The Rise of the Upscale Sports Bar | Food Newsfeed
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The focus is on higher-quality ingredients at Jonathan’s Grille, which are the foundation for premium menu items like fish entrées, bison burgers, and 15 salad selections.

Sporting Polished Dining

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Regional players like Hickory Tavern, Jonathan’s Grille, and Walk-On’s have changed the game plan for taverns, pubs, and alehouses.

By Barney Wolf May 2016 Chain Restaurants

The typical sports bar has moved well beyond a drab, male-dominated environment that offers a bunch of televisions and a limited menu of beer and pub grub. These days, sports bars—often with names like alehouse, pub, roadhouse, and tavern—have bright, cheery interiors and plenty of food and beverage choices. Increasingly, some operators in this category have opted to go more upscale, featuring menus that contain dishes a step above casual entrées plus an ever-changing list of craft beers, wines, and cocktails. In these polished-casual settings, more attention is also paid to essentials from table furnishings to flatware.

Many of the premium chains prefer to remain local or regional, including Hickory Tavern, based in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jonathan’s Grille of Nashville, Tennessee; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana–based Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar.

“The term upscale sports bar is relatively new,” says consultant Howard Cannon, chief executive and president of Restaurant Expert Witness. “There’s a large demographic that likes the basic sports bar atmosphere, but wants better.” That elemental sports bar ambiance, “stimulus from a bunch of TVs, and of course, beer, food, girls, and sports,” he notes, becomes trendier and more family-inclusive with better food, more diverse beverages, and subtly dressed servers.

Upscale sports bars mesh with ongoing macro-trends in foodservice, according to market research firm Mintel, which reports 80 percent of burger-eating consumers would pay more for premium ingredients, while half of consumers who drink alcohol away from home want to see more local beer, wine, and spirits on beverage menus at restaurants.

Operators in this higher-end space aren’t sure they should even be called sports bars.

“I bristle a little bit at the sports bar tag,” says Thom Perez, Hickory Tavern’s chief marketing officer. “It conjures images of sawdust on the floor, duct tape on bar stools, and food served in plastic baskets with wax paper. That’s not who we are.”

Mason Revelette, who with his brother, Curt, owns Jonathan’s Grille, states he’s not particularly offended by the label, “but it really doesn’t describe us. We refer to ourselves as a sports grill, because 70 percent of our sales are food.” That 70:30 food-to-beverage ratio is common for these upscale pubs. “We’ve always taken the view that anyone can serve you a cold beer, but food and service is what keeps people coming back,” Curt Revelette says.

Hickory Tavern, Jonathan’s Grille, and Walk-On’s have traditional sports bar roots but feature chef-driven scratch cooking in a modern setting. “The food focus was the big change for us,” says Scott Taylor, president and chief operating officer of seven-unit Walk-On’s, which was launched in 2003 by two former Louisiana State University basketball team walk-ons. “When our founders were 23 and 24 [years old], they knew how to make drinks, so it was a bar first,” he says. “Now, the brand has evolved.”

Hickory Tavern began in 1997 and, while it also has changed, “the soul has stayed the same—great food in a friendly and safe environment,” Perez says. “The fits and finishes have gotten nicer, we have more TVs, and we’re even taking out the neon [beer signs]. It was great at one time, but that’s not who we are now.” Sports are just one part of the overall picture. While football is a big draw, “that is what, about 17 weeks of every year?” he notes. “So we put a huge focus on food.”

When Jonathan’s Grille first opened in 1999, it was a traditional sports bar owned by the Revelettes’ parents. “We took over operations six years ago and made it more modern, more upscale,” Curt Revelette says. “It’s closer to a classic American grill.”

Unlike the traditional sports bar setting, where bar and dining areas are entwined, the two components may be more differentiated in an upscale-polished concept. At Walk-On’s, which has five company-owned and two franchised units in three states, the bar is defined by a raised area, while Hickory Tavern, which has 22 units in four states, features carpet in the restaurant and wood floors in the bar. At its five locations, Jonathan’s Grille separates the restaurant and bar with a wall.

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“We want to make it comfortable for people,” Curt Revelette says. “I’ve yet to see someone have a great bar experience with a bunch of screaming kids next to them. At the same time, a family may want to enjoy a game away from the bar and all that it entails.”

As for the menu, there’s no escaping that traditional burgers and wings are part of the sports-themed dining experience, even at upscale places. “We are a tavern, so we embrace it, but we don’t restrict our menu to that,” Perez says. Hickory Tavern offers plenty of seafood, including crab legs and lobster rolls, and its cedar plank salmon is among its five top-selling entrées. The menu also boasts steaks and build-your-own salads.

While Jonathan’s Grille serves plenty of wings and burgers, the focus is on using higher-quality ingredients, and the menu touts premium options like a bison burger, several fish entrées, certified Hereford Beef prime rib, and 15 salads.

Walk-On’s has burgers but no wings. Instead, the concept—voted ESPN’s top sports bar in America in 2012—features Louisiana favorites like gumbo, shrimp etouffee, voodoo shrimp, and blackened catfish. There’s also ribeye steak. “When folks think about Louisiana, they think of great food and chefs like Emeril [Lagasse],” Taylor says. “They think of Mardi Gras and fun—and LSU if they’re sports fans. This is what we want to be.” The beverage focus also has changed. “You’re not going to find cheap buckets of beer here,” he adds. Instead, there are more than 50 beers on tap plus pour-your-own taps.

Hickory Tavern offers about 100 beer options, including 30 to 40 on draft, plus an extensive, even seasonal, cocktail menu. “We also have a robust wine list, which surprises a lot of people,” Perez adds. Jonathan’s Grille has a more subdued beer roster, 30 on tap, including at least one local variety, and another dozen or so in bottles. Conversely, it features a strong vodka menu, upward of 12 varieties per store, and also local, small-batch bourbon.

Hickory Tavern and Jonathan’s Grille employ both female and male servers dressed in casual attire, while Walk-On’s has female servers in traditional cheerleader outfits. The three restaurant companies expect to grow, but mostly within their regions. Walk-On’s long-term goal is to be in every market that is home to a Southeastern Conference university, although there may be an opportunity to enter Las Vegas, too. Jonathan’s Grille is looking to expand beyond Nashville, primarily in its home state but possibly into adjoining states, and it has the leadership to take that step. “All of our general managers started with us in roles like food runners or hostesses, and it’s amazing we have been able to groom them,” Mason Revelette says. “With such a strong bench, we feel there are a lot of opportunities for us within a two-hour radius.”