As long as I’m writing sentimental blog posts about my favorite eateries, allow me to add the sad news of the closing of my favorite sports bar.
I watched hundreds (thousands?) of hours of sports at The Back Page, a bar that was located on 3rd Avenue and 83rd Street on the Upper East Side. It all started with the 1995 NCAA Basketball Tournament, back when the place was called Polo Grounds, continued through two name changes (including the Entourage era, which long predated the show on HBO, thank you very much) and ended with my final visit for this year’s edition of March Madness. In the interim I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty NFL Sundays and twenty NCAA opening weekend days in the place.
Fifteen years ago, when Direct TV’s NFL Sunday Ticket was a brand new commodity, and American sports fans were still adjusting to the concept of out-of-town games appearing somewhere other than the ticker at the bottom of the screen, very few sports bars had perfected the winning formula that seems so basic today: offering a vantage point from which ALL of the NFL games could be seen simultaneously. Back Page, located six blocks from my studio apartment, was one such place. If you were lucky enough to grab a seat at one of the center tables in the dark back room and willing to swivel around and give your neck muscles a workout, you could see everything in the NFL that day as it happened. Magic.
It was installed as the unofficial home of my fantasy football league, and my best friends and I gathered there on countless Sundays, a tradition that survived all the way through the 2009 season. Opening each NFL season by walking into the back room of B.P. around 12:00 on Week 1 Sunday to find most of my leaguemates salivating in anticipation of September’s first kickoff became one of my favorite days on the calendar. It’s tough to match the feeling of watching one of your fantasy players rip off a long touchdown run in the company of your entire fantasy league. Back Page routinely gave me that, and for that I am thankful. On the weeks when the Jets had away games, I routinely put in seven hour days—yeah, both the 1:00’s and the 4:00’s—at the place. I can watch football forever and never get bored. Yeah, I’m a huge nerd. So what?
I always stayed all day, even after everyone else left. Every time. It was only when I stepped outside around 7:15, forcing my retinas to adjust to the sudden shift from Back Page’s dungeon-like darkness to normal light, that it would occur to me that I had committed the sin of doing what non-psychos call “wasting a day.” I could not have cared less. I walked home, got onto my couch, picked up the TV remote and turned to the Sunday Night game.
I had some epic times at Back Page. I pored over NCAA brackets and fantasy lineup cards there. I’ve won and lost a small fortune there. I got back-doored; I got front-doored. I watched the Mets win playoff games. I watched the Mets lose playoff games. I watched the Yankees win the World Series. I watched the Yankees lose the World Seriese. I was there when Harold “The Show” Arcineoux single-handedly wiped out the Tarheels. I was there when the little Coppin State coach got scooped up from behind and air-kicked for joy. I was there for Bryce Drew. I was there when the Jets held a halftime lead in the 1998 AFC Championship game. I was there when they got blown out of Mile High in the second half. I was even there for the moments when three or four of my fantasy football Super Bowl titles were secured. And yes, it was Back Page that hosted my legendary appearance on a locally televised sports trivia show.
For most sports events of remote significance I have reported to Back Page, even after I moved out of the neighborhood to an apartment forty minutes away. Starting around 2005 or 2006, the owners and waitstaff all came to know me and would usher me to my preferred seat and reliably bring me “the usual” when I ordered a meal. I suppose it is the New York bar I’ve been to the most times. Pretty much every person I know here in New York has been inside The Back Page with me.
The Back Page eventually fell behind many of New York’s other sports bars in some important respects—it was likely the last sports bar in the city to have old school tubes (not flat screens) on some of the walls, the service left much to be desired on some days, and the manager would sometimes leave one 1:00 NFL game out of the televised mix, but it was still a great place to me. It was great because its formula was simple: all the games and good food. You could always see seven or eight NFL games from one seat, and the kitchen served atypically good fare for a sports bar. My Sunday order was always the same. Nurse my hangover with a house salad (ranch dressing, no tomatoes) at 12:30, move on to an order of the excellent wings around 2:00, and then around 3:30 I’d treat myself to the menu’s crown jewel: “chicken tidbits,” which was an open faced grilled chicken sandwich with melted mozzarella served on garlic bread, with BBQ sauce on the side. Ahh.
The Back Page was also great because it was a gambler’s paradise. The older dudes at the bar would openly discuss the action they had pending while the kids in the back rooted for their fantasy teams. I suppose I was affiliated with both groups. For really big games involving New York teams, and for big events, particularly the NCAA Basketball Tournament, B.P. would get rammed, it had the buzz. Solid place.
There is something to be said for traditions, old habits and landmark locations that withstand the test of time and a life’s changing circumstances. Yes, I will find new places to watch the games (even with a baby on the way, I’m still a long way from giving this practice up, sorry Janeen!), but none of them will be The Back Page. When I found out the place was gone for good, I felt a small piece of me go with it.
One last tidbit for the road! Mmmm.