The dining area at the new Columbia Ale House isn't very large, but it has enough space for four televisions, including a 62-incher that dominates the room. The bar area is much bigger, and it has a 100-inch television, plus about a dozen others, all tuned to sporting events on a recent Sunday afternoon.
The Ale House also has pool tables and a dart room. From all this, you can probably gather that sports, not food, is the main attraction here.
Owner David Schroeder, who opened Columbia Ale House in October, said about 95 percent of his customers are there to watch sports while they eat. The other 5 percent are there with kids in tow.
Schroeder noted that each of Columbia's other town centers has a sports bar, and he seems to have filled a niche by opening his in Long Reach, which had been lacking one since Sneakers closed in 1994, he said.
Even at lunchtime, the place was crowded on a recent Sunday. A few people were eating in the dining area, which has about a dozen tables, covered with neat green and white tablecloths, but more people were in the bar. Nearly everyone was enjoying a beer and the singular pleasure of watching football with a roomful of fans.
For a place like the Ale House, the goal of the kitchen is to provide food that goes down well with drinks, food that can be mindlessly consumed while the brain is occupied with the sports event of the moment.
In short, the goal of this food is to neither excite the palate nor offend it. While you're at the Ale House, you want to concentrate on the television screen, not food.
The Columbia Ale House has provided a menu that meets this goal, and even sometimes rises above it.
The menu, as you might expect, is mostly burgers, pizza and sandwiches, plus such standard entrees as crab cakes, grilled salmon, a few steaks and salads.
Entrees are served with side dishes that include very good hearty, vinegary baked beans and decent french fries. A salad can be added for $1.49 but isn't worth even that low price, as it is nothing but limp lettuce, flavorless tomatoes and a few cucumber slices.
The fish sandwich was a good example of food that didn't offend. The fish, which was breaded, fried and served on a substantial roll, was firm and white, completely free of any fishy taste. In fact, it was free of almost any taste at all. Tartar sauce, which arrived upon request, was more mayo than relish and didn't help much. The sandwich had less taste than a fast-food counterpart.
The baby back ribs, on the other hand, were a good example of food that rose above the inoffensive. They were tender and tasty, coated in a messy, garlicky sauce, good enough to take the mind off the Ravens for a brief "Hmm, these are pretty good."
The same garlicky barbecue sauce appeared on a simple barbecued chicken sandwich that fit into the inoffensive category.
We also ordered pizza, which was very cheesy, but had too much crust around the edge for my taste.
The brownie sundae may have been the best part of the meal. A generous chunk of fudgy, walnut-studded brownie was served warm and covered with scoops of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream.
The Ale House has 10 beers on draft and about 30 overall, Schroeder said. And even though only 5 percent of the customers come with kids, he has no plans to do away with a children's menu that includes spaghetti, grilled cheese and hamburgers, each for $3.99, including a drink.
Hey, kids can be sports fans, too.
Columbia Ale House
Where: 8775 Cloudleap Court, Long Reach Village Center, Columbia
Open: Daily for dinner, lunch on weekends
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers $6.99-$10, entrees $5.99-$16.49
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *