At Nellie's, a Different Game Plan
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.