The Press Box scores with a collection of sports bar standards.

click to enlarge BOX EATS: It's hard to go wrong with beer and a burger. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
BOX EATS: It's hard to go wrong with beer and a burger.

After the ignominious defeat of the Buccaneers at the hands of ancient Joe Gibbs and his tepid Redskins, I felt the need to recharge my sports batteries. Let's face it, there are precious few weeks of football season left. Should I squander them in a fit of anger and frustration? Would fumble funk and interception depression keep me from squeezing every last ounce of enjoyment from the best sport on television, before it disappears for another depressing, baseball-filled spring?

Sure, I like the Lightning, and with Naimoli gone I can start watching the Rays again, but hockey and baseball can't compete with the gridiron.

No, I was determined to effect a quick recovery from my fan blues. I needed some greasy Prozac, stat. Wings, skins and platters of fried food might do the trick, I thought, along with a crowd of fans that might still have something to cheer about. I needed a sports bar. Had to get to the Press Box.

I'm all for watching the game in the comfort of my own home, but sometimes you need the sort of thing only a good sports bar can provide. Namely, a fryer. I don't own one — all that bubbling oil dredges up uncomfortable memories of working at the Chick-Fil-A — so if I want a crunchy, salty snack I've gotta get off my ass and drive down the street.

After half-heartedly checking out the first half of the Steelers-Bengals game on Sunday night, I called some compatriots and headed for Dale Mabry.

I like the Press Box because it has the cramped feel of a finished Midwest basement, albeit with 20 or so TVs hanging from the rafters. There are no windows; the walls are covered in wood planks that look disturbingly like '70s paneling; and the ancient tables and booths are crammed together. At one end of the room, two giant screens luridly displayed the death throes of a Cincinnati team sans Carson Palmer. It seemed that only the Steelers fans were hanging around. Joy was in the air. Me, I still felt only bitter regret over the Bucs loss.

We sat at a booth that had a little spring to it, and by spring I mean the two metal objects probing my posterior as I sank deep into prehistoric green vinyl. Whatever. A few longnecks and a platter of fries would soon anesthetize my ass.

Sports bars generally follow a common template: lots of TVs, inexpensive domestic beer, female waitstaff and a menu that rarely varies. "World famous" wings are a must, and if you've got that Buffalo sauce you might as well throw it on sandwiches and salads, shrimp and burgers. Then come the fried food standards, greasy salt-bombs that go a long way to selling more cheap beer. Then there are burgers — dozens of varieties — ribs, often with super secret sauce, and the blackened grouper sandwich, since it's Florida. To cover all of our bases, we ordered one of almost everything.

The Press Box's onion rings ($4.99) — puffy, crisp, and salty — were almost ideal, the kind of fried food that reminds you how good everything tasted before people wanted to be healthy. Other fried offerings were almost as good, including a basket of crunchy, cornmeal-coated mushrooms ($4.99) and a stack of chewy homemade potato chips ($5). But cheese sticks ($5.99) and jalapeno poppers ($5.59) were the same as everywhere, and grouper fingers ($6.79) were sadly tasteless.

After one last glimpse of smug, mustachioed Bill Cowher and wonderboy Ben Roethlisberger, every screen in the joint suddenly switched to the glistening skin and bulging muscles of professional wrestling. Steelers fans filed out and a new crowd filed in, past a Press Box staffer making the rounds to collect a $5 pay-per-view cover. What? Shouldn't they have paid me to watch the insipid steroid soap opera?

Whatever, it's Planet money I was spending, and my wings (10 for $7.99) had arrived. The petite chickens that gave their all for these tiny drumsticks and plump wings would've been proud. Each steaming piece of meat was uniformly coated in the classic sauce, the scent of vinegar and Red Hot filling my mouth with saliva quicker than any damn bell. They tasted even better than they smelled.

As I contentedly licked my fingers and fouled all paper napkins within reach, the Nature Boy Ric Flair was hauling his unnatural 60-year-old body into the ring to battle some young buck. I love Ric Flair! Hooooo! Twenty minutes later, Jerry Lawler walked into the spotlight. The king? He's gotta be 80! Wow. I was completely entranced.

We listened to the cheers and jeers of neighboring WWE fans while powering through a perfectly cooked rare burger ($5.99) and a "super" grouper sandwich ($7.59) that wasn't quite "super," but wasn't bad. I couldn't stop stealing forkfuls of the fallen detritus of a companion's sloppy joe ($6.59). Better than my childhood memories, this meaty mess was sweet and beefy, with just enough smoky barbecue sauce to make it an adult treat.

Everyone at the table avoided the tough, old-tasting ribs, even though they were doused in Lee Roy Selmon's zesty sauce.

It was no problem, though, because we were all engrossed in the WWE New Year's Revolution extravaganza unfolding on the screens, our stomachs sated by meat, breading and salt. Oddly, one lone TV off to the side was set on WEDU, displaying an episode of Nature, then Masterpiece Theatre. Huh?

Well, the Press Box — with the assistance of professional wrestling — did help me get my fan groove back. Who woulda known? After a bra-and-panty match, plenty of bad improv and macho posturing, I was ready for some more football.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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