At Nellie's, a Different Game Plan
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, September 21, 2007
Long on style and atmosphere, short on the dozens of TVs that fans have come to expect, the new Nellie's Sports Bar truly is a different kind of sports bar.
Football fans used to jumbo screens and cramped seats might wonder if they've stumbled into the wrong place when they enter. Large portraits hang over the bar, and the room's exposed brick walls, dark wood and converted fireplace are more reminiscent of a lounge than a place to watch the Redskins. Strangely, there's only one TV, tucked into a far corner.
Through a set of doors is the airy dining room, decorated with vintage tennis rackets, oars and old advertisements, where fans gather at high-topped tables to watch games on five medium-size flat-screen TVs. (A hidden projection screen has been installed but hasn't been used.) A few more high-definition televisions hang in a small upstairs room decorated to look like a English pub, with fixtures and decorative glass brought from England in the 1920s for use on a movie set.
Stick around on a Friday or Saturday night and the focus switches from the televisions to the crowds of gay men at the bar or on the expansive rooftop deck. There's no dance floor, so even though Justin Timberlake remixes and the Pet Shop Boys and Madonna play through the speakers, they're not at the ear-splitting levels heard on 17th Street.
Nellie's, which opened last month, is Washington's first gay sports bar, although owner Douglas Schantz says he wants to target all of the neighborhood's residents. Schantz says the groups including both sexes that come to Nellie's for happy hour as well as football and soccer games show that his plan is working. "I'm pitching it as a straight-friendly sports bar," he says. "It's turned out better than I ever thought."
Schantz has never owned a bar, but after 13 years in the District, including seven in nearby LeDroit Park, and years working in advertising in Chicago, New York and Washington, he says he thinks he has a pretty good handle on the business side. His biggest asset is the building. High ceilings and natural light hint at its former use as a studio for famed photographer Addison Scurlock, who took portraits of Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois and other great African Americans.
The woman in the oversize photographs above the main bar is Schantz's great-great-grandmother Nellie, one of the namesakes of the bar; two of Schantz's great-great-grandmothers were also named Nellie, as was his great-grandmother. Of course, there's a certain level of irony: "Nelly" is also a slur referring to effeminate men. Schantz acknowledges that "the name has an underlying meaning, and people talk about that, but I really did name it after my great-great-grandmothers. I'm not making that up!"
Still, he's not playing down the word's other meaning: Visitors to the bar's Web site can take a "How Nellie Are You?" test to earn a coupon for a free draft beer. Sample multiple-choice question: Do you throw like a boy, a girl or Nathan Lane?
Schantz says he could have packed the room with TVs to make it more like a typical sports bar, but he wanted to offer customers a reason to come back when games aren't on. Hence the cubbies filled with checkers, chess and trivia games in the dining room and his plans to convert the rooftop into a beach-themed bar with surfboards. Still, you're never far from the sports theme: The sinks in the first-floor bathroom were once used by Washington Senators fans at Griffith Stadium.
Though Schantz's partner in Nellie's is Rocio Anzola, owner of the Silver Spring restaurant Cubano's, Schantz was convinced that he needed to offer sports bar staples (chicken fingers, wings, burgers). But when he took Anzola out to sample the offerings at rival establishments, she thought the food was "disgusting" and decided to put her own spin on the menu. For example, buffalo wings are large, meaty pieces of chicken smothered in a thick, smoky chipotle sauce and sprinkled with pepper flakes.
In the next few months, Schantz says he wants to "winterize" the rooftop and add more televisions, based on customer comments. But he's also happy to welcome the people who just wander in for happy hour ($3 Snow Queen vodka cocktails and $4 beers until 8) and couldn't care less about sports. His great-great-grandmothers, Schantz says, just loved to entertain.
She wanted to introduce tapas. He voted for traditional American bar food. In the end, Rocio Anzola-Mendez and Doug Schantz, co-owners of Nellie's Sports Bar (900 U St. NW; 202-332-6355), compromised: Washington's latest gay watering hole mixes mini-sandwiches, wings and brownies with empanadas, arepas and tres leches cake.
The latter flavors are no surprise to anyone who knows the background of Anzola-Mendez. A friend of Schantz's since the two of them worked at the same advertising agency, the native Venezuelan also runs Cubano's restaurant in Silver Spring with her husband, Adolfo Mendez. The trio's mutual venture, in what was once the studio of noted photographer Addison Scurlock, encompasses two floors and 5,000 square feet housing 10 plasma TV screens, two bars, one airy dining room and one (woo-hoo!) rooftop deck on the corner of Ninth and U streets.
What sounds like a gay slur isn't: Nellie's pays homage to Schantz's great- and great-great-grandmothers, both named Nellie, one of whom is captured in sepia-toned photographs on the wall. True to its theme, the sports bar sticks to showing games on its TV monitors and displaying tennis rackets, oars and trophies as decorations; the bathroom sinks once wet the hands of spectators at Washington's old Griffith Stadium. The athletically challenged customer isn't left out of the fun. Nellie's stocks board games (checkers, anyone?), which can be played atop tall black tables on the ground floor.
What to eat? Whatever Maria Rondon, who splits her time between Cubano's and Nellie's, has a hand in making. The cook's piping-hot empanadas are pure pleasure, and the best is filled with ground chuck seasoned with tomato, green bell pepper, garlic and onion. Like a lot of the food here, the snack can be ordered for "yourself," "pals" or the "team": four, eight or 12 servings, respectively. A nod to Anzola-Mendez's homeland, the arepas are almost the equal of the empanadas; available at brunch on Saturday and Sunday, the saucer-shaped corn muffins are offered with a choice of one of 10 add-ons, including chicken salad and chorizo, plus sweet plantains and sour cream. ("Use your hands," she coaches novices she sees eating their arepas with silverware.)
Less thrilling is the American stuff on the menu. In its first few innings, Nellie's arid sliders are no match for the juicy baby burgers served at Matchbox in Chinatown, and a powdery Caesar sports all the charm of an airplane salad. Macaroni-and-cheese fritters sound like the kitchen's attempt to bulk up its clientele. "We're a work in progress," says Anzola-Mendez, whose partner Schantz promises "more screens to come" for sports fans.
Let's just hope they let Maria play more often.
--Tom Sietsema (Sept. 19. 2007)