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Players Bar & Grill

Players Bar & Grill, 455 North Third Street (Arizona Center), Phoenix, 252-6222. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

There are plenty of places in the Valley where you can get some eats and watch a football game in comfort.

Unfortunately, my house is not one of them.
My wife's pathological hatred of the game started in high school, in the freezing wastelands of northern Michigan. As a member of the band, she'd have to march around the field in a short skirt tootling a frozen clarinet at halftime. The Arctic winds forever numbed her enthusiasm for the sport.

The kids have picked up on her sneering attitude. "Football's for morons" is the way they like to put it. It's hard to get such people to appreciate the subtle refinements of the game, like covering the point spread.

So from Labor Day to New Year's, on weekends and Monday night, I have two choices: listen to shrieking harpies condemn my only known vice, or head out to an establishment that makes me feel good about my lifestyle choices.

But clear television reception and the company of like-minded fans aren't enough to complete my happiness. I've got to have some decent food, too.

So on a recent Monday night, I wandered over to Players, part of the Phoenix Live! entertainment complex (along with America's Original Sports Bar, Ltl Ditty's and Puzzles) at the Arizona Center.

It's a pleasant, upscale-looking restaurant for the low-key fan. The black-and-white-checkerboard floor is polished to a gymnasium's shine. Sports photos are everywhere. Most important, I can see a small TV screen no matter which way I swivel my head. And no one is shouting at the players, even when they botch a play.

The food offerings are light-years beyond the limited neighborhood sports-bar fare I'm used to and, surprisingly, not that much more costly.

For example, I've rarely watched a game while munching Sonoran crab cakes, served with green and red salsa. Too bad the two-cake portion is so puny--they're tasty, but it would take several plates to make a dent in my appetite.

On the other hand, the crisp Buffalo wings are just right, tangy and not too greasy, accompanied by a blue-cheese dressing that actually tastes like it has some blue cheese in it. We washed down these starters with some reasonably cold draft beer, although I was surprised Players couldn't offer more than Coors, Bud or Miller on tap.

Many of the main dishes wouldn't be out of place at a tailgate party before the big game between Wellesley and Vassar. Smoked-duck pasta is egg noodles crammed with mushrooms, diced tomatoes, walnuts and pungent duck in a very rich cream sauce.

It comes with an ordinary salad perked up by a wonderful, sweet, house strawberry vinaigrette and fresh, thick garlic bread. You could do a lot worse for $7.95, even without Al, Frank and Dan thrown in.

Blackened-chicken caesar salad is also a good choice. There's lots of sliced, Cajun-blackened chicken, lots of croutons and a fair-tasting plateful of greenery.

I went for the Sun Devil burger, which I half-expected to come with a ball-and-chain garnish. Instead, it's a hefty, half-pound mound of beef on a whole-wheat sesame bun, with some mild green chiles, Jack cheese and pico de gallo. It's a lot better than the sports-bar burgers I'm used to.

Desserts aren't an afterthought here. The waiter lugged over a big tray with the evening's sweets to stimulate our appetites, and the stratagem worked. The gÉteau St. Honorā turned out to be a reasonable approximation of the French treat, a kind of Napoleon with thin pastry dough layered with custard cream filling.

Players' adult style and eats may not appeal to the raucous beer-swilling, mozzarella-sticked, point-covering crowd. But it's a darned civilized way to watch a ball game.

Dutch Johns, 8880 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 860-2922. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Depending on your point of view, Dutch Johns is one step up, or down, the evolutionary sports-bar ladder from Players.

The decor is as predictable as the Cardinals offense: video games, pool table (75 cents a game), ABC promotional knickknacks, team banners and beer paraphernalia. An attractive bar forms a square in the center, and tables, TV monitors and several large screens ring the edges of the room. There are good sight lines anywhere you sit.

The place doesn't seem to be a Generation X hangout. Like me, most of the almost-entirely-male crowd here have been out of college long enough to no longer get choked up hearing the strains of "Boola Boola." We're here for serious football viewing.

On a college-football Saturday, my friend Bob, his 11-year-old son and I spent a filling and fulfilling afternoon, checking over our office-pool picks and doing some heavy-duty chowing.

While Bob and son scanned the waitresses, I kept my focus on the appetizer listings. No Sonoran crab cakes here, but Dutch Johns does occasionally aspire beyond the usual. We shared a lahvosh pizza: a huge serving of Armenian cracker bread liberally covered with two kinds of cheeses, sausage and mushrooms and plenty of grease for easy swallowing.

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