YOUNGER NFL FANS accustomed to popping into their local bar on Sunday afternoons for a feast of football may not believe this, but at one time, establishments boasting "We show every game" were in the minority.
Bar owners who wanted to show games from the West Coast or another market were required to amass a large and expensive collection of satellite dishes -- this is why the roof of Summers in Arlington looks like an outpost of the National Security Agency -- and many simply couldn't take the plunge.
In the past few years, the prevalence of packages such as DirecTV's popular Sunday Ticket and Fox's regional college sports channels have made it easier to watch any game at any time, whether in a brewpub or in your living room. With the playing field leveled, a new arms race began, as bars started stockpiling large plasma televisions and high-definition projection screens.
"Monday Night Football" has always been a different story. It's a national telecast, so watching it requires nothing more than a basic TV in your den. And it's on Monday, traditionally one of the slowest nights for the bar industry. (That's why all those restaurants and taverns are so eager to offer half-price burgers and 10 cent wings so early in the week. What, you thought they were charities?) Still, "Monday Night Football" is what people are talking about around the Tuesday morning water cooler, and sports bars and clubs have made it their mission to persuade you not to buy a six-pack, order a pizza and invite the gang over to watch the game. Instead, they try to go above and beyond the usual nacho platters and cheap beer specials to make each Monday an event.
If you're looking for the best views, you won't find them in a typical sports bar. The State Theatre (220 N. Washington St., Falls Church; 703-237-0300) is a gorgeous 1930s art-deco movie house turned into a restaurant and top-notch concert hall, but the renovations kept the 24-foot movie screen intact, and now a new high-definition projector brings the picture into the 21st century.
When owners Thomas Carter and David Steinberg took over the State Theatre almost a decade ago, they kept the plush chairs in the large balcony but removed the rows of seats from the main floor, leveled the slope and added tables for dining. That's where most of the crowd settled in to watch the Eagles and Falcons game Monday night; the majority of tables were occupied well before kickoff. (The balcony, which is nonsmoking, remained unused for most of the night.) Sporting a mix of replica jerseys and T-shirts, the fans are really into the game -- on both sides. They yell when Donovan McNabb hits Terrell Owens with the first pass of the game. They jump to their feet when Michael Vick scrambles and threads a needle to hit Alge Crumpler. One Falcons fan starts chanting "De-Fense! De-Fense!" during a particularly intense Philadelphia possession. Sometimes the buzz of conversations drowns out John Madden's commentary, but when the referee announces the result of an Eagles challenge, the room falls silent, before roaring when a Falcons' first down is overturned.
Waitresses lug pitchers of Bud Light (a $10 special) and plates of nachos and mini-burgers from the bar and kitchen. A special menu is available during games, and my bartender recommends a trio of pulled-pork sliders, which he says were smoked in-house. They're very good, though the tangy sauce is a little sweet. At halftime, uniformed Hooters waitresses pass out shallow cardboard boxes with five or six greasy, heavily breaded wings. (But why complain if they're free?) DJs from classic rock station 94.7 WARW-FM (better known as "the Arrow") and 106.7 WJFK-FM tell bad jokes, pump up the crowd and host drawings for caps, shirts and a chance to win a trip to the Super Bowl. A name is pulled from a box each week at halftime, and if the opening kickoff of the second half is returned for a touchdown, that person is going to Detroit.
Every Sunday afternoon Redskins game will be shown here, with doors opening an hour or two before kickoff; visit www.thestatetheatre.com for details. The State also will show the playoffs and the Super Bowl, regardless whether the Skins make it that far.
Free wings, discounted beers and prizes are just gravy, though. The reasons to watch football at the State Theatre are the spacious room and the jumbo screen. The picture is bright and sharp, though it temporarily freezes a few times -- much to the consternation of the crowd. The size means that there are great views from all over the room: tables down in front, the long wooden bar that runs along one wall, the raised areas in the back. Add Uptown-quality viewing from the smoke-free balcony and you've got a perfect spot to follow your team.
Over at Arlington's Mister Days Sports Rock Cafe (3100 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-527-1600), Hooters girls are no match for the star power coming from a pair of Redskins cheerleaders holding court at a very prominent "reserved" table in the middle of the room. Some men bring copies of the Redskins cheerleaders' swimsuit calendars for them to sign, while others just have the free black-and-white glossies available at the host stand. Many guys seem to be having trouble keeping their eyes on the game.
Two or three cheerleaders will appear each Monday, though next week's big game against Dallas means that six cheerleaders will be at Mister Days, performing before the game and at halftime to get the crowd fired up, says events coordinator Melissa Rothe. There's a special Texas barbecue menu, too, with the theme "Grill Those Cowboys," to go along with specials on buckets of beer ($8 for five pony bottles of Budweiser, Bud Light or Miller Lite; $10 for Corona) and a $9.95 steak dinner.
Cheerleaders are a draw, of course, but Mister Days prides itself on big-game viewing, with almost 70 TVs of every size visible in every direction. There are some huge televisions, including three projection screens that top 100 inches, but not every seat is a winner; if you're stuck in a corner of the bar, facing a small, non-high-definition, non-plasma screen, you might as well be at home. The key is to arrive early and try to grab a better seat, maybe in the middle of the dark-wood-and-brass room, or sign up for the Mister Days e-mail list (www.misterdays.com) and you'll have a chance to be a VIP member, which will let you sit in a section with the cheerleaders.
Beyond these Monday night appearances, Mister Days has a special relationship with the Redskins. "Redskins Late Night" is taped at the bar on Wednesday nights for a Saturday night/Sunday morning broadcast, and players and cheerleaders frequently appear for the show. As on Monday nights, the public is invited, and there's no cover charge or minimum.
In the next few weeks, Rothe says, the cheerleaders will begin taking guest bartending shifts from 8 to 8:30 on Mondays. All tips will be donated to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. "We haven't identified the charity yet, but we're talking with groups about finding families we can sponsor," Rothe explains. "We want to do something more personal than just sending money to the Red Cross."