A winning arena for good sports Restaurant: ESPN Zone scores points with good bar-style food and themed flourishes.

September 06, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

In my household, "SportsCenter" is a daily morning ritual, and Kenny Mayne is a god. This will mean nothing to you unless you, too, are hooked. Just accept the fact that when my family and my daughter's field hockey coach headed for ESPN Zone, the sports-themed restaurant and entertainment complex based on the world's hippest sports channel, we were ready to like it.

But first, of course, we had to get in.

We waited in line outside about 45 minutes on a Sunday afternoon. That counted standing in the wrong line to begin with. There are two lines outside the complex, one for those who want to eat and one for those who just want to play games in the Sports Arena arcade upstairs.

Once inside - no surprise here - we found that the dining room is designed for total sensory overload. The one thing you don't have to do is make conversation. Especially if you're seated, as we were, four abreast in the anchor chairs. (The room is a working studio and can be used to broadcast shows in front of a live audience.)

Place mats are covered with up-to-date sports news and scores, trivia questions and the day's specials. Rock and roll music pulses. TV screens are everywhere. (But for some reason, the live TVs were broadcasting Fox, not ESPN.)

A closed ESPN Zone channel with sports quotes and blooper tapes runs continuously on several screens. Periodically the lights dim, and "SportsCenter" anchors appear on the closed channel to welcome diners.

If the kids get antsy, they can go upstairs and play a few high-tech arcade games or shoot a few baskets until the food is on the table.

Food, you might think, comes in a distant second to all the entertainment. But not so. I'm not saying ESPN Zone is another Hampton's; but as bar food and theme restaurants go, it does what it sets out to do very well.

We started off with nachos and cheese fries, the restaurant's two signature appetizers. I asked my husband which he liked better, and he said, "What's the difference?"

He had a point. One dish starts with steak fries and the other with tri-colored tortilla chips; but for sheer caloric, greasy, deliciously artery-clogging indulgence, it was hard to choose. Both were smothered in melted cheeses and bits of crisp bacon, with chopped green onion and tomato added for color. The nachos came with salsa, sour cream and guacamole; the fries with barbecue sauce and ranch dressing.

We were going to balance them with an ESPN Zone version of health food, the house salad, but the waitress told us they had "sold out."

So we were forced to move straight to the star of the show, the ESPN Zone burger. A half-pound of ground chuck had pride of place on a fresh, soft, lightly grilled onion roll. It was covered with melted Cheddar and grilled red peppers, mushrooms and onions. Steak fries and slaw came on the side.

The signature pizza is a cheeseburger pizza with crumbled hamburger, Cheddar and mozzarella but no tomato sauce. It's garnished with chopped fresh tomatoes, lettuce and chopped bacon. ESPN Zone makes its own herbed whole-wheat cheese crust; but frankly, with all these toppings, who can tell? And anyway, all the crisp-crusted and fried, smothered-in-cheese and garnished-with-bacon food was starting to run together.

You won't have that problem with one of the several heart-healthy dishes on the menu. Unfortunately the angel hair pasta with chicken, chopped fresh tomato, tiny broccoli florets and a lemony broth, which could have been an elegant little dish, was grievously oversalted - probably not great for your heart, come to think of it.

A better choice, if you don't want the excellent burger, is the baby back ribs, meaty and tender, with lots of flavor and a smoky barbecue sauce that doesn't overwhelm them. With the ribs came grilled squashes and red-skinned mashed potatoes.

As for dessert, ESPN Zone features its own homemade ice cream and real whipped cream in various combinations with huge warm chocolate chip cookies, huge chocolate cake (huge being the operative word here), "ultimate" berry cobbler and the like. We tried several; but after what had gone before, only our daughter could do them justice.

ESPN Zone

Food: ***

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 601 E. Pratt St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: $4.95-$8.95; main courses, $7.50-$19.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-685-3776

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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