YOUR MIND has been consumed lately with thoughts of brackets, seeds and Cinderella teams, a sure sign that March Madness is in full swing and the NCAA college basketball tournament is upon us.
Perhaps you've been so preoccupied with filling out your office pool (for entertainment purposes only, of course) that you overlooked the most important facet of the Big Dance experience - where to watch the games.
Not to worry. We've compiled a list of 10 of the best sports bars/restaurants in the Baltimore metropolitan area from which to view the action.
So whether you're looking for a relaxed atmosphere or a place where you can cheer and yell at the screen, we've got you covered. And after the final buzzer sounds and the madness subsides, don't forget to return to these places for Orioles and Ravens games and other major sporting events.
FOR HARD-CORE SPORTS FANS
601 E. Pratt St., 410-685-3776.
The 35,000-square-foot, two-level complex at the Inner Harbor uses state-of-the-art technology to provide the ultimate sports-viewing experience and an all-out assault on the senses. We're talking more than 200 video monitors, including over a dozen in the bathrooms.
ESPN Zone is made up of three components. One is the Studio Grill, where patrons can choose from a menu of more than 70 items (standard bar food mixed in with some entrees) and dine at replicas of ESPN studio broadcasting sets, such as SportsCenter, while they watch the games.
Then there's the Screening Room, which includes a 16-foot video monitor, surrounded by a dozen 36-inch screens, and a video wall that provides the latest scores and statistical updates. Each table has audio speakers (you can choose which game you want to hear) and some have built-in video monitors. If you're really lucky, you may land a seat on one of the seven leather recliners, otherwise known as "Zone Thrones."
Finally, for those who consider themselves athletes in addition to being supporters of athletes, ESPN Zone has the Sports Arena, where more than 200 customers at a time can participate in actual and virtual games.
SO CLOSE TO ESPN, YET SO FAR
Downtowne Sports Exchange
200 W. Pratt St., 410-659-5844.
Downtowne Sports Exchange is within walking distance of ESPN Zone, but the two establishments couldn't be more different. If ESPN Zone is a little too corporate or high-tech for your tastes, this could be the place for you.
Also referred to as DSX and formerly known as Balls, Downtowne Sports Exchange allows you to soak up the atmosphere of the Inner Harbor without all the glitz of the theme restaurants. Operating in a building that was constructed more than two centuries ago, the place has a Fells Point-like charm.
And although Downtowne Sports Exchange may lack some of the amenities of its neighbor down the street, it does have 30 television screens. Customers can view multiple games at once from anywhere in the bar.
As for the food, we recommend the Louisiana clam chowder and the shrimp salad, the latter of which Orioles' Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson has proclaimed to be Baltimore's best, according to the menu. Who are we to argue with No. 5?
FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE MORE REALLY IS MORE
7000 Arundel Mills Circle, Hanover, 443-755-0113.
If you thought ESPN Zone was huge, wait until you get a load of this place. Jillian's, an entertainment and dining megaplex in the Arundel Mills mall, covers 65,000 square feet. But unlike ESPN Zone's all-sports theme, sports are only part of the equation here.
That's not to say that Jillian's isn't a fine place to watch the games. Jillian's Video Cafe has 10 60-inch televisions, as well as a giant video wall (four 16-foot screens) that's set behind a huge bar.
The food in the Video Cafe is average, so if you want a good meal and a fun dining experience, hit Jillian's Hibachi Grill before the games (there are no televisions there).
Feel like bowling or shooting pool? Jillian's has 14 bowling lanes in a nightclub-like atmosphere, as well as a billiards room with 10 tournament-quality pool tables. And you won't miss any of the basketball action, as both the bowling and billiards area are equipped with video monitors.
There's also a gigantic arcade, featuring the latest electronic simulation games, as well as classic favorites.
Other areas in Jillian's include the Power Bar, a 40-foot bar and cocktail area with multiple video screens, and the Groove Shack, a dance club that is open Thursday-Saturday nights.
WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE ...
Coliseum Sports Bar
594 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville, 410-683-2012.
Providing the home for the television show of recently retired Ravens star Tony Siragusa is the Coliseum's claim to fame, but it's known for more than that.
Since its grand opening last September, the Coliseum has become a favorite hangout for Baltimore-area sports fans. It's easy to see why. It's the largest true sports bar in the area not named ESPN Zone.