Sports-bar pizzazz

Next weekend's Super Bowl may mark the end of the NFL season, but it's also the start of the year's richest spectating period. February, usually a dud month for sports fans, is enlivened this time around by the Winter Olympics. And the day after the Olympic torch is extinguished, March — better known as the month in which college basketball crowns a champion and spring training gets under way — begins.

Since all those athletic events call for beer and nachos and social viewing, Xpress set out to find the Asheville's best sports bar. Of the many local establishments that try to lure patrons with pitchers and big-screen TVs, we selected seven for consideration: The four sports bars that readers named tops in Xpress' most recent "Best of WNC" poll and three dedicated sports bars that have opened since the Super Bowl was last played.

In good sports fashion, we applied a bracket strategy, pitting the bars against one another in four critical categories: Food, Beer, TVs and Ambiance. All of the brackets were randomly generated by the same program chess players and soccer moms use to stage tournaments. Our job was to determine a winner in each matchup, determined by an anonymous visit to each establishment. You'll find the critic's notes below.

If there's any sector that chain restaurants would be expected to dominate, it would be sports bars: Big money can buy better TVs, a wider range of pub grub and more draft beers. But, as the results show, this contest belonged to the home team.

Asheville Ale House (144 Biltmore Ave., 505-3550)
Ambiance: For a sports bar, Asheville Ale House feels well organized: All of the TVs are the same size, and the tables are neatly spaced.
Beer: Seven draft beers, with the option of ordering beer by the boot. (The menu pledges that you get to keep the boot.)
Food: Good, solid fare.
TVs: 19.

Baylee's Steakhouse and Sports (1636 Hendersonville Road, 274-6640)
Ambiance: Despite the high ceilings, Baylee's still has a man-cave feel. 
Beer: Baylee's keeps just four beers on draft: Bud Light, Miller Light, Yuengling and — in a nod to Asheville's Brew City status — Highland Gaelic.
Food: Much of the food didn't pack the expected punch on the flavor front — even the "insane" level wings, served with a cautionary pitcher of water.
TVs: 24, and nearly half of them are projection screens.

Bier Garden (46 Haywood St., 285-0002)
Ambiance: Bier Garden's downtown locale keeps the bar buzzing.
Beer: More than 100 bottled beers, and 29 well-selected microbrews on tap.
Food: While sometimes a mite sweet, Bier Garden's food is reliably hearty.
TVs: 15 screens scattered around the bar.

Buffalo Wild Wings (4 Tunnel Road, 251-7384)
Ambiance: Even for a sports bar, B-Dub (as it's known to its legions of Midwestern fans) can be noisy and a mite bit bright.
Beer: Buffalo has a lineup of two-dozen drafts, including French Broad and Green Man ales.
Food: Wings are touted as the thing at Buffalo, but they're so thickly sauced that when I bit into one, a dollop of "wild" sauce went flying. Probably the least satisfying eats of all seven contenders.
TVs: With 45 TVs artistically arranged, it can be hard to focus on a single screen.

Hickory Tavern (30 Town Square Blvd., 684-0974)
Ambiance: There's something of an upscale air to Hickory Tavern, where folks seem more likely to "drat" than "damn" a bad call.
Beer: Sixteen beers on tap, including Guinness, Bass and Newcastle.
Food: Hickory's menu is a bit ritzier than most, but the restaurant's salads, steaks and wood-fired pizzas suggest it knows what it's doing.
TVs: 25 super-sharp Panasonics of varying sizes run the restaurant's perimeter, with more screens in the bathrooms and on the patio.

Northside Bar & Grill (853 Merrimon Ave., 254-2349)
Ambiance: It's a neighborhood joint. Period.
Beer: There's no Coors or Miller Light on tap, but the 10 draft beers include Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada.
Food: Northside's wings are the standouts, but everything I sampled gave bar food a good name.
TVs: The 20 TVs at Northside come in all different brands and sizes, creating an extra-homey feel.

Wild Wing Café (161 Biltmore Avenue, 253-3066)
Ambiance: A popular big-game destination, there's almost always someone screaming at one screen or another.
Beer: Sixteen drafts, with Gaelic and Blowing Rock Ale as local reps.
Food: The signature wings are crispy and flavor-packed.
TVs: 30


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