Sports Bars Bucket List: Welcome to the Clubhouse

 

During Arkansas’s run in the 2022 College World Series in Omaha, Hog fans made headlines all over the country for their performance off the field. A restaurant and bar near the baseball stadium held a Jello shot challenge complete with scoreboard that tracked the fans of a given CWS team to see who could bring home the title of most shots purchased. 

 

Arkansas held its own in the competition, finishing with a staggering 8,672 Jello shots purchased. And while Ole Miss ultimately won the contest (and the championship) with a liver-pickling 18,777 shots, the contest revealed some fundamental things about Hog fans: One, they had less than half of the drinking problem of your typical Rebel and two, they love a good sports bar – especially when their beloved Razorbacks are on a roll.

 

“With Coach Sam Pittman and the football team’s success of the last two years, it’s just been awesome,” says Brad McCray, owner of Brewski’s Pub & Grub in Little Rock. “Having a good Razorback football program just sets the stage for the energy and the environment and the success that we’ve enjoyed on Saturday afternoons, especially. And then the recent excitement over men’s basketball and baseball just continues that momentum.”

sports bars

Heather Baker and DJ Williams

“It gets kind of crazy, but everyone fights over working on game day because it’s such a big crowd and it gets so wild,” says Kristina Cunningham, general manager of Boudreaux’s Grill & Bar in Maumelle. “LSU is a huge crowd, a huge turnout. There’s nowhere to sit. People are calling and making reservations for that game already. Then, during the game itself, it’s a big, friendly arguments between everybody in here because it’s literally split down the middle, half Razorbacks and half Tigers. It’s really fun.”

 

Long before the “Cheers” theme described the best bar as one “where everybody knows your name,” people have gravitated to local watering holes to find community. For hundreds of years, patrons of British pubs and American taverns alike gathered to drink and discuss politics, scandal, and yes, even revolution, as well as the fate of the local sporting franchise. 

 

Despite this history, the sports bar in America is a relatively recent invention, one widely accepted to have been birthed in St. Louis. As Kerry Byrne chronicled for FoxNews.com last month, Palermo’s Tavern opened in 1933, at a time when St. Louis had two professional baseball teams, the St. Louis Browns (later the Baltimore Orioles) and the St. Louis Cardinals. Both played at Sportsman’s Park which was right across the street from the bar and as such, Palermo’s Tavern hosted many of the game’s legendary players, both on the home teams and visitors. 

 

Jimmy Palermo worked as a Browns bat boy and in other clubhouse roles growing up, in addition to helping out at the family tavern. When Palermo returned home from World War II, he took over the establishment from his father, decorating it with the sports memorabilia he had accumulated over 15 years with the Browns and as an aspiring professional umpire.

 

He was also the first to install space-age gadgets around the bar – 12-inch black-and-white Farnsworth television sets, among the earliest models sold in the U.S. – starting in 1947. Add in the tavern’s menu of stadium food and copious suds from the city’s famous breweries, and you have the grandaddy of the modern sports bar.

 

It should also be noted the first “modern” sports bar – Legends of Long Beach, California, opened in 1979 – earned its moniker by virtue of being the first to install satellite technology, thereby beaming in live sporting events from anywhere on the planet. 

 

Today, there are more than 1,200 sports bars in the U.S., per IBIS World, a roster that includes some truly unique experiences. Bleacher Bar in Boston is located under the center field seats at iconic Fenway Park with windows that look out on the game. Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, is where the buffalo wings delicacy was created in 1964. And as of April 1, 2022, (no foolin’) there’s The Sports Bra in Portland, which vows its multiple TV screens shall only carry women’s sports – March Madness, Super Bowl and World Series be damned – proving that after a year in pandemic quarantine, some people will in fact binge-watch anything. 

 

Atop the sports bar totem pole sits gargantuan chains Buffalo Wild Wings, Boston’s Pizza Restaurant & Sports Bar and breastaurant pioneer Hooter’s, the top three companies in the category, respectively, according to franchisechatter.com. But like all things corporate, the true sports bar experience can’t be measured by square footage or number of doors, McCray says. 

Unlike the early days of sports bars when the food was an afterthought,
McCray’s kitchen is central to the Brewski’s experience.

“One of the coolest things that I think sets us apart from some of the other sports bars in town is most of them are chains, and we’re not,” he says. “When you walk in, our place just screams Arkansas, and it just screams Southern America. We’ve got hunting mounts on the walls. We fly our pro-America flags proudly. The vibe is very casual, very comfortable and very identifiable to Arkansas. I think people recognize that, and it makes them feel comfortable, and it makes it more fun.”

 

This autonomy also extends to the menu. Unlike the early days of sports bars when the food was an afterthought, McCray’s kitchen is central to the Brewski’s experience (try the wings or the Juicy Brewski stuffed burger, and be warned, the nachos are huge). 

 

“Our menu has everything you’re expecting at a sports bar. You’re going to find your wings, your burgers, your nachos,” he explains. “But behind the scenes, we wanted everything made from scratch if we could make it. We’re not processing American cheese in the kitchen, but if we can slice it, dice it, bake it, make it, we do it. We want that from-scratch menu. 

 

“The idea behind it is we wanted to do elevated bar food, and I’m really glad we did. For the past three years in a row, we have won the award for best sports bar in Central Arkansas. That’s really cool.”

 

Cunningham agrees, bragging on Boudreaux’s catfish beignets, shrimp and grits and signature hurricanes. She says the atmosphere of the neighborhood spot makes events feel more exciting, combining the best parts of sporting events with all the comforts of home, while throwing in new traditions all their own.

 

“Maumelle is such a small town,” she says. “Everybody kind of knows everybody and anytime we can, we try to always throw something new into the mix. 

 

“If we’re playing the Florida Gators, we have a guy who comes out and smokes a whole damn gator out in the parking lot. We have what we call our declining Fireball shots: If the Razorbacks are winning, the price of Fireball shots keeps going down [during the game].”

 

One other thing that sets the place apart is its ownership. Sports bars traditionally emote a heavy cloud of masculinity, a kind of man cave on growth hormone. In that regard, Boudreaux’s is a horse of a decidedly different color. Ljuba Cunningham, Kristina’s mother, has owned the joint since 2014, and Kristina’s daughter, Pristina, can often be found hanging around as well. All three women are no-nonsense jocks, specializing in the sport of softball, and they’re not afraid to dole out some trash talk or Cajun justice as the situation demands.

 

“My mother is a huge Chicago Bears fan, and we have a group of customers who are Packers fans,” Kristina says. “Well, we hate the Packers, so every Sunday she decorates. The Packers fans come in to watch the game, and she decorates their table in Chicago Bears stuff. It’s been a thing forever.

 

“We’ve never had any problems; no matter how wild and crazy everything gets. Mom’s always like, ‘If something goes wrong, I’ll handle it.’ But nothing ever goes wrong, which is a good thing. Mom could kick everybody’s ass in here.”