Don't plan on catching the game at Vancouver's Bells & Whistles
While this fresh take on a beer hall features a lot of sports references, it is not a sports bar
From what I gathered after the fact, the Week 15 NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders was the kind that goes down in sports-history books. And you can bet everyone around the proverbial water cooler the next morning was talking about that bizarre first down, which was ultimately determined when a smirking referee with a penchant for showmanship pulled a paper index card out of his pocket to measure the space between the tip of the ball and the end of a chain.
To be quite honest, I'm not a football fan and have no clue why the weird index-card usage (subsequently banned by the league) was such a big deal. But I do know that no one was talking about it at Bells & Whistless that Sunday night in mid-December. I don't think anyone around the bar even noticed – except for my sporty girlfriend, who was staring slack-jawed at the huge projector screen above the draft taps and begging the bartender to turn on the volume.
He apologized profusely and we could tell he was also a little disappointed about not being able to hear the game. Unfortunately, the manager had made the call and wouldn't budge. The televised games are apparently too loud for the ambience they are trying to create at night. (Audio is only turned on for games of great importance and during the day.)
"Maybe in the fourth quarter, if it's close," the bartender offered with a hopeful shrug.
Now, I realize the Vancouver restaurant industry is in a state of disruption and many owners are trying to design innovative, outside-the-box-type places that can't be easily defined. But if an action-packed preplayoff NFL game is too noisy for a sports bar, can it still be considered a sports bar? If not, what is it?
Co-owner James Iranzad of Gooseneck Hospitality (Wildebeest, Pizzeria Bufala) occasionally refers to his pub in Cedar Cottage as "a thinking man's sports bar," although he prefers to call it a beer hall.
"Our primary goal was to create a fresh take on what a bar in Vancouver can be in the new era of relaxed liquor laws and in an exciting, but underserviced neighbourhood," he said by e-mail.
Bells & Whistles is, indeed, very fresh in appearance. The main dining room is bright and airy with white-painted walls, tan-leather stool seating and green plants hanging from tall ceilings.
While it doesn't look anything like a typical sports bar, there is definitely a sports theme going on. Tucked behind the second dining area there is a small games room with Skee-Ball, hoops and foosball tables. There are clever sporting references built into the design. The horseshoe-shaped bar top, for example, is a parquet-wood tribute to the old Boston Garden basketball floor. Vintage baseball cards accompany guest checks at the end of the night.
And then of course, there are the two giant, 120-inch TV screens, which dominate both dining rooms. Sure, they are much more attractive than the typical 40-odd small screens found in dark, dingy sports bars. But they are tuned to sports. So forgive me for thinking it was a sports bar and bringing an avid sports fan as my guest who wanted to hear the game. It was an honest mistake.
As with many sports bars, beer is the main beverage of choice. Here, it's craft beer, mostly local, with great variety from 20 taps. The beer menu is an impressive piece of art, spread over the length of the barroom wall in wooden letter slats. It looks like a Scrabble board or a Las Vegas sportsbook from a predigital era.
The bar also offers great cocktails and a small but well-chosen collection of B.C. wines on tap.
The food is definitely the same kind of pub fare found in many a sports bar – wings, popcorn shrimp, onion rings, etc. – albeit prepared with better ingredients (pasture-raised beef, hormone-free chicken).
There are nods to vegetarians with several big salads adorned with grilled avocado and Korean-fried cauliflower served with pickled cabbage and a spicy yogurt dip. Nachos come in a massive platter carefully layered so the aged cheddar melted evenly between heavily smoked beef chili and chipotle salsa.
Although burgers appear to be popular, they didn't rock my world. The beef patties are hand-formed from a mixture of short rib, brisket and chuck, but they are thin, underseasoned and well cooked to a bland shade of concrete grey. The milk buns are sturdy and don't fall apart in your hands, but sometimes a drippy, sweet, squishy brioche bun is the best part of a burger.
My favourite dish of the night was a soft-serve sundae made with incredibly creamy custard. Generously drizzled with whisky caramel, peach jam, roasted pecans and crunchy iced-tea crystals, it was called the Troy Tulo-Whiskey – another cheeky sports reference.
So back to the Cowboys and Raiders. By the fourth quarter, the game was tied and again something momentous was happening on the giant screen above the bar. We didn't hear any of it because by this time, an acoustic guitarist had arrived and was serenading the room with a crooning version of Santa Baby.
"Man, why did he do that?" the bartender exclaimed as Raiders quarterback Derek Carr fumbled the ball inches from the goal line with 31 seconds left.
We had to go home and the watch the recap to find out. Because while Bells & Whistles is indeed a fresh take on a beer hall with a lot of sports references built into its bright, breezy design, it is not a sports bar.