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The NFL cooks

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[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Tampa Bay Buccaneer Chidi Ahanotu has made his restaurant and jazz club, Sacks, the kind of relaxed yet sophisticated establishment where his NFL pals -- and mere mortals -- like to hang out.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


Off the field, players' interest in the restaurant business is picking up, and the Tampa Bay area is benefiting from it.

Football figures need more than glad-handing celebrity and wind-sprinting appetites to get in the restaurant business. Winning modern restaurants, and modern football, require fitness, attention to detail and teamwork.

That doesn't scare NFL veterans who like to spend their Sundays daring 250-pound rivals to hit them again, harder, harder. And they have the money to spend and risk in a dicey sideline.

More and more players, current and retired, as well as coaches are jumping into the restaurant game.

Not long ago, there was only one football name -- that of Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula -- on a restaurant in the Tampa Bay area. This year, however, we can field almost a full 11 that are run, owned or managed by footballers, including beloved Buccaneers.

Catch a locker room conversation among Chidi Ahanotu, Mike Alstott, Dave Moore and Keyshawn Johnson, and they might be talking menu strategies instead of defensive plays.

While menus are heavy with steaks, barbecue and other he-man fare, restaurants with football origins also serve killer ice cream, silly martinis, arugula pizza and sesame crusted tuna. While there may be memorabilia, the decor in many is more skybox than sports bar. Some restaurants, such as ex-Gator Crawford Ker's Wing House chain or ex-Buccaneer Lee Roy Selmon's barbecue/sports bar (with a broadcast booth) cater to Everyfan; most aim for a sophisticated ambience and an uptown crowd.

When the Island Way Grill, where partners Mike Alstott and Dave Moore have backed restaurateur Frank Chivas, opens this spring, the menu will feature Pacific rim seafood, and the decor will be South Beach hip.

Some players lend money and name to restaurant pros or corporations, because a restaurant can be a good investment or a classy place to hang out. Others take serious interest in the details, and some wind up in the business full time or for life.

Former Buc lineman Tom McHale came to restauranting the old-fashioned way: his family, including a sister who is a Seattle chef. In his post-NFL life he became a restaurant manager and now presides over a diverse empire on Restaurant Row, along Howard Avenue in Tampa's Soho area.

His properties include the Old Meeting House, a landmark soda fountain and blue-plate diner with homemade ice cream, and the Tuscan Oven, an Italian farmhouse with opera in the air and calamari and eggplant on the table. The Oven shares the building with McHale's ChopHouse, billed as barbecue with style: duck chili, sweet potato chips, wraps, sauces from Creole gravy to chipotle aioli, and bottles of San Pellegrino. It's done well enough that he's opening a second McHale's in Brandon next month.

Former NFL owner Eddie DeBartolo and partner Ed Muransky have made Tampa the launch pad for two new chains, Tomatina, a new chain specializing in fresh, quick, inexpensive Italian, and Ed & Eddie's for home-made ice cream.

A current player known as both owner and micro-manager is Keyshawn Johnson. He opened Reign, a $5-million restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1999, before he was acquired by the Bucs. The place thrilled critics and Los Angeles celebs alike by giving banana cream pies and fried chicken a posh home at a fashionable address -- and $40 dinner tabs. Johnson took the chefs home to learn his mother's recipes and drops in regularly to schmooze in the VIP backroom and monitor the waiter stations. The Zagat Guide says the restaurant looks spectacular and warns jeans and sneakers are out of place.

In Tampa, Ahanotu follows a similar game plan. He's a hands-on owner who knows his employees and what he wants, a place that's sophisticated and comfortable. He bought Bill's Sundowner, an out-of-the-way jazz club, that stocked high-end steaks, cigars and sports collectibles, then sought Jimmy Brothers from La Mezzanine, a Euro-chic club in Ybor City that Ahanotu liked, to manage it.

They renamed it Sacks but were determined to keep the jazz, the upscale menu (plus Cajun shrimp and rice) and, above all, the classy cool of a place that's hard to find but worth the look. The dress code frowns on tanktops, ball caps and raggedy jeans. As Brothers says, "Dress to go out, dress nice, act like you respect the establishment."

The payoff: "A place (Ahanotu) can call his own," says Brothers, "to give the ball players a place where they can go and not be harassed. It's not like they get special treatment."

Except that they get to be ordinary people for a night, ordinary people in an uncommonly polished place.

RESTAURANT ROSTER

Chidi Ahanotu, defensive end, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sacks Seafood Grill & House of Jazz

  • 5401 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
  • (813) 287-2257

* * *

Eddie DeBartolo, former owner, San Francisco Giants; and Ed Muransky, former lineman, Oakland Raiders

Ed & Eddie's Homemade Ice Cream

  • 9214 Anderson Road, Tampa
  • (813) 886-8182

Tomatina

  • 9212 Anderson Road, Tampa
  • (813) 290-7744

* * *

Keyshawn Johnson, wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Reign

  • 180 N Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, Calif.
  • (310) 273-4463

* * *

Crawford Ker, former lineman, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos

Ker's Wing House

  • 7390 Ulmerton Road, Largo; (727) 530-9799.
  • 7790 US 19 N, Pinellas Park; (727) 547-9464.
  • 6445 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 520-7700.
  • 8001 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 806-9464.
  • 6519 US 19 N, New Port Richey; (727) 816-9464.
  • 2145 E Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala, (352) 671-7880

Dan Marino, former quarterback, Miami Dolphins

  • Dan Marino's Town Tavern
  • BayWalk, 121 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, plus Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale.
  • (727) 822-4413

* * *

Tom McHale, former offensive lineman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

McHale's ChopHouse

  • 808 S Howard Ave., Tampa
  • (813) 250-9809

Tuscan Oven

  • 808 S Howard Ave., Tampa
  • (813) 251-0619.

Old Meeting House

  • 901 S Howard Ave., Tampa
  • (813) 254-0567

Lee Roy Selmon, former defensive end, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Lee Roy Selmon's Southern Comforts
  • 4302 Boy Scout Road, Tampa (813) 871-3287

Don Shula, coach, Miami Dolphins

Shula's Steak House

  • Wyndham Westshore Hotel
  • 4860 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
  • (813) 286-4366

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© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
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