Eat, drink, and Hail Mary
What happens when a common fan works at an uncommon sports bar during the craziest week of the year? Pure madness.
IT'S THE FIFTH DAY of the Hockey East Tournament, a binge-drinking PSA in the guise of a college hockey playoff, and I'm serving drinks at the Fours, one of the biggest sports bars in Boston. The place is filled with the rhythmic clatter of bottles being pried open one after another -- flip clink, fwip clink, fwip clink -- their caps falling onto the metal cooler below the bar. Over all the yelling, that's the only thing I can hear.
"Can I have two Buds and anAWWWWYEAH?"
"Hey, I'll have BOOOOOOYAHthe rocks."
"SHOOTITNOOOOW and a Maker's onOHHHHHH, please."
A few weeks ago, I had asked the Fours' owner, Peter Colton, if I could join his staff for a few days. The goal, I told him, was to learn how a sports bar operates. But I didn't want to experience the Fours on just any normal day; I wanted to experience it during its craziest time of the year, the third week of March, when it's not just Hockey East drawing in the crowds but also a Celtics home game, the opening rounds of the NCAA Tourney and a minor local holiday called St. Patrick's Day. For some reason, Colton, a soft-spoken former UMass quarterback, agreed to let me in. "Long as you're willing to work," he said.
What Colton didn't tell me is that working at a sports bar is awful a lot of the time. Colleagues flake on you, managers blow up under stress and trays of ranch dressing fall on your feet. And on this Friday afternoon, my third day here, it's even a little bit worse. Sweaty bartenders are grabbing barbacks by the arms and yelling, "More glasses!" Customers, anxious about the 45-minute wait for a table, are crowding the host station. Steve, the general manager, is rocking back and forth while nervously spinning his pen.
Back in the kitchen, the Celtics are managing the chaos. The Celtics are a group of five or six line cooks who have given each other nicknames to indicate their relative positions. "Paul Pierce," a squat Salvadoran with a Mario-like mustache, works the grill in the center of the tiny room. Off to one side, "Ray Allen," another Salvadoran in a backward BMW hat, assembles the salads and nachos. "Scalabrine," a bespectacled Mexican, mans the sauté station several feet away from the rest of the crew. He speaks little English and is, therefore, like his namesake, only sort of on the team. For hours, they're all sprinting around, generally doing their best not to drown in a sea of small disasters. In one 20-minute period, I witness a spoonful of baked beans being dropped into the chowder, a busboy shattering a glass in the dumbwaiter and a receipt printer running out of paper.
By the time my shift comes to a close, my feet will be sore from standing, my face will be layered in dried sweat, and a smudge of chocolate syrup of unknown provenance will have landed on my sleeve. I will have also discovered that Patrick, a bartender and the Fours' resident prankster, has written "FEED MAYO TO TUNA" in big letters in my notebook. (It's a reference to the 1982 movie Night Shift.)
But right now, working the bar, there's no time to register any of that. Michigan is up big on Tennessee, half a dozen BC hockey fans are doing tequila shots in the corner and I'm trying to keep people served. I flub an order -- hearing "Jim and Coke" as "gin and Coke" -- and I can feel the piercing stares from the other side of the bar. Really, bro? Gin and Coke? Is that even a thing? I turn around, curse under my breath and face the phalanx again to take more orders.
Fwip clink, fwip clink, fwip clink, fwip clink.
THE ROOTS of the American sports bar are nearly as old as pro sports themselves. In the early 20th century, hired runners would take race scores and game results from stadiums to patrons at nearby bars, according to Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks Into a Bar. Prohibition wiped these joints off the map, at least officially. Television put them back on. In 1951, at a time when radios still ruled the family room, the proliferation of TVs in bars provoked the ire of one Billboard magazine critic, who wrote, "People used to go to bars to drink, now they mainly look."
Today, national chain Buffalo Wild Wings boasts 765 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and DirecTV reports being wired in 90,000 bars and restaurants in America. The Yelp page for Boston lists 40 sports bars, many with subthemes, including Lanes & Games, a bowling alley/sports bar, and Fritz, a sports bar for the LGBT community. Even Emeril Lagasse, the screeching maw known for his Food Network fame, has entered the fray with a Las Vegas restaurant called Lagasse's Stadium, which features 109 flat-screens and a casual dress code.
The ubiquity of sports bars, along with their reputation for ruddiness, is why Peter Colton prefers to call the Fours a "sports-themed restaurant." When his brother Tim bought the place in 1982, it was a run-down hockey bar with a grill in the window. Peter joined as a partner six years later and took over in 1999. Ever since he arrived, he's fought hard to make it a relatively classy and unique establishment. Sure, the standard memorabilia line the walls, and the menu features the requisite dishes named after local greats (Bobby Orr steak tips, Ted Williams fried scrod). But it also has a 25-seat mahogany bar, a decent selection of microbrews and bartenders who wear ties. And despite the glut of fratty watering holes in the neighborhood, the Fours will not serve you a Jagerbomb.
"There are plenty of places people can go for that," Colton says, flicking his head in the direction of a college-kid hangout next door. "We're trying to create a little more atmosphere."
The formula seems to be working. Some things about the Fours are impressive in a dry, numeric way: the 600 pounds of wings it goes through weekly, the 50 gallons of baked beans it doles out in the same amount of time, the $35,000 in sales it pulls down on a big night (much of that in Bud Light, which has a $3.93-per-bottle profit margin).
Of course, Colton's bottom line is also terrifyingly dependent on the performances of mercurial jocks. A playoff berth for the Celtics or the Bruins gives the Fours up to two dozen extra games -- often the difference between an average quarter and a good one. As for possible lockouts in the NFL and the NBA, Colton doesn't even want to think about it. Still, when I tell him that it's pretty brave to run a business that's so unpredictable, he shrugs it off.
"At a suburban restaurant, every day's the same," he says. "Here, we're event-based, and that's a whole different feel. It's a lot more exciting."
AT 8 A.M. ON St. Patrick's Day, I arrive for my Thursday shift in the kitchen. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are already there, power-washing the floor over the din of an Héroes del Silencio song. "Geno" MacGregor, a bearded bartender who's been working here for 30 years, is calling his beer distributors. An hour or so later, Colton comes in, counts the receipts from last night, checks that the TVs behind the bar are working and meets with a sales rep who persuades him to buy something called an "ice management system." At 10:57, the owner gathers the staff just outside the kitchen.
"Okay, guys, big day today," Colton says. "We've got corned beef dinner all day, until it runs out. Celtic Ale is the special beer. And remember, it's Saint Paddy's, so if anybody's overserved, liability is still liability. If you have a question about how old they are, card 'em again."
The crowd begins trickling in around 11:15. By early afternoon, at least 100 people have turned out. I've worked in a restaurant before, but the Fours is different. Its small kitchen and insistence on quick turnover (the average table goes from seating to check in 40 minutes) make it a ruthless beast, an efficient machine no newcomer can waltz into without creating disorder. "You gotta be crazy to work here," says Rafael Soto, who helps run the kitchen. "If you're looking for intellectuals, you're looking in the wrong place."
As he speaks, new orders whir out of the printer every few seconds, prompting shouts around the kitchen. The dinner special -- corned beef, carrots, new potatoes, cabbage -- isn't particularly hard to assemble, but Soto is picky about plating. "Too many carrots!" he huffs when I present him with my first attempt. "They're falling off the edge!"
Exhausted after hours of carrot-plating, I rotate out of the kitchen to behind the bar, where the chaos is at least temperature-controlled. Though I make a few minor mistakes during my shift -- light whiskey pours, putting the $10 bills upside down in the register, not even remotely figuring out how to use the computerized order system -- it could have been a lot worse. The nastiest of the Saint Paddy's hooligans have stayed away, and the Fours' regular bartending staff has been keeping me afloat. "Hey, Elbows, don't just stand there!" says Patrick, who caught me resting my elbows on the bar earlier. "Wipe something down."
Sports bars, I'm learning, are all about playing defense. On a busy day, you preemptively pull pints of Guinness, since a proper pour involves letting it sit for two minutes before being topped off. You stack glasses four high behind the bar because you never know when the barback will decide to take a cigarette break during a rush. You clean the bar obsessively. Everything is laid out in advance, organized neatly and within arm's reach.
The routine isn't important just to the staff. Over the course of my shifts, I get to know Jack, a heavyset redhead with an easy laugh. He's been coming to the Fours almost every day for decades. His wife threw him a surprise 60th birthday party here; he invited Geno to his daughter's wedding.
"I think I'll have the potato skins today, Geno," he says one afternoon.
"Potato skins? Don't think you've ever done that before."
"I know, I know. I'm really off the board today."
"Should I fire up the decaf?"
"Nah, that's okay."
Jack tells me he thinks the Fours is "like that place on Cheers." The people don't forget you. "I told Geno," he says, sipping his afternoon beer, "on my bucket list, I want a pasta dish on the menu to be named after me." He laughs.
"Pasta a la Jack."
Five minutes later, Geno fires up the decaf.
BY THE END of my visit, I've picked up some tricks of the trade: the correct Guinness-pouring technique (room-temperature tulip glass, 45 degree tilt, 120-second delay before being topped off); the portion of a beer that should be gone before you ask if the drinker wants another (women, 75 percent; men, half); and a magic trick involving a lime and a beer bottle that Adam, the upstairs bartender, made me promise not to reveal. On my last day, I actually show genuine signs of improvement. I plate a Bobby Orr correctly, with the heap of seasoned fries nestled next to the minipot of baked beans and the pickle spear. I successfully mix a Long Island Iced Tea without consulting my iPhone. I even, very briefly, figure out how to use the computerized ordering system.
It's a good feeling. And as is the case when writing about a great bar, it's tempting to wax rhapsodic about it. But you can't do that here, because the Fours is not a rhapsody. It's a cacophony of clanging, beeping and full-throated yelling that amounts, for some customers, to nothing deeper than a place to drink domestic beer and watch TV on a stool.
Still, I can see the appeal. The problem with most sports bars is that they never quite nail the sports part or the bar part. The Fours, on the other hand, is a place that celebrates the collective high of fandom but doesn't rest on it. Here, they'll serve you a veal Parmesan sandwich so delicious you're forced to look down from the Bruins game. And you'll never have to listen to someone order a lime daiquiri while you wait for your Bud. It's a nice balance, one that even I couldn't screw up.
As I pack my things and say my goodbyes, Patrick and his shift mate, Ian, who have been serving as my de facto bartending coaches, say they'll raise my grade for the weekend, from a C-minus to a B-minus.
"He shoots! He scores!" I say.
Patrick chuckles. "Something like that."
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ESPN The Magazine: July 25, 2011