinforcing our daughter's sense of life's priorities. (Which game is more important, really? Baseball or politics?)
We didn't suspect anything when we saw the red, white, and blue balloons waving outside the door. But when we entered, we were informed by the hostess that the entire dining area had been reserved for a Republican fund raiser organized to watch, you guessed it, the debates. We were welcome to eat at the bar or in the pool room, she told us, if we weren't going to donate to Dole.
They call these places "sports cafes" and Big Shots is one of the upscale variety. It's owned by the people who own Clicks, which is frankly more a pool hall than a sports bar, but Big Shots' decor was conceived by the talented Paul Draper, who has been responsible for some of the best-looking rooms in town. And Big Shots looks good, too: It's a contemporary take on '50s lounge style, with swoop-backed booths, diamond-patterned carpet, and curled iron lamps. The separate pool--excuse me, when it's expensive, they prefer you call it billiards--room is draped in white fringed canvas, the bar and dining room are full of clean, sinuous curves. But Big Shots is a sports bar, not just a cue palace, and we know that translates (however oddly) as a place to watch sports TV while you eat.
Seated at the bar with a bright, clear monitor directly in front of us and our own cute, ponytailed bartender at close hand to attend to our every finicky demand (margarita shaken over ice, up, with salt) promptly and even with flourishes (flipping the shaker, juggling the glass), we were much happier than we had been the last time we'd visited Big Shots. It was much better to be seated in an overtly tube-staring row, instead of participating in that pretense of togetherness that is dining around a table in a sports bar. The truth always is that everyone wants to face the same way, in the direction of the big TV, but there's that table so you have to angle your chair slightly and pretend you're going to converse with everyone, even though all you really want to do is watch the game. (Any game.) It would be more honest if they just lined up long tables in rows like a high-school study hall so everyone could pay attention to what they came for.
Anyway, at the bar, with the screen only a few feet from our eyes, we were indulging ourselves and our daughter in behavior we knew was capital-letter Wrong, but what was the alternative? Paying extra to sit with a bunch of blue suits? We thought not. It seemed to us that we were actually being forced by circumstances beyond our control to eat dinner while we watched TV, something we all secretly love to do but that we're told constantly by the experts is one of the things--along with free condoms and rock 'n' roll--that is ruining the American family.
Well, as you already know, it was a disappointing baseball game (assuming you wanted revenge on the Yankees for their quick dump on the Rangers) and it was compounded the next day by the instant celebrity of that kid, who should have been scolded if not spanked. But it was not as disappointing as the moment when all the sets in the entire restaurant were tuned to the snooze-out between Kemp and Gore. What a waste of our misbehavior. Which makes you muse, why not a TV bar where you can watch reruns of Perry Mason or Hawaii Five O? What if there were a grill that had big screen A&E? Or The Food Channel?
Our first visit (around a table, all political allegiances private) we had watched the end of a Bengals game with a friend who had just returned from London, and the culture shock made him wish he never had. Our appreciation of the otherwise meaningless game was slightly enhanced by knowing that our waitress' boyfriend was Ki-Jana Carter. That also accounted for the dingbat quotient--why the Caesar was confused with the sweetly dressed house salad.
It's a mystery I never bother to ponder why sports bars are determined to serve enormous portions of everything, as though you worked up an appetite just watching other people perspire. They just do. So it was no surprise that Big Shots' bruschetta (called "a taste of sophistication" on the menu) was an entire loaf of toasted French bread, split and mounded with three or four cups of tomato chunks mixed with basil, chopped olives, and onions. An appetizer called Southwest Egg Rolls came huddled on the plate, each one stuffed with big chicken pieces, black beans, cilantro, and cheese and served with euphemistically called avocado sauce. Santa Fe Chicken was the big breast of a former chicken halfback, doused in chile sauce and, so very oddly, melted havarti cheese. Northern cheeses are all over Big Shots' menu: Smoked Gouda is melted into the Cajun sauce for penne, and havarti comes on the Monterey Chicken, too. The oak-grilled portobello sandwich, one of the few vegetarian offerings, suffered from the opposite problem: The mushrooms were grilled till the juices flowed, and slices of squash, zucchini, eggplant, and (again) havarti were all so slippery that the sandwich had to be reconstructed after every bite.
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Service slowed considerably at the end of the meal--I'm not sure what Ki-Jana was up to but it wasn't having a positive effect on our dinner, at least until we received a football card along with the outrageous Mudslide, a ridiculously huge hot brownie covered with ice cream and fudge sauce, a Howard Johnson classic gone pro.
When we ate at the bar, service was better and so was the food, though that had nothing to do with our seating. The Yahoo is a take on the sandwich Helen Corbitt made famous--the Duke of Windsor--the only difference being that Mrs. Corbitt never put her hands on bread like this. The sharp Cheddar spread, thin-sliced turkey, pineapple ring, and chutney were layered on Empire Bakery bread, and the outlandish combination tasted as good as ever. The quesadillas came on a platter and were stuffed to sagging with chicken, cheese, bacon, and onions and presented on the counter on a white napkin spread out as a place mat (with the margarita.) The waiter brought extra french fries for us to taste, and the bartender gave the little girl extra cherries in her Shirley Temple. All of which made us feel privileged to be eating beyond the pale, outside the group of Republican big shots.
Big Shots Sports Cafe, 4511 McKinney Ave., (214) 522-4808. Open daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Big Shots Sports Cafe:
Southwest Egg Rolls $6.25
Vermont White Cheddar Burger $6.75
Santa Fe Chicken $8.95
Oak-Grilled Portobello Sandwich $8.50