Sporting Polished Dining

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.
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. jonathan’s grille

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

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.”


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