With the NFL season fading in the rear-view mirror, Triangle sports fans can turn their full attention to their first love – college basketball. The quartet of quality programs that define Tobacco Road are a draw for fans across the country. When those games heat up in February and March (and sometimes April), fans looking to play hooky have a wide range of places to enjoy the action.
A quality sports bar must be a balance. Food, drinks, TVs, atmosphere at these Five Faves combine to make the bar experience better than watching at home or even in the arena. Here are our choices, from west to east:
Four Corners (Chapel Hill): This Franklin Street spot wears its allegiance proudly. From the hardwood floor at the entrance to the anti-Duke signs behind the bar, there is no doubt this is a Tar Heel paradise. It is easy to imagine the small space becoming standing-room only during a big game. Four Corners maximizes its slim floorplan with three levels, and HD TVs abound.
Beers on tap include selections from North Carolina brewers, and the menu features all your bar food favorites – sandwiches, wings, some salad. The highlight has got to be the "Julius Peppers." The snack is named for the Nash County product who played both basketball and football at UNC. It is a heated, crunchy combination of fried pickles, banana peppers and jalapenos served with ranch dipping sauce.
Rudino's Sports Porch (Apex): Rudino's is a mini-chain, with four sports bar locations in the Triangle. At each, an outdoor dining and cheering section set Rudino's apart. The ability to watch the game of your choice in a picnic atmosphere earns Rudino's a spot on this list. There are enough TVs to tune in just about any contest being played, and the staff is responsive to requests.
Rudino's bakes their in-house bread daily. Go for the thin-crust pizza or the tasty, toasted 18-inch grinders in combinations ranging from veggie and Cuban to meatball and Philly cheese.
Tobacco Road Sports Cafe (Raleigh): Tobacco Road is a regular on our Five Faves list. Maybe it is the location – in Raleigh on Glenwood South, a perfect people-watching perch. Maybe it is the food – a step above the normal pizza, beer, wings experience.
For the lucky sports fans who claim the recliner seats, Tobacco Road is like a living room with waitress service. Face a wall of HD TVs and order up!
No matter your allegiance, you will be able to find your game, your team colors and something to your taste at Tobacco Road, but you had better come hungry. The nachos and the mac & cheese (appetizer selections on the menu) are enough to make a meal. Entrees include steak, ribs, pasta and shrimp and grits.
Carolina Ale House (Multiple locations): Sports fans take no chances at Carolina Ale House. They choose it for because it is a chain, knowing they will find plenty of beers on tap alongside the standard bad-for-you but oh-so-delicious burgers, wings and pizzas.
Carolina Ale House goes beyond the "sports bar" nature to a restaurant safe for fans to take the family. The growth of the chain outside of the Carolinas is a sign of success and predictability.
Overtime Sports Pub (Knightdale): The OT is a suburban surprise. From the outside a strip mall afterthought, Overtime is home to fan clubs for the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers and quickly fills up on Sunday afternoons with fans who crowd together to get loud.
The decor – Steelers' black and yellow strewn with memorabilia – does not lend itself to a low-key crowd. Generous portions in baskets of shrimp and eight flavors of wings sustain the frenzy. Expect your neighbors to share your table, engage you in debate and even swipe a drink from your pitcher.