You think you've got job stress? Try this on for size: You work at a Fort Lauderdale sports bar that oozes old South Florida from every warped piece of paneling, it's game six of the World Series, and your hometown team, conveniently named after the stuffed billfish that is the bar's design highlight, could take the championship that very evening. You're tending to a few of your redneck regulars, some of whom still boast bilevel hairstyles that look as if they were molded by airboat motors, but you've also got a bigger-than-expected client base comprised of more stylishly coifed first-time visitors. And you're solo on the taps. You don't know why, but you can't shake the feeling you're being watched as intently as the ball game itself -- and no, the marlin's eyes aren't moving.
In fact, you're being reviewed by a restaurant critic who, drawn randomly to this place out of all the like-minded establishments in the bicounty area by its cosmically attuned appellation -- Big Game Bar & Grill -- is hoping to observe just how a sports bar copes with championship-driven crowds. Does such a providentially christened institution, the very embodiment of the joint that Sheryl Crow describes in "All I Wanna Do," bat 1.000 or strike out?
Relax, even if, like Derek Jeter, you might be feeling the pressure, along with a bit of bewilderment. You can relax, bartender, because you work at Big Game, whose slogan is matter-of-fact -- "eat here, drink here, smoke here." This place is hardly for high-profile diners. You work in a place that looks as if it were lifted directly from the Everglades and dropped onto asphalt. It's even located in the parking lot of a Super 8 motel. You can watch televisions of varying sizes, ages, and technology that dot the room, along with a few weathered wooden patio tables. Or you can look at décor made up of stuffed fish, advertisements in a multitude of media for various self-destructive substances, and sports memorabilia that appear to be a collection of the free stuff you get on game days.
You can relax because, like the Marlins, your job performance is primo. You don't leave anyone dry for longer than a couple of minutes. You juggle serving beers and clearing dishes matted with ketchup and the remains of fried foods with relative ease. You toss wisecracks to long-time listeners and smile welcomes at newcomers before asking them where they're from, committing their faces to memory, and giving them free drink chips to redeem on their next visit.
Most days find you leaning on the scrubbed-down bar top to jaw about the most effective approach for snaring a tarpon and serving beer for breakfast. But during the evening, you can enjoy entertainment such as music performed by Shannon Battle or, hell, the final game of the World Series. You also know how to take one for the team -- with no backup bartender, obviously there are no options for a trip to the bathroom.
Nor are you and your tip jar the only winners. Chef Richard, who has been with the bar only a few months but is already receiving praise in the first edition of the establishment's electronic newsletter, the Big Game News, lives up to his reputation. The menu here is composed of the barest minimum of bar-food basics, accented by one daily special such as meatloaf or tacos. But good quality of the core ingredients and careful tending of the grill and deep fryer result in items rivaling establishments that attract a bit more eye candy.
For instance, take the Buffalo wings. Though I'm no chicken when it comes to dives that serve food, I hold out no great hopes for such familiar starters. But these wings were terrific: plump, cooked just until the skin crisped, basted with the right amount of hot sauce.
Good Buffalo wings are hardly chateaubriand. Nor are fish sticks haute cuisine. When it comes to fried grouper fingers, though, there's Gorton's and there's good. The Big Game must have a lovely source for fresh fish, because these fillets tasted like they came straight from a day boat. Flaky, moist, and mild, the fish was encased in a lightly fried batter, elevating it to proper pub-food status.
Not only do I trust the foodstuffs that come fried from this kitchen but I admire the grillwork. A thick juicy patty melt was the best I've had in a while, dripping with sautéed onions and cheese. The buttered and toasted rye bread was a perfect foil for an unadulterated, all-beef, half-pound burger. Eating sausage and peppers was like holding Little Italy in the hand -- green bell peppers and onions poured out of the sandwich with every bite. Better than a stadium dog, the sausage was well-seasoned without being spicy and had a crunch to the skin.
The backyard barbecue flavor that pervaded the burger and sausage lent the same cachet to a more healthful grilled breast of chicken sandwich, generously sized and evenly cooked. Then there were sides like provolone cheese, but the lettuce and tomato, along with the ultrafresh buns, were really all that was necessary.
This kind of joint comes with an inherent caveat: This is not a restaurant with a bar. It is a bar, where drinking your lunch is legit, that happens to serve food. Not much is homemade -- minestrone soup tasted like it had come from a jar, salad dressings were commercial products, and burger toppings like sliced mushrooms were clearly canned. The special of the day could be trusted. To wit: The New York strip was firmly textured, with a give like a well-oiled mitt, and the flavor of the beef was unmarred by soot from the grill.
So unless you like a good beer buzz early in the morning, park a Harley outside your double-wide, and keep your figure in shape by swaying from side to side, chances are this mariners' bar won't be too comfy a fit on a regular basis. But it's dynamite when the championship is on the line. Big Game can be much more than just a distraction.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.