There are few restaurants less pretentious than the average American sports bar. The style is so ubiquitous and so consistent that such a sweeping generalization is possible. Anywhere in this country, you can walk into an establishment and expect to be served passable baskets of chicken wings, french fries, nachos, maybe a cheeseburger, and a few pints of beer while watching the fate of your favorite team play out on one of a dozen flat-screens.
This is not culinary tradition so much as culinary pragmatism: You don’t have to think about or even look at a pile of french fries or chicken wings to shovel them into your face, which means you can keep your eyes on the game.
Irby’s Tavern, the newest sports bar in Buckhead, aims to upend that pragmatic, familiar culinary style. In fact, the menu offered at Irby’s, designed with the help of Buttermilk Kitchen chef-owner Suzanne Vizethann, seems to answer a question I’ve never thought to ask: What if you could go to a sports bar and order a charred octopus appetizer instead of just gulping down a dozen wings?
On the whole, Irby’s is not trying to reinvent the other aspects of the sports bar. This location, previously occupied by a location of the Meehan’s Public House chain, has a familiar sporting club style. Framed bits of memorabilia hang on the walls below the TVs, which are visible from every seat in the house. A friendly guy with a tablet walks around on occasion, changing channels to the latest game. There’s nothing fussy or unusual about the service, which tends to be slow and seemingly understaffed. And the kitchen does make those familiar standbys of nachos, wings and fries and so on. Yet, it is hard not to notice, when handed the massive, nearly road map-size menu, that this is a place offering things one may have never dreamed of eating in a sports bar.
On a recent Friday night, my date and I grabbed a table in full view of an epic tennis match: the sisters Serena and Venus Williams facing off at the U.S. Open. By the time we sat down, Serena had already taken the lead. After a brief service hiccup — we went so long without seeing a server that the host eventually noticed and took our order — I was drinking a concoction called a Redneck Rita. Served in a large handled Mason jar, not even the combination of lime juice, agave nectar, Grand Marnier and club soda could mask the unpleasant aftertaste of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. Oh well, it didn’t change the fact that Serena was putting up some absolutely beautiful serves.
Eventually, after another rather long wait, we were greeted with a large spread of the menu’s most intriguing options. There was a roasted cauliflower steak that had been cut thick, blackened at the edges, and topped with a colorful pairing of edamame and pickled red onions. A single, charred tentacle of octopus curled atop a bed of gigante beans, charred tomatoes and lemons. The thick, melted combination of cheddar and Brie oozed from a grilled cheese sandwich. The real visual stunner was a concoction called the Kev Special garbage bread.
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What exactly is garbage bread and why would anyone name a dish that? Though I have not been able to figure out the answer to the second question, I can tell you that this version of garbage bread (there are several variations on the menu) involves taking a few heels of baguette, stuffing them with chicken nuggets and mozzarella cheese, propping them up in a chaotic, melty pile, and slathering the whole thing with bright orange Buffalo sauce and a green oil that, while quite bland, adds a very pretty touch. If that doesn’t sound rich enough, you will also be offered a choice of ranch or blue cheese to pour over the top.
Guy Fieri would love this dish. I liked it, too, in part because I could take big bites of Buffalo chicken without looking away from Serena Williams absolutely crushing the tennis ball all over that blue U.S. Open court.
I had to look away from the screens to handle that big slab of seared cauliflower. I sliced away at the florets like bits of steak. It was cooked well and not overdone, I suppose, although I couldn’t really figure out what a smattering of bland edamame was really doing on this dish aside from meeting the minimum protein requirements as a vegetarian entree.
The charred octopus, on the other hand, held my attention. The tentacle that arrived on my plate was admirable for a sports bar, though a little dry. What interested me was the combination of Mediterranean flavors below it: the tender, creamy gigante beans, the softened tomatoes, the herby oil and the bright squeeze of acid from a charred lemon. The only trouble was that by the time I finished eating it, I realized I had also missed the end of the match. Serena was already nodding humbly while the sportscaster explained how she had just wiped the court with her own sister.
Such is the logical problem with serving good plates of food at a sports bar: If you have to look down with a fork and knife and give a plate your full attention, isn’t that a bit contrary to the idea of a sports bar?
Better to put that culinary creativity into a sandwich or, I am surprised to say, a pile of garbage bread. Unfortunately, the sandwiches aren’t always the best option at Irby’s. The grilled cheese sandwich is fine, but the tomato soup served with it is closer to the consistency of tomato paste.
As it turns out, at Irby’s you’re probably better off to order just the way you would at any other sports bar. The nachos come piled high with ground beef and dripping with chipotle-spiked crema. The lemon pepper wings will leave a tingling, salty pop on your lips. You’ll have better luck with the selection of craft beers than cocktails. A pint of Orpheus Dichotomy, which is just the right combination of drinkable ale and hoppy flavor, will be the perfect thing to wash it all down.
If you stay long enough, hoping the Braves don’t blow their lead in the ninth inning, you might even want to order the fried chicken sandwich with a few extra pickles to brighten up the rich aioli and melted Swiss cheese. It’ll be a satisfying sandwich, and you won’t even need to take your eyes off the screen.
Overall rating: 1 of 4 stars (good)
Food: elevated sports bar
Service: slow and understaffed
Best dishes: Kev Special garbage bread, charred octopus, lemon pepper wings
Vegetarian selections: grilled cheese, salads, and dips
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: very small lot and street parking
MARTA station: Buckhead
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: 322 E. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. 404-254-1333
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