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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Take me out to the sports bar ­— for food

Why, exactly, do we still need sports bars and restaurants?

It’s not as if flat-screen TVs are a rare commodity. We know where beer and snacks can be found. Goodness knows there seem to be more sporting events than there are human eyeballs to watch them.

And yet sports-themed palaces for public eating and drinking proliferate across the landscape.

The latest to enter the huddle is the new Glory Days Grill in New Tampa.

Outback Steakhouse founders Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan, and their partner, Nick Reader, bought the franchise rights to the chain co-founded in Fairfax, Va., by Basham’s brother Richard Danker. MVP Holdings, which also owns and operates PDQ, Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar and Lee Roy Selmon’s, owns the rights to expand Glory Days throughout Florida.

Walking into the first local grill, on Dona Michelle Drive in New Tampa, will remind you a lot of a Selmon’s. Mostly because it used to be one for a time.

But the menu is far from Selmon’s down-home-inspired menu.

How do crab and shrimp-stuffed pretzels grab you? Or a bowl of mac ’n’ cheese with “spicy hellfire bacon” chipotle barbecue and jalapenos? Maybe a Glory Burger with fried onion straws, bacon, Pepper Jack cheese and a fried egg is more your speed. If it is, try knocking it back with a frosty mug of root beer. Or a 100-ounce towering beer tube. You’ll thank me later.

Yes, the TVs are huge and in every corner of the room. A cool touch: Tables come with wireless speaker boxes so you can tune in the audio for the game you’re watching. And to send the message that this is a family sports emporium, at least one of the TVs will always show cartoons and programming for kids.

But if all it took were TVs to make a sports bar great, then Barnacles in Brandon would still be in business. When I first walked into that place and saw more than 400 screens bloated with NFL, MLB, NHL and NASCAR — this was before HD, remember — I became temporarily incapable of using human speech patterns. Unfortunately, the food had a poor batting average, didn’t run the bases well and pushed the edges of my salary cap.

Barnacles closed last year. No number of TVs can compensate for underwhelming grub and inconsistent service. Competition from such places as Hooters, Ferg’s, Hattricks, Wing House, Brick House Tavern + Tap and a Beef O’ Brady’s on every third block sealed its fate.

Ducky’s on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa is another recent sports pub entrant. The pedigree here is that Tampa Bay Rays all-star third baseman Evan Longoria is one of the owners.

Longoria said before the bar opened that he wanted the focus to be on unique food and efficient service. That explains the deviled eggs topped with duck bacon, the chili made with ground duck and the Ducky’s Pilsner made locally by Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg.

I was at Ducky’s during the Rays’ first home game. As Longoria went to the plate for the first time this season, a bartender asked seven people at the bar whether they wanted a shot of Fireball cinnamon-flavored whiskey. There were seven yeses. Longoria got a hit. I credit the whiskey and duck chili, and not his skills or many years of training.

The Rays may have created the ultimate sports bar at Tropicana Field with The Porch in Centerfield. During the off-season, the team demolished the former Everglades BBQ restaurant, turned it into an open-air, 42-foot-long bar and installed a walkway from the right-field foul pole to the left. Along that walkway is a counter where you can stand and eat or drink. If you turn around in right field and look at the giant video board, it feels like you’re watching the game from inside your flat-screen TV.

We’re not far away from a day when food at the game will be served by a batter hitting home runs of fried mac ’n’ cheese baseballs into the stands and celebrating by stepping on an actual dinner plate.

Which goes back to the question of why we still need sports bars.

I think it’s because no matter how comfy the couch is at home and no matter how cold the beer, it’s still more fun to yell at the screen in a room full of other sports fans.

As long as there are crab-stuffed pretzels, of course.

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