Why We Are Huge Fans of the Reinvented Sports Bar

Community building, fantastic food and cocktails, and imaginative design are changing the face of the traditional tavern.

pijja palace sports bars food
A spread of tenders, garlic bread, wings, and more from Pijja Palace. | Photo by Stan Lee
A spread of tenders, garlic bread, wings, and more from Pijja Palace. | Photo by Stan Lee

The stereotypical image of a sports bar is not necessarily a pretty one—a dimly lit dungeon with sticky floors, blaring footage of a football game the only respite from the darkness. It smells like used fryer oil, the only drink on tap is Coors, and your food options are oily Buffalo wings or soggy fries. Although this might be considered a haven for some, it’s an intimidating fortress of gatekeeping and freezer-burned snacks for others.

But sports bars are rapidly changing. Whether developing a more enticing food and drink menu, creating a community space that’s inclusive, or swapping the dark atmosphere for something more open and light, these traditional taverns are no longer restricted to their dated image.

“Being an Angeleno means you’re a sports guy—we have some of the greatest sports teams in the history of the world here,” says Avish Naran, chef and owner of LA-based sports bar Pijja Palace. Avish, who grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and has fond memories of watching the Lakers and Dodgers in sports bars and friends’ homes, knew he wanted to create a space where people could enjoy the game alongside the Indian-American cuisine he loves.

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The interior of Pijja Palace. | Photo by Eman Raif

The menu includes the fan-favorite malai rigatoni, a creamy and fiery coriander-kissed pasta dish; glistening dosa onion rings; and thin, cracker-like crusted pizzas topped with saag, green chile chutney, sausage; or even a combination of the three. You can even dip your wings and tenders in curry leaf ranch and yogurt stilton.

Naran did not neglect the drink menu, either. Cocktails include a Chai Whiskey Sour and a Lychee Gin Fizz, but even more impressive is the non-alcoholic menu, which boasts nine craft drinks from tamarind soda to an aranciata cream soda topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. You can even get lambic on tap. “I love a good cocktail and I’d rather watch the game over a good cocktail than a Crown and Coke,” Naran says. “I think there are a lot of people in LA who agree with me.”

And although the menu is perhaps the biggest draw to Pijja Palace, the interior is just as noteworthy, too. The restaurant is awashed in a rosy pink glow and there is a visible TV in every seat of the restaurant. Even the bathroom functions as a small gallery commemorating Los Angeles sports. It is bright—the antithesis of a stereotypical sports bar. “I feel like every time I walk into a space that’s too dark, they’re trying to hide something,” Naran laughs.

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Games are widely available at TailGate Brooklyn. | Photo courtesy of TailGate Brooklyn

Naran isn’t the only person focused on the aesthetic of a space. It’s what Jarrod Fox and Taylor Lintz, the cofounders of TailGate Brooklyn, built their business on. In the midst of the pandemic, the pair—the former an events planner and the latter a jewelry designer—volleyed through ideas of how to get people to gather safely and still enjoy sports, without being cramped in a bar or stuck at home.

“Jarrod came up with this genius idea to use shipping containers and create what we call pods,” Lintz explains. “And each pod has a 65-inch TV, a picnic table, and they’re spaced out.” Although the Williamsburg-based outdoor bar was created with COVID-19 in mind, having pods proved to have many benefits outside of the pandemic.

For starters, there never needs to be a debate about which game to watch, as each pod has control of their own TV. Pods also made TailGate extremely dog-friendly, and customers could reserve a pod if they just wanted to spend time playing games and ordering mozzarella sticks with friends.

On days without games, TailGate hosts drag brunches and other community events. There are lawn games available, too. “It’s basically just an adult playground,” Lintz laughs. “There’s something for everyone here—even kids.”

This was important to Lintz, who used to visit other sports bars with Fox and felt out of place or bored. Now, she can listen to music, linger in the sunshine or warm up by a heat lamp in the outdoor space, and sip beers without the discomfort other sports bars may possess. And Fox, a Knicks fan, can still enjoy the games (although maybe not this past season).

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The memorabilia at The Sports Bra celebrates women in sports. | Photo by Shannon Dupre

Inclusivity was also top of mind for Jenny Nguyen, who built her Portland, Oregon-based sports bar, cleverly titled The Sports Bra, so no one would ever have to feel out of place or unwelcomed. The bar, at its core, is a celebration of women and girls in sports, which is reflected in the memorabilia that lines the walls and the TVs tuned into WNBA games.

Nguyen dreamt up The Sports Bra, which she says felt like a mere fantasy, in 2018 following the NCAA women’s finals. “I went out to a sports bar and I thought for sure they were going to have this on TV,” Nguyen explains, especially because no other pertinent sports games were simultaneously playing at the time. When they didn’t, Nguyen politely asked for a channel change and eagerly watched as the game played out, which included a double-digit deficit comeback and a buzzer beater.

“We blew up, I jumped up and down, and I remember taking my hat off and throwing it across the restaurant,” Nguyen reminisces. “But I realized that literally no one else in the bar was watching the same game as us.”

That’s fine by Nguyen; she’s adjusted to that. But what really sparked the idea of The Sports Bra was an ensuing conversation with friends, upon realization that the sound for the game wasn’t even turned on. “I had gotten so used to watching women’s sports in a compromised fashion,” she says.

The Sports Bra became a running joke every time Nguyen and her friends had a frustrating experience at a sports bar. “This would never happen at the Sports Bra,” they would laugh. Nguyen didn’t anticipate doing anything about it though until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Unemployed and witnessing drastic societal changes, Nguyen decided to turn fantasy into reality.

The bar’s tagline is We Support Women, which is not only a jokey slogan but a fundamental truth. The beers on tap are crafted by women brewers while a partnership with Freeland Spirits, a local women-owned-and-operated distillery, make up the cocktails. For food, Nguyen tries to source from female purveyors.

“The Sports Bra really represents a space that targets the people who are underrepresented, like women and girls in sports, right?” Nguyen says. “When I thought of the menu, oftentimes you go to a sports bar and people who are gluten free, dairy free, vegan, vegetarian—they’re underrepresented on these menus. I wanted to include them.”

Although it just opened in April, the women-focused sports bar has proven to Nguyen the desire for a safe place to celebrate community. “Early on, I just thought of it as a place to gather and watch women in sports,” Nguyen admits. “But to have a physical place where you’re clanging beers and splitting nachos—this is a traditional American pastime. And now it feels like it’s a part of something much bigger.”

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.