There's a Greene Turtle less than five miles away from Playoff Sports Bar and Grill, which opened in Reisterstown early in the year. A Buffalo Wild Wings sits even closer, a quarter-mile down the street.
With standard pub fare and more TVs than a Best Buy showroom, all three spots cater to sports fans who care more about the view of the game than an extensive beer list. But if you've been to one Green Turtle or Buffalo Wild Wings, you've been to them all.
So the question remains: Can the independently owned Playoff differentiate itself enough from the chains to emerge as the best option?
To find out, I visited Playoff on a recent Saturday evening, as a college football game many experts called the biggest of the year (Alabama at Texas A&M;) played out and the Orioles, up in Toronto, hoped to move closer to the second Wild Card spot.
Both games justified spending a few hours in a sports bar, but on this night, only a dozen or so patrons agreed.
The bartender, a young guy named Mike, extended his hand to introduce himself after I sat at the large rectangular bar, which acts as the focal point in the center of the spacious restaurant.
He called me — and the patrons around me — by our names for the rest of my time at Playoff, which is an easy but effective indicator of good service.
Mike's performance was the only remarkable aspect of this Playoff experience, as he frequently checked on patrons and made unobtrusive small talk. Most important, Mike was attentive, never forgetting his primary job was to serve customers quickly. (If I were to nitpick, I'd target Mike's too-casual-even-for-a-sports-bar "uniform": gray Nike mesh shorts and a yellow Playoff T-shirt. He looked ready for an intramural game.)
He also proved he could remain calm in an uncomfortable situation. At one point, an obnoxious patron was talking loud enough to disrupt the bar's laidback attitude.
Mike asked the patron and his friend to keep it down, but he was met with the type of defiance that made it even clearer it was time for the duo to exit.
"I don't get it! It's my birthday week! Can't I have fun?" the man in oversized sunglasses whined to no one in particular. Mike kept his cool and quietly asked them to leave. It was a semi-awkward confrontation that was quickly defused and forgotten after the men left.
Service was strong at Playoff, but other aspects felt generic. The beer draft list was predictably uninspired: Yuengling, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Blue Moon, Angry Orchard, Sam Adams Seasonal, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon and Guinness. Given the choices, Loose Cannon (decently priced at $4.50 for a pint) was an easy decision.
The atmosphere didn't do Playoff many favors either. The prerequisite, Baltimore-related memorabilia hung framed around the bar, and a black-and-white Baltimore Colts mural took up a back wall, but these touchstones have become expected in sports bars.
They are necessary — if Playoff lacked these same things, it'd be even worse — but also hard to get excited for.
The bar's beyond-dim lights overshadowed any energy the games — shown on 22 52-inch LED TVs and a 133-inch projection screen — provided. A server idly checked her phone by the kitchen door. A barback hovered around the bar waiting for action that never came. It was still early for a Saturday night and a DJ was showing up in a few hours, but it was impossible to deny Playoff felt slow.
A much-hyped college football matchup and an important Orioles game aren't the Super Bowl, but as a sports bar, you'd have to hope for a decent crowd. Or at least one larger than 12.
As Manny Machado grounded out to a Blue Jays pitcher, the game ended and no one in the bar reacted.
The sound system playing the football game's audio could have had something to do with it.
The lack of reaction matched my own to Playoff, which never separated itself from its competitors. Instead of being a better option than the Greene Turtle and Buffalo Wild Wings, Playoff felt more like an equal.
Playoff Bar and Grill
Back story: Formerly Maria's Restaurant & Lounge, Playoff opened in January 2013. From the food to the beer to the vast number of TVs, it offers an experience that should feel familiar to anyone who has been to the Greene Turtle, Looney's, Buffalo Wild Wings, et al.
Parking: Located in the Cherryvale Shopping Center, Playoff has a free parking lot it shares with other businesses.
Signature drink: During Orioles games, Playoff offers large Miller Lite cans for $3. A Heavy Seas Loose Cannon draft costs $4.50.
Where: 11706 Reisterstown Road, Reisterstown
Contact: 410-526-6500, playoffbarandgrill.com
Open: 11-2 a.m. daily