Corner makeover: Death of the sports bar?

Can a sports bar be a restaurant? Don't blaring big-screen TVs, shouting fans, smoky poolrooms, and $5 pitchers go against the rules– and pleasures– of fine (or even decent) dining?

The newest generation of Corner restaurateurs seems to agree about this unappetizing mixing of genres. Or at least they understand that satisfying thirsty sports fans doesn't necessarily involve letting potential diners starve in the bleachers.

Leading the pack is Michael's Bistro and Tap House, the brainchild of 33 year-old UVA grad Michael Crafaik. For the past four or five years– ever since chef Chuck Adcock joined the team– this intimate, lively café and bar, which specializes in microbrews and inventive affordable cuisine, has had a corner on The Corner's lunch and dinner market.

Following in this new tradition are the new owners of The Virginian and The Greenskeeper.

Twenty-four-year-old "Com" School grad Andy McClure and his brothers Pat and Sam bought the historic Virginian a year and a half ago from George and Teresa Groome. Since then, they've transformed it into a busy, bright, broad-appeal restaurant with a full lunch and dinner menu.

"We had less to work with, more to prove," a confident Andy tells us. Business must be good. The McClure brothers are already planning a second, American-style restaurant at the fringe of downtown.

Just next door, another family has been tackling an even bigger challenge.

If you paid a visit to The Greenskeeper Sportsbar and Restaurant last fall, you probably didn't even notice that it had new owners. But Jim Galloway and his family– wife Jan, son Ben (24), and daughter Casey (22)– bought the business from the Groomes last September, just as the football season was picking up speed.

"You can't change the game in the fourth quarter," explains Jim, who attended UVA back in the '60s.

Which is why the ambitious team decided to wait until January to transform this sports bar into ja-b'er ­wok-'e - a family-run, family-friendly restaurant, take-out deli, live performance venue (music, comedy, poetry), and, yes, bar. After a sneak preview for a few friends, the eat-and-drinkery debuts in full-force on Friday, January 17.

Young, eager and full of ideas, general manager Ben is the creative force in the family and, like Andy McClure, a restaurateur in the making. A Lewis Carroll fan and former Lit major at Arizona, it was his idea to name the place after the greatest nonsense poem in English. (By some fortunate coincidence, Brillig Books is just around the corner.)

"I wanted a name that was fun and that really raised people's curiosity," he tells us. We'd be curious to find out how many UVA students even know that Jabberwocky is a poem, but that's probably a question for Jay Leno to ask.

But enough about the name. Let's talk food. We didn't see the menu (it was only 99 percent done), but we're told that the emphasis will be on diverse sandwiches, sliders (mini-hamburgers in the White Castle tradition), salads, and soups– your standard lunch fare, but with a creative twist: designer breads and Boar's Head meats and cheeses.

Apparently, the menu wasn't the only thing in need of a makeover. The new owners ripped out two TVs (alas, two remain), swapped an old pool table for a couple of comfy couches (à la Espresso Royale), re-did the bathrooms (thank you!). They also capped the bar with shiny copper, built a large corner stage, and installed new mahogany-stained booths and bar stools. Art will soon adorn the muted, freshly painted walls, perhaps the clearest sign that the Galloways intend to keep the sports on the side– except, perhaps, on game days.

Will they succeed? "All sports bars are destined to fail as restaurants," challenges Andy McClure next door. This is the kind of sporting event we like to watch. The more winners, the better.