Friday, April 18, 2014
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An admitted food snob reviews Xfinity Live!

Flyers fans (from left) Ray Fitz, Dr. Rob DiMaio and team captain Joseph Daly sure seem content watching the playoffs at Xfinity Live!
Flyers fans (from left) Ray Fitz, Dr. Rob DiMaio and team captain Joseph Daly sure seem content watching the playoffs at Xfinity Live! STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Flyers fans (from left) Ray Fitz, Dr. Rob DiMaio and team captain Joseph Daly sure seem content watching the playoffs at Xfinity Live! Gallery: An admitted food snob reviews Xfinity Live!

There is only one answer to the question: Will you stop and gawk at the shirtless, sweaty, beer-bellied, blindingly drunk man, the one with the hairy back, shimmying onto the mechanical bull, egged on by the boozy crowd?

Will you stop chewing your taco for a moment and stare — half in horror, half in amusement — as country music blares and the hairy man’s flaccid parts jiggle in rhythm to the bucking of the bull?

Of course you will. You cannot avert your eyes. It’s the same as when, moments before, you couldn’t look away when that woman tried in vain to pull up her too-small pants to cover up the expanse of her too-large backside. As it was when you couldn’t stifle a laugh when the annoying girl wearing the fuzzy-green Phillie Phanatic hat was nearly crushed by her muscle-bound boyfriend as they were thrown from the bull.

That’s how it goes at the PBR Bar & Grill, inside the bright and loud new Xfinity Live! entertainment district near the stadiums in South Philly. Then again, that’s how it goes everywhere inside Xfinity Live!

*****

“It’s going to redefine dining entertainment.”

That’s what I was told by Rob Johnson, Xfinity’s vice president of marketing, while he took me on a tour about 10 days before Xfinity Live! opened. “It’s not just a bar. It’s a district. It’s not just a one-trick-pony sports bar.”

I have spent a couple of long evenings at Xfinity Live! since it opened at the end of March, eating and drinking and generally trying to get a feel for the latest addition to the stadium district, and I’m still puzzled by how “dining entertainment” was defined before Xfinity Live!’s redefinition. After a lot of reflection, it seems to include the following:

It’s somewhere you can drop $200 on a mediocre steakhouse meal, surrounded by sports memorabilia. It’s somewhere you can stand in a cavernous sports bar, music blaring “Ice, Ice Baby” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and buy a lukewarm Coors Light served from an ice chest by a scantily clad bottle blonde. It’s somewhere you can try to win a T-shirt by eating “The Bullfighter” — a $49.99 taco consisting of four flour tortillas and two pounds of ground beef — in fewer than 30 minutes. It’s somewhere you can visit a beer hall in which people play beer pong into plastic cups and eat sausages that wouldn’t pass muster at Cracker Barrel. It’s somewhere — perhaps not surprisingly — that’s not all that family friendly, especially after a game. And, so far, it’s somewhere that’s been consistently stuffed to capacity with a loud, brazenly drunken crowd.

So basically, Xfinity Live! is like a lot of places, sports/bar/entertainment complexes you can find almost anywhere in America these days. Which I guess isn’t a surprise, since the company that developed Xfinity Live!, Cordish Co., has built similar entertainment districts in places like Louisville, Ky. (Fourth Street Live!), Kansas City (Power & Light District) and Baltimore (Power Plant Live!) Clearly, the ridiculous exclamation point is part of the company’s thing. The problem (or should I say The Problem!) for me is that amid the district’s artificial environment, Xfinity Live! doesn’t feel like Philadelphia at all. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine yourself . . . where? Cleveland? St Louis? Houston? In a red-state city where NASCAR and Big and Rich and megachurches are popular? I’m not exactly sure.

The in-your-face corporate branding is, of course, part of the deal. Upon arrival, you can stroll up the E.P. Henry Road to Victory — paved with, you guessed it, E.P. Henry stone, and lined with sculptures of Dr. J, Kate Smith, and Gary Dornhoefer.

Inside Xfinity Live! there is the sprawling NBC Sports Arena (“the first ever”) with a 32-foot LED HD television that serves as a sort of central beating heart of Xfinity Live! There’s a Chickie’s & Pete’s (of course), a Comcast SportsNet Interactive Zone (of course) and an Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Company (of course). The PBR in the PBR Bar & Grill does not, alas, stand for Pabst Blue Ribbon. It stands for Professional Bull Riders, otherwise known as “the stuff they show on ESPN 3 when there’s no halfway decent bowling tournament going on.”

Perhaps the most depressing bit of branding, for me, is the Victory Beer Hall. I’m a big fan of Victory beers, and the brewer has been at the forefront of America’s craft-beer movement. If there is a battle in this country over good and bad beers, Victory is on the side of the angels. And if Victory’s ambitions are suddenly the same as the big corporate beers they so long have been in opposition to, then I guess their presence in Xfinity Live! is a solid branding move. But I have to believe Victory’s core audience of beer lovers will see it as a major misstep.

I had high hopes for this place, since at first glance it looks like an imitation (albeit cheaper) of Stephen Starr’s enjoyable Frankford Hall in Fishtown. But for the minor style points for the young female servers in cute knee socks, the service itself is disinterested and amateurish. And the food is just embarrassing. How can you serve a pretzel like that tasteless, bready disaster in Philadelphia? The bratwursts were totally forgettable, too.

When I took my tour before the place opened, Johnson told me that the food at Xfinity Live! would not be “ballpark fare.” Honestly, as I ate my way through the district, I would have been a lot happier with a ballpark hot dog.

Even in the Spectrum Grill, which is supposed to be the “fancy place” — presumably where you take your date after she’s ridden the mechanical bull — my $46 veal chop was overcooked and dry, the $52 “signature” espresso-crusted ribeye lacked discernible flavor, and the $15 cocktails were poorly made. It was no surprise that it was mostly empty, while the other venues were packed.

Now, allow me to step back a moment. I write about food for a living, so sending me on assignment to check out the dining options at Xfinity Live! might be like sending the Phillies beat reporter off to cover a beer-league softball game. What I have to say about the food may be so obvious as to be irrelevant. So feel free to disregard me as a snob when I tell you to avoid almost all of it. Take, for instance, Broad Street Bullies Pub. This is how it was described to me by an Xfinity Live! marketing person (I’ve omitted the name to protect the innocent): “I don’t want to call it an Applebee’s or a Friday’s, but it’s going to have that sort of neighborhood feel.”

If I were a cook at Applebee’s or TGIFriday’s, I might be offended by that comment.

Again, feel free to call me a snob, but it’s not as if I don’t appreciate a good hot dog, burger or pretzel. Some of my favorite meals come from a truck. And it might be that you’ll be so drunk — like many were after the Phillies’ Opening Day loss — that you won’t be offended, as I was, at the insulting beer menus at Broad Street Bullies and Victory Beer Hall. At both places, the menus offer dozens of beers, with a list of their alcohol content . . . but nary a price. “Oh, all our beers range from $4 to $7,” said the bartender at Broad Street Bullies, only when I asked.

How much was the Sly Fox? I inquired.

“Oh, that’s one of our more expensive ones,” came the reply. It was like a game of 20 questions to find a cheaper option.

My initial, knee-jerk reaction to Xfinity Live! was this: I didn’t like the idea people would be lured to this district, this no-man’s land, this megaplex of “dining entertainment.” And not only because the people in the PBR Bar & Grill would soon be getting into their vehicles in the parking lot (where it costs $15 to park on game day). I also feared Xfinitiy Live! would lure people away from Center City and away from the great, unique, local restaurants and bars that make Philadelphia such a great city for dining and drinking.

When I explained all this to my companion for one of these forays into the beating heart of Xfinity Live!, she raised an eyebrow. At that point in the night, she had already been groped by two drunken men and pushed aside at the crowded bar by another drunken guy. She had stood on a floor strewn with broken glass watching a fat, hairy dude ride a mechanical bull. “I don’t think it’s such a bad idea that the people in this bar are lured away from Center City!” she shouted over the din.

But surely both of us were being too harsh. Later, as I thought about Xfinity Live!, a smile came to my face. I realized that Xfinity Live! is a funny place. And certainly my nights there have generated way more to talk about than most of the new spots I visit. My camera-phone videos of people riding the mechanical bull are a source of almost- endless entertainment, and I show them to almost everyone I see. If you’re interested in getting drunk, watching a game and doing some hilarious people-watching, I can promise you’ll have a blast. At least once. I’m not sure what will happen when the novelty, or your buzz, wears off. But then again, I’m not sure the novelty of a car wreck ever wears off. That’s the type of can’t-look-away experience we’re talking about.

If nothing else, an evening at Xfinity Live! makes one want to say this: Stay classy, Philadelphia. Or, more fittingly: Stay classy, Philadelphia!

Jason Wilson TableMatters.com
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