If food and a clear line of sight to a fancy television were all it takes to make a good sports bar, you might as well build up those plaque reserves at home. Judging sports bars involves more utilitarian considerations than usual - some of us have even ended up at Buffalo Wild Wings at some point because of convenience or peer pressure, terrible as that truth is. But it's character, camaraderie and specialization that make sports bar great, as opposed to just a place to park your ass while you fume about everything your team should be doing differently.
Based on that, here's our list of the top ten local sports bars. The order is rigidly definitive, and if we forgot your favorite place, it's because your favorite place is actually worthless.
10. Center Court
This Pearland spot has only been around for half a dozen years or so, but it's already older than the surrounding bars in its strip center. (Except for area ice houses, Pearland is a fairly young town, bar-wise.) It's small and brighter than most places, with plenty of TVs. What makes Center Court stand out, though, is the family feel (relatively speaking -- this is still a business that sells liquor and stays open until 2 a.m. on weekends) and the pizza. The pizza isn't the best in town, but the thin-ish crust variety they sell is some of the best we've had at a Houston bar. It comes in a dozen varieties; try it with goat cheese, spinach and grilled chicken, or go Ninja Turtle with extra cheese and pepperoni.
The crowd at the Mezzanine is a little too diverse to register on the bro scale, and it's definitely devoid of pretense. (Stop by for Wednesday karaoke for confirmation of this - if you're lucky you'll see a saxophonist playing over Mike Jones.) The skinny two-story strip-center bar cultivates a culture of loyal regulars and constantly sponsors special events, but it's also a good spot to drop in on once in a while when you need a conveniently located place to eat bar food and watch a game without being annoyed by the people around you.
8. Maple Leaf
Maple Leaf doesn't have the most TVs or the most space. It is Houston's best hockey bar, though, which is kind of like being the best football bar in Bishkek, but still. If you don't care about watching hockey on television (unlike some other sports, it's much better in person), the Midtown bar also features darts, trivia nights and other diversions. Plus, there's one of those hockey-foosball games, which is just the icing on the cake. Hockey jokes, can't miss.
You can't talk about Christian's on Washington without mentioning the burgers. Minus the meat, this bar is just a rickety outpost on the quiet end of Washington - a good place to watch the game or play some shuffleboard and more relaxed than its cousins in Midtown and on White Oak, but nothing too exciting. The burger changes things. It's fresh and large, and one of the better ones in town. You won't want to do much beyond stare at the TV after eating one.
6. The Den
For a while the only way to buy alcohol on the UH campus was during sporting events (thank god Roberston Stadium serves beer) or at Chili's, with the latter being nearly as terrifying as sobriety. Three years ago, though, three partners opened the Den, offering daily specials and cheap Imperial pints across from the fancy campus gym. (Yeah, the people-watching on the patio is pretty good. As it is from inside, apparently.) They show every televised UH game, of course, and the place gets packed for the big ones.
SRO is like Chuck E. Cheese for sports fans, minus the ball pit and with better food. It's enormous, with a couple different bars, dozens upon dozens of TVs (note to HD freaks: some are slightly older models) and games like air hockey and darts in a space the size of a grocery store. Alumni groups from various colleges take advantage of the space to hold meet-ups here for big games. If the rivalry continues after the Tigers move to the SEC, you could probably put Kansas and Missouri alumni on opposite sides of SRO during the Border War and the two sides would barely notice each other. Fun fact: That college football rivalry game is based on actual! Armed! Conflict! Over slavery! Fantasy football players will be over-stimulated here, in a good way, and Texans fans will be in good company on NFL Sundays.
If you're a Houstonian and a fan of soccer - especially the Premiere League - you already know about this pub. Richmond Arms isn't a place where they'll be happy to put a game on for you. It's a place where, when necessary, they open up at god damn dawn for fans who are an ocean removed from their favorite teams. All soccer supporters are welcome, as is anyone who likes friendly bars and heart-unfriendly pub food. If you're not a soccer fan, you're probably at least a fan of drinking one of their many kinds of beer and mixing with an interesting crowd.
It feels like we've been figuratively humping PJ's leg for so long that it's gotten predictable, but we can't imagine this list without Houston's top sports dive on it. Just because Exile on Main Street makes everyone's list of top three double albums doesn't mean it should start getting left out of those discussions, right? PJ's may be cozier than Nellcote, and there aren't as many TVs as there are at other sports bars. But if you show up on game day and you're not an asshole, you'll have a good time among some of the most loyal regulars in the Montrose area. You'll also more than likely get some free food. Upstairs on Fridays is a karaoke night that will make you rethink the entire pastime, and possibly your decision-making abilities.
2. Nick's Place
There's no bad seat in this place, unless you're a raging germophobe. Nick's feels lived in, in the best way possible, and the solid Italian menu is practically gourmet for a neighborhood sports bar. It's also one of Press blogger and 1560 The Game radio host Sean Pendergast's favorite places. He says, "The underrated part is that they have every sports package, even hockey and WWE pay-per-view, and the staff can actually find games for you quickly on a TV if your game's not on. Icing on the cake is the menu -- best calzone in the city." One of those calzones happens to be named after him, so he might be a bit biased, but he's not far off.
As far as we know, Griff's claim to the title of oldest sports bar in Houston is unchallenged. The bar has served its neighborhood since 1965, which in Houston terms makes it a historical institution on par with St. Patrick's Cathedral. Nowadays, there are more specials than we can list here. Some are game-day deals. Others, like dollar Lone Stars on Fridays or various food specials (the kitchen stays open till closing time), are just bonuses. The little building -- and front and back patios -- isn't just a place with screens and booze. It's home to a lot of folks, and we'll take that kind of atmosphere over shinier, TV-heavy places any day.