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New sports bar is major-league draw

So this is what it looks like when a billionaire builds a sports bar.

That’s what I was thinking Friday, chewing on a chicken wing and looking down from my second-floor perch at the first 38-foot screen I’ve ever seen that didn’t have a football stadium attached.

I was one of the first customers at (716) Food and Sport, which opened Friday. It’s the 13,000-square-foot, 365-seat restaurant at HarborCenter, the $200 million hockey complex (two rinks, one hotel, one parking garage) next to the First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo. Terry Pegula built it with his pocket change after acquiring the Buffalo Sabres, and before he paid cash for the Buffalo Bills.

It’s wrapped around a television screen that’s too big to show just one game. There were no fewer than three shows on its digital expanse while I watched it. Sometimes the configuration changed so there were six. One presumes that wouldn’t happen while the Sabres were playing next door.

Even if the big screen was limited to one game, there would be no lack of attention splitting going on. The official count of television screens inside is 63. That seemed low. Television screens are used as art elements, almost. There’s a strip of nine screens running under the big one. There is a television inside the mirror in the second-floor men’s room. The sink looks like something Spock would’ve used on Star Trek.

The bar surfaces are crafted to look like blue skate-carved ice, and are lit from below. Red flashing lights are poised to burst into motion whenever the Sabres score a goal. They are in no danger of wearing out this season, but they represent hope. Hope, as in the feeling that once a billionaire fan buys your favorite team, things will get better.

You know what fan amenity (716) doesn’t have? Sobbing booths. Like phone booths, but designed for those moments after crucial games when you would prefer to be alone after the latest version of Jay McKee’s knee comes along to kick your Sabres-loving butt.

Then there is the matter of food and drink. First, a couple of points. It’s a lot easier to write an interesting menu than deliver the food it describes accurately and well. Also, how a restaurant does on its first day, when everyone is jacked on adrenaline, isn’t a good predictor of how it will do three months later on a game night.

That said, (716) is more canny than your average sports bar. There are the usual wings, nachos, burgers and pizza, but also a few conversation pieces, like a whole “beer can” chicken, “roasted on a can of Labatt Blue” ($26.99).

The chicken wings come in lots of flavors, but when it comes to traditional, there is no mild, only medium and hot, which I can respect. I got a single wings hot ($10.99) and an order of poutine ($6.99), as befitting an NHL menu. The draft beer list has a staggering amount of local brews: eight choices, including Hamburg Brewing, Woodcock Brothers in Wilson, Community Beer Works, Ellicottville Brewing Co., and Big Ditch.

The poutine was satisfying enough, apparently designed by someone who has eaten real poutine at its source. It had good ingredients – fresh cut fries, decent gravy, real cheese curds. The fries weren’t warm enough to melt the cheese, but hey: first day.

The wings were crisp enough, spicy enough, and arrived with a roasted jalapeno in addition to carrots, celery, and real blue cheese dressing. They cost $10.99 for eight, which is stratospheric, but if you’re going to (716) to save a few bucks on dinner, you are in for a bad time.

Instead of wet-naps, the post-wing cleanup method involved a bowl with two little tablets and a carafe of hot water. You pour water on the tablets and they swell up into lemon-scented disposable towels. Did I mention the place was built by a billionaire?

On first blush, (716) is a slick sports bar complex that will meet your sporting event needs with elan. It’s the kind of brazenly commercial restaurant that already has a line of commemorative gear available for sale the day it opens. But if I am standing in (716) when the Buffalo Sabres win the fourth game of the Stanley Cup Finals, I will love it like no other.


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