Sports bars. The English just can't do sports bars. Absoulutely rubbish at them. They first sprung up on these shores in the eighties, when a few likely lads watched 'Cheers', noticed that american football had become popular and resolved to open bars with a few replica shirts stuck up on the wall, peanuts on the bar and a big tv screen slapped in the corner. Woeful. You'd have thought that they might have evolved from that point, but things didn't get much better. With the growth of Sky Sports in the nineties, your average pub landlord cottoned on to the fact that showing premiership football on a big screen was a good way of getting customers through the door and the sports bar was left to become just another genre in the delightful canon of 'theme bars'. Take a trip to Sports Cafe in the West End or Babe Ruth's in Wapping and you'll see a common approach : gaudy decor, gaudy food and stacks of sports memorabilia hanging off the walls in a random fashion. They are the epitome of style (in a manner of speaking) over content and to put it quite bluntly they are completely bobbins.
Does it matter? Yes it does. It matters because it would be nice to go and watch big sporting events in a nice environment that isn't a west end hell-hole packed with tourists or a local pub rammed with rabid one-eyed 'fans'. The good news is that we think we've found just the place.
The Offside Bar & Gallery is a collaboration between Damien & Lorcan Devine (the enlightened souls behind the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub in Angel) and Mark Leech, the director of the Offside Photography Agency and one of Europe's leading sports photographers. The inspiration behind the venue, which has been open for just over a year, is Offside's database of over a million fantastic sports images, or more specifically, the opportunity to display them. The trio wanted to create the capital's first gallery space dedicated solely to sports photography, but they also wanted to add what they knew about running bars and events into the mix, so heads were put together, a suitable location was found (just round the corner from the Angel)and the Offside Bar & Gallery was born.
The first thing that sets the Offside apart then, is content. Above the bar are the offices of the photographic agency, the base for a team of photographers working at top sporting fixtures across the UK, Europe and the rest of the globe. The fruits of their labour are displayed across the exhibition space and throughout the bar, including a constant spinning slideshow on one of the monitors, the contents of which can change to suit whichever big event is next on the tv screen (you can even select and purchase your favourite print from the selection - £25 for a small print and £50 for a large). The bar has quickly become a hub for London's sports photographers and journalists and has become a regular host to various sporting events and launches.
The agency gives the bar its soul and has helped it to develop its own community (which is all us lonely Londoners are looking for isn't it?), and fortunately, the venue is also in possession of the style to go with its soul.
This is a bar that does not feel like a sports bar. There's no day-glo in evidence, and certainly no signed baseball gloves stuck to the walls. Instead it can offer a relaxed and low-key envrironment that feels like it isn't trying too hard. In attempting to describe the decor, the word 'Cuban' sprang to mind, which admittedly is a very pretentious way of describing it, but that's just what all the wooden furniture and dark leather sofas seemed to 'evoke' (Laurence Llewlelyn-Bowen eat your heart out). It's smart, but lived in, and stylish, without feeling pretentious, and everywhere you look there's a great photograph that demands a closer look.
In keeping with the lack of pretension, the bar menu is straightforward and very well priced. Londonist snacked on a sausage baguette with chips and salad and very nice it was too, especially the chips, which were proper 'chips' with a lovely crispy shell..they were chip chips, not fries....British chips....God save the Queen.
Sorry, got sidetracked there, it's nearly lunchtime. The venue has a late licence till 2am, so there's plenty of time for serious revelry, and is also available for hire. The bar manager, Richard, is a very nice man indeed, so if you happen to drop in, please do mention that you heard about them on Londonist and then perhaps comment on Real Sociedad's chances in La Liga next season...he'll like that.
The gallery runs a new exhibition every month or so, with the current show featuring the shortlisted photo's in NatWest's 25th Anniversary professional cricket photography prize . When we pitched up, the gallery was showcasing photos of European Cup Finals taken from the L'Equipe archive, and they were all splendid. Here's one of Ferenc Puskas and the Real Madrid boys.
Talking to Richard and Lorcan, you get a very clear feel for the ethos behind the bar, which is combining a passion for sports photography and good bars with a desire to create a space for sports fans to watch big games in a non-partisan atmosophere. The Offside Bar & Gallery is less about what colours you wear and more about celebrating good sport. It rocks. And so we urge anyone who takes their sport-watching seriously to go check it out. You won't be disappointed. Oh, and look out for the nice little touches, such as the commentary from the big screen being piped through to the gents...we love stuff like that.
Thanks to Lorcan and Richard at the Offside Bar & Gallery for their time and hospitality.