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 gteau St. Honor 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.
As a nutritious green, leafy counterpoint, we asked for a basket of chicken wings, sizzling, meaty, heavily oiled critters, accompanied by a forgettable dip. Happily, our draft brews arrived ice-cold, in frosted mugs, about the only way American beer is palatable.
If you're going to order Dutch Johns' mealtime fare, try to have a few point-spread winners sewed up. Otherwise, it may be a depressing afternoon.
I don't really know how chicken breast can be tough, unless my bird lifted weights. But that's how the chewy Cajun chicken came. The sandwich also featured a mushy bun and a few flavorless onions and peppers.
Fish and chips brought a couple of heavily breaded and fried pieces of cod that could safely satisfy an appetite. But the French fries tasted as if they were cooked about the same time the fish was caught, or perhaps conceived.
About the only thing we wanted to do with the chili-filled potato skins was punt. No one had bothered scooping out the potato, and the chili, cheese and jalape?os formed a gelatinous glop that we couldn't even entice the kid to eat.
We had a selection of one dessert, and we tried it. Although the peach pie clearly had a commercially baked taste, it went pretty well with strong coffee.
This is a pleasant place to catch the action, shoot some pool and quaff some cold refreshment. But on the all-important food line, Dutch Johns fails to serve up a winning spread.
McDuffy's, 230 West Fifth Street, Tempe, 966-5600. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Unlike Players and Dutch Johns, McDuffy's is geared to the college crowd in Tempe. It's got the feel of the game room at the Student Union, along with plenty of large screens, TV monitors and sports memorabilia.
The fast-moving waitresses don't let any grass grow under their feet, bringing food and drink immediately, and anticipating desires for a refill. And there's an impressive array of good foreign beers on tap, like Bass, Labatts, Guinness, Heineken and Fosters, to fill up on. This is a comfortable, down-home spot for weekend guzzling.
Apparently, though, this generation of college students, raised on microwave dinners and institutional dorm fare, knows even less about food than it does about history, literature or math. How else to explain dining here?
It doesn't really matter that nothing on McDuffy's menu rises even to the level of lahvosh pizza. After all, it's a sports bar. But why can't they get some of the basics right?
Take fowl ball skins. I read the dish's name twice, just to make sure I wasn't ordering something I'd regret. But the description, if not the name, sounded pretty good: potato skins filled with chicken, chiles, tomatoes, green onions and cheese. But all the ingredients seemed indistinguishable, and nothing had any flavor at all.
The commercial-looking, thickly breaded mushrooms came, I suspect, right from a ten-pound bag in the freezer. That didn't bother me. What did bother me was the squishy, watery mushrooms and unappealing ranch dressing.
The more substantial fare didn't turn out any better. The chicken-breast burger came marinated in teriyaki sauce and topped with pineapple and Jack cheese. But it all seemed so tasteless we had to double-check the menu to identify everything between the buns.
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No problem figuring out the dominant flavor of the Philly Fanatic sandwich--it's salt. It's a shame, too, because there's lots of thin-sliced meat, onions, peppers and cheese. Still, this is about as close as we got to quality sports-bar fare.
Perhaps the most unpleasant item we sampled was what McDuffy's calls "The Par." It's a turkey sandwich, and it reminded me of what comes out of a Greyhound Bus terminal sandwich machine at three in the morning. Some tired-looking turkey, a slice of rubbery Jack cheese, a little lettuce and tomato on sorry, sliced sourdough bread cannot please me, even if my team is covering the spread.
We did catch a break on desserts, however. McDuffy's doesn't serve any.