FOR DECADES, it's been simple for athletes to go into the restaurant business, even without spending a minute in the kitchen. Celebrity sells, so they can capitalize on their fame by simply putting their name on the place, bringing some famous friends to hang out there, or lending a few jerseys, balls and bats to put on display.
Mickey Mantle opened an eponymous restaurant on Central Park South. Joe Namath had Broadway Joe's. Wayne Gretzky owns a memorabilia-laden restaurant and bar in Toronto. Former Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder ran the All-Pro Restaurant in Falls Church. And Michael Jordan . . . okay, so maybe they're not all winners.
Sandy Wilson, left, talks with another patron at Reggie's Sportz Kafe in Bowie.
(Photos Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
Washington's ex-jock restaurant scene has long been dominated by Redskins -- Joe Theismann's Bar and Restaurant and Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse were once joined by such culinary hot spots as Richie Petitbon's American Grill and Sports Bar and George Starke's Head Hog BBQ -- but with the NCAA tournament on the horizon, it's a good time to take a look at two bars and restaurants owned by former college basketball stars.
Reggie Williams, who played alongside Patrick Ewing and David Wingate in 1984 when Georgetown won the university's only national championship, was taken in the first round by the L.A. Clippers a few years later and went on to star for the Denver Nuggets. So when Williams and his wife, Kathy, opened Reggie's Sportz Kafe (4881 Glenn Dale Rd., Bowie; 301-809-2615) in the Duvall Village Shopping Center in late 2002, the focus was naturally on sports. Walls were decorated with old photos and one of Williams's uniforms; sections of the menu included "Extra Points" and "Slam Dunks"; and the bar and restaurant areas had the obligatory television screens.
But something just wasn't clicking, and Reggie's had trouble drawing a consistent crowd. Eventually, Williams says, he decided that his restaurant "just doesn't have that [sports bar] kind of feel to it. People said, 'Bring in some pool tables,' but I didn't want to go that way. . . . People don't come there to watch games. They can go downtown if they want to go to a sports bar."
Instead, the Williamses decided to focus on the restaurant and lounge, refining the menu and adding more live music and events.
Kathy is originally from Temple Hills, and at the end of Reggie's career, the family lived in Mitchellville and Bowie. They frequently found themselves frustrated by the dining options close to home. "We always had to go to D.C. or Annapolis or Rockville to go to a quality restaurant," Reggie complains. After his retirement in 1997, the couple decided to open their own place, which would serve the growing number of African American professionals in Prince George's County.
They crafted a menu they'd like to see -- crab cakes, corn-fried catfish and greens, stuffed shrimp, platters of chicken and waffles. "I come from a long line of cooks -- my grandmother, my mother, my whole family," Reggie says proudly. "I've always loved cooking." Barnstorming the country during his NBA days, "I ate out at a lot of restaurants," he says, and he took notes about what he wanted to have in his own place. Music is a big part of that.
"We've had live music since Day One," he says. "We've always had jazz on Friday," which begins at 7 for the dinner crowd as well as the folks who gather for happy hour at the large bar, and goes into the night. That's supplemented by a rotating crew of jazz and blues musicians on Saturdays; Thursday night performances by the Exquisite Band, which performs R&B and neo-soul; and the "Monday Night Mixer," with go-go, funk and jazz music from the Y2K Band, as well as half-price appetizers. A younger crowd comes out for the latter, but Williams says, "We're not trying to make [Reggie's] a club. It's something to help you relax."
After sports came off the menu, a little redecorating was also in order. Last year, Reggie's became a de facto gallery for local artists, and paintings by Lisa and Steve Barber hang on the restaurant's burnt-orange walls, alongside striking figurative jazz works by Anthony Armstrong. "All the paintings are for sale," explains Williams, who adds that he bought a few of Armstrong's for his home. "I'm not much of a collector. I didn't know people here were into art, but they are."
It's a big transformation, but Reggie's is a warm, comfortable place where patrons sip martinis (half-price from 4 to 7), beer or cognac, and can relax at the bar or on a cushy couch. One warning: Reggie's has a lounge that can be rented for private events, and the whole place occasionally shuts down for parties. Check the Web site, www.rsk34.com, to make sure no special events are going on.
Reggie's hasn't given up on sports entirely. (Nor has Reggie himself, as he's the rookie coach of the boys' basketball team at High Point High School in Beltsville.) The 100-inch projection screen is still there, as are a couple of television screens behind the bar. "If Georgetown's on, we get calls about it," he says. "If games are on, we'll play them. But we don't cater to the sports fan. It's more of a laid-back crowd."
On the other hand, Grevey's Restaurant and Sports Bar (8130 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-560-8530) is pretty much what you'd expect from the name.
Kevin Grevey's Kentucky Wildcats lost to UCLA in the 1975 NCAA final, but he went on to lift the NBA championship trophy with the Washington Bullets in 1978. Reminders of that seminal event are everywhere inside Grevey's, which opened in 1987, but the whole place is a temple to professional sports.
The foyer is filled with memorabilia, including Grevey's old Bullets jersey (No. 35), autographed hockey sticks, old football cleats and baseball bats. Inside, dark wood and brass are the cornerstones of the decor. Autographed jerseys, including those of Bruce Smith, Doug Flutie and Deion Sanders, hang in glass cases. Old basketball-related newspaper headlines and stories are stuck to the walls, along with huge black-and-white photos.
Televisions flicker from every direction; there are more than 20 of varying sizes behind the extra-long bar alone, and a total of 65 throughout the restaurant, including several extra-large screens. On Sunday afternoon, college basketball, the PGA tour, the NBA, ESPN News, NASCAR and interactive trivia games were running on adjacent TVs.
Every menu features a drawing of an NBA championship ring sitting atop a striped Bullets jersey, lest you forget that it's possible for a Washington basketball team to win it all, let alone make the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills fans make Grevey's their home during football season, devouring the tasty buffalo wings and singing after touchdowns. Happy hour and non-game nights find the bar full of couples feeding dollars into the Internet jukebox, drinking beers and acting like it's just another neighborhood place. During the summer, crowds pack the covered outdoor patio, which has a large bar, several TVs and plenty of seating.
But March is when Grevey's really shines. It's one of the biggest magnets for Northern Virginia college basketball fans and, more importantly, large, spirited groups of alumni who gather to root for their alma mater. Grevey's works hard to win their loyalty and often donates a percentage of sales to school scholarship funds or to a targeted charity.
The University of Kentucky is naturally one of the bar's biggest patrons, but fans of Penn State, Connecticut, Louisville, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and Florida State also gather in nooks around the saloon-style restaurant. There are enough televisions for everyone, even when games are played simultaneously, but arriving early to stake out seats is a good idea.