A trip to a sports bar generally comes with built-in assumptions and expectations. Naturally, sports will be the main focus. The menu will consist of a variety of deep-fried foods of dubious nutritional content. Beer will be cheap, cold and often served in buckets or pitchers.
With such a time-tested recipe for success, many bars adopt the sports theme and stop there. Occasionally, a sports bar will go a step or two further to attract a wider crowd and offer extra appeal to those who may be ready to venture past the usual formula. This can end up as a mixed bag of confused identities and conflicting atmospheres, but it can also be really interesting when done right.
Players Sports Pub makes it clear right away that this is the approach they're aiming for. The opening text on its website asks, "Who says a sports bar has to have sticky tables, lousy parking, and a limited menu?" This is a sports bar aimed both at the sports bar crowd as well as those who simply enjoy a casual bar setting, albeit with some extra bells and whistles.
Players is next to the lobby in the Doubletree Hotel off Cypress Avenue. From the outside it looks like any other modern hotel lobby bar, with a group of high tops in the center of a medium-sized room, a bar in the back, and some cafe tables to accommodate groups and the lunch crowd. Flags hanging above the bar emblazoned with the logos of various sports teams and an abundance of flat-screen TVs around the perimeter are a clear indication that, yes, this is a sports bar. On the wall opposite the bar is a massive 120-inch projection screen and sound system that makes the game viewing experience as much aural as visual.
Truth is, I'm not a big sports guy. I can appreciate the thrill others get from watching their favorite team duke it out with rivals — especially on a 120-inch screen— but it's not usually a big draw for me. In other words, I'm exactly the kind of person that Players ostensibly is trying to bring in.
My first impression jived pretty well with Players' sales pitch. The place was clean and polished looking and the overall aesthetic definitely extended beyond sports memorabilia and television screens. In fact, the main focal point behind the bar is not the banners hanging overhead, but a group of backlit, opaque red panels that glow behind the bottles at the bar. The food menu was far more diverse than I was expecting, and there was even a fairly rich wine menu, as well as a wide selection of craft beers on draft and in bottles. When I visited, the draft "beer of the month" was even a local one — Tampa Bay Brewing Company's fantastic Gourds Gone Wild pumpkin ale.
The cocktail list is what surprised me most. Perhaps it's due to what I gather is a menu shared with the hotel's Italiasia restaurant, but the drinks here would have impressed me at a dedicated cocktail bar. The cocktails — more than a dozen — were all original creations or modern takes on classics, featuring premium spirits, cordials, infused simple syrups and fresh fruit purees. I ordered the Melo Picante — a mix of Don Julio Blanco Tequila, Grand Marnier, fresh muddled watermelon, fresh lime juice, habanero-infused simple syrup and a cayenne-sugar rim, served straight up. Go on, read that ingredient list again — certainly not the usual fare!
Even on game day, I could see this place being populated by diners, cocktail enthusiasts, craft beer aficionados and football junkies alike. But for all the added perks, Players is still a sports bar at heart. The bar also subscribes to all major sports packages, so fans will have no trouble catching the big game on a big screen.