Some sports bars are monstrous temples to the television, customers' eyes flickering from one flat-screen to the other in a media orgy broken only by glances at platters of fried foods. Others are homey spots more akin to your neighbor's bonus room — just a couple of TVs broadcasting the game and some cold draft beer. When I'm looking for a place to watch a game, the kind of sports bar I choose depends on my mood.
On a Tuesday night, in the middle of the Rays' final homestand against the Red Sox, I wanted a neighborhood joint where my friends and I could mingle with other steadfast and fair-weather fans. I corralled the group and took them to Partners Sports Café in St. Pete's Historic Kenwood.
It's not an obvious choice. Walk in and you'll see a couple pool tables and bar games off to the right, a few flat screens scattered around the bar and main dining room, and black walls splattered with squiggles of neon paint that likely look spectacular under black lights. Even the most oblivious sports fan could quickly tell that this isn't the usual temple of beer, grease and games. Partners is a gay sports bar.
Great for men and women who like to root for their teams in an atmosphere supportive of their sexual preference, sure, but Partners also has a lot to offer the open-minded hetero fan. The food is more interesting, with a menu that runs from standard to upscale bar food during daylight hours and Monday through Wednesday nights, to bistro dining on white tablecloths Thursday through Saturday. There's draft beer, a little wine list, and on Sundays you can down $2 mimosas or $3 Bloody Marys while catching the NFL action.
When it comes to fandom, gay guys and lesbians can be just as ardent as your typical frat boy. Screams erupted from the bar every time the Rays smacked a hit or saved a run. If you're straight, you've got a lot more in common with the people watching sports here than you might think.
And you can still nosh on familiar bar food, if you'd like. A platter of fried treats ($7) — from mozzarella sticks to jalapeno poppers — was no different from any I've eaten over the last few decades. Stuffed olives ($7) coated in crisp cornmeal were more cheese than olive, which mediates the salty brine that often dominates these little nuggets. Wings ($7) disappointed, but there are better places for things like that (keep reading).
Given the talent in the kitchen, Partners elevates its sandwiches past the usual sports bar fare, especially the giant tilapia filet ($8) that's lightly breaded, pan-fried and seasoned to just shy of the breaking point, a necessity in such a mild and featureless fish. A burger ($8) was cooked nicely and well-seasoned, with fresher veggies than most.
I guess folks with a low tolerance for other sexual persuasions might flinch when the server — affable dude and Partners' fixture Gideon — slides his hand down their back while taking the beer order, but he's less forward than most waitresses at the chain wing joints.
When Partners' menu goes more high-end, it's still cheaper than your usual restaurant. And if the game goes long, you'll also have to deal with the nightly themes that Partners promotes. We broke our little outing around the sixth inning, about 15 minutes before Tuesday night karaoke got started.
So maybe stretching sports bar horizons isn't your bag. Among the myriad other options available to bashful heteros and those who want a more typical experience is the brand new Wings Gone Wild in South Tampa. This new local chain — there's another in Brandon — took over the spot recently vacated by the failed Hawks near the intersection of MacDill and Bay to Bay.
The cavernous space has a lot more character than your usual chain wing joint, and there are several televisions in line of sight from every seat in the house. The menu seems cribbed from a Buffalo Wild Wings, but the wings at WGW ($6.99 for 10) are considerably better than those at other chains. Oh, the meat is nothing special, but it's cooked just right — crispy but still moist, with none of the flabby skin that taints so many versions. And though there are almost a dozen different variations of sauce, most of them are free of the corn syrup and salt overload common at lesser joints.
WGW's classic topping is the usual blend of butter and Red Hot pepper sauce, thick enough to cling, almost too rich but with enough vinegary heat to pull off a winner. Sweet 'n' spicy is just as advertised, with enough spice to start a hefty slow burn. Barbecue has a big hit of smoky mesquite and the teriyaki is thankfully restrained when it comes to sugar. They're all damn fine wings.
The other menu items are typical, but the chicken sandwich ($7.49) is moister than most, and deep-fried pickles ($4.99) come in big, crunchy spears rather than the usual chips. There are even tater tots! Yum.
And, since WGW is more a Buffalo Wild Wings clone than a boobalicious knock-off of Hooters, the waitresses (yeah, all female) don't resort to that gratuitous fawning interaction with customers.
That also means there's less touching than you'll get from Gideon.