Shopper’s Café

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When it comes to the local sports scene, we New Englanders have been pretty blessed over the past 10 years or so. In fact, with three Lombardi trophies, two World Series titles, a Stanley Cup, an NBA championship, and a host of deep playoff runs across all four major pro sports, “spoiled” might be the more accurate word. Things feel a little different this fall. The Red Sox aren’t in the playoffs, and let’s face it – their season effectively ended sometime in July. But at least their season began, which is more than I can say for the Bruins, as yet another NHL lockout begins extinguishing the hockey season. At least we have the Patriots, who are off to a promising start, and the Celtics. (My interest in basketball is passive at best, but in a year with potentially no hockey, I’ll take what I can get.)

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With that in mind, I thought I’d start an occasional series on the best bars in which to watch a game. Now, “best” can be pretty subjective. If you’re the anxious owner of a fantasy football team and need to monitor eight games at once, you’ll naturally want a bar with NFL Sunday Ticket and a plethora of TVs. If you moved to Boston from Pittsburgh and are for some reason still a Pirates fan, you’ll need to find a bar that carries out-of-market baseball games. Or maybe you’re just really superstitious and know that if you don’t watch the game while sitting on a particular stool in a particular bar while wearing a particular shirt and drinking a particular beer, the home team will lose. (And on that note, New England fans, you have no idea how great your debt is to my tattered black Nike sweatshirt, which has guided the Pats to many critical victories over the years.)

It’s a combination of warm memories, friendly service, and a great viewing setup that make Shopper’s Café in Waltham my favorite sports bar.

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Whenever I mention it, the name elicits the same response – that’s a bar? Yes, it’s a bar, even if “Shopper’s Café” sounds more like the food court in a mall than a place to have a few beers. The moniker apparently dates back to a time when Moody Street was largely a retail district, and husbands would come in for a drink while their wives were out shoppin’ around. And when I say “dates back,” I mean it – Shopper's recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and it's been family-owned for four generations.

In my opinion, Shopper’s is ideally outfitted for the sports-viewing experience. For starters, it’s big. There’s a long bar with about 16 seats, plus a few pub tables and a couple of booths in the immediate vicinity. Beyond that is a large dining area with about eight good-size wooden tables, five large booths, and another five pub tables. The bar and dining areas are somewhat divided, but the place is essentially one large, open room.

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And the best part? TVs galore.

No matter where you’re sitting, chances are you’ll have a pretty good view of one of Shopper’s’ 22 televisions. The dining area boasts 13 flat-screens of varying sizes, and there are nine more above and around the bar. And Shopper’s carries NFL Sunday Ticket, MLB Extra Innings, NHL Center Ice, and NCAA March Madness packages, so whatever game you’re looking for, you’ll have no trouble finding it.

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In fact, I might never have discovered Shopper’s Café were it not for their broad offering of out-of-market football games. First, let me make this clear – my family, Melissa, and I are all diehard Patriots fans. But a few years back, our cousin got a coaching job with the New Orleans Saints, and so we started casually rooting for the Saints as well. Our casual interest blossomed into a full-blown love affair after we visited our cousin in New Orleans, toured the Saints’ facilities, hobnobbed with coaches and players, and watched them destroy the New York Giants at the Superdome. We had a glorious long weekend in New Orleans, and it would be difficult say to whether Eli Manning or our livers absorbed the worse beating while there.

No football team will top the Patriots for us, but that unique experience made us Saints fans for life. Thus, after our trip, we had to find a place with NFL Sunday Ticket so we could watch the Saints and the Pats. That’s how we discovered Shopper’s, where we spent pretty much every Sunday that fall. And that’s where we were for Super Bowl XLIV, a special night when Shopper’s was packed, the Saints pummeled a different Manning, and pretty much everyone in New England became Saints fans for at least one night (Saints 31, Colts 17). Since then, Shopper’s has always held a special appeal for us, and that’s where you can find us most Sundays.

For the inaugural game of the 2012 NFL season, Kelly, Mario, Kat, and I arrived at Shopper’s around noon. Though it was still an hour until kickoff, about 20 other people were already there. A place like Shopper’s draws a lot of game-day regulars, so we saw some familiar faces; our waitress recognized us and welcomed us back, which made us feel right at home.

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Getting to Shopper’s early on Sunday is a good idea, especially if you’re planning to watch more than just the Pats. The staff usually chuckles at us as Kelly and I try out different tables to achieve the optimal viewing angle. Plus, oddly enough, there’s a table that’s unofficially reserved for a group of older gents who show up every week to watch the Cleveland Browns, so we always know that at least a few seats are spoken for before we even arrive.

Since noon on Sunday is still considered the brunch hour, we often get things under way with a Bloody Mary. Shopper’s makes a nice, spicy Bloody Mary that sets the stage for an afternoon of beer and wings.

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By 12:45, Shopper’s was bustling. There were about 30 people in the dining area, another 20 or so at the bar. Shopper’s always fills up on game day, but for the season opener, there was a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation. It was a beautiful day, the staff were all decked out in Pats gear, and they opened the big windows that look onto Moody Street, letting in lots of sunlight and warm, early autumn air.

We drained our Bloody Marys and quickly shifted to beer for the game. Shopper’s offers a pretty respectable beer list, with draft options like Baxter Stowaway IPA, Slumbrew Happy Sol, Long Trail, and Allagash White, among many others. But when you’re settling in for a three- to six-hour day of football, pitchers of Bud Light is the way to go.

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Plentiful cheap beer and multiple TVs are essential, but any sports bar worth its salt needs a menu overflowing with appetizers and comfort food. Shopper’s goes above and beyond. They’ve got all the game-day staples, like nachos, wings, and potato skins, along with a few unexpected options like crab rangoon and pork strips. (That reminds me – for any superstitious New Orleans fans reading this, please know that my strategic ordering and consumption of Shopper’s’ toasted raviolis, the specifics of which I will not detail here, helped propel the Saints to their Super Bowl victory; you’re welcome.) We started off with spinach and artichoke dip.

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As the Pats began their dismantling of the Tennessee Titans, we ordered up another pitcher and our traditional, must-have order – Cajun chicken wings. I don’t claim to be a wing connoisseur; I know some people take this subject very seriously. But Shopper’s’ Cajun wings are among my favorite wings anywhere. With a dry-rubbed mix of Cajun spices and a Ranch dip, I wolf these things down like they’re going out of style.

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Even beyond the snacks and munchies, Shopper’s offers a surprisingly extensive menu of burgers, wraps, entrees, pizza, and plenty of sandwiches – chicken sandwiches, steak sandwiches, regular ol’ sandwiches like Reubens and pastrami, and a “Pilgrim” sandwich made with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. And the food is pretty good! I’m a sucker for the Bruiser Burger – big and juicy, coated in Cajun seasoning and topped with crumbled blue cheese, it’s my go-to whenever we’re staying at Shopper’s for the 4 p.m. game.

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I’m also partial to the Steak Monti, made with teriyaki-glazed steak tips, which Kelly got on our last outing.

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Shopper’s Café attracts football fans of all stripes, and this is a good thing. While Pats fans dominate the crowd, looking around the bar and seeing people wearing other teams’ shirts engenders a sense of community. Whenever I’m out of town during football season, I seek out a bar that’s showing the Pats, so I can relate. Being immersed in such a diversity of allegiances reminds me that even though we’re cheering for different teams, we all share that passion for the game. (Honestly, I’m not really that high-minded; this is just a little pep talk I give myself when I get stuck next to a table of Jets fans.)

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As I mentioned earlier, among the regulars are some Browns fans who seem to range in age from their late 60s to their 70s. What’s always amazed us about these guys – apart from their dedication to the hapless Browns – is that every week they have a table set aside for them, directly in front of the TV that shows the Browns game. I first noticed this when I came in one Sunday to an empty dining area, and the waitress said “sit anywhere…except that table over there.” Now, Shopper’s isn’t exactly the sort of place that takes reservations. So what gives?

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Under the auspices of the blog, I took the opportunity during week 1 to approach one of these gents and find out a little more about their weekly tradition. I spoke with Rich, and I can’t say I got a straight answer about how they finagle a dedicated table every week, but I suspect it has something to do with the sort of charm that only guys in their 70s can wield. I did, however, have an illuminating conversation with him about and his love for the Browns.

Surprisingly, Rich is a Browns fan who does not hail from Cleveland. Growing up in New England in the 1950s, he had two options for watching football on TV – the Cleveland Browns or the New York Giants. The Pats didn’t show up until later, and Rich was invested enough in the Browns that he wouldn’t switch his allegiance (and given the bumbling nature of the Pats in those days, I can’t say I blame him). Plus, Rich was there for the Browns’ golden years, and he cheerfully reminisced about watching pigskin immortals like Otto Graham, Jim Brown, and coach Paul Brown in their heyday. He spoke with grim resignation about “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in the 1980s, and of course, the Browns’ controversial move to Baltimore in the 1990s.

I asked Rich what his thoughts were on the Browns’ chances this season, and his response will resonate with any pre-2004 Red Sox fan: “I’m always optimistic.” He’ll need that optimism. During the opening ceremonies of week 1, Browns’ quarterback Brandon Wheeden got caught under a huge American flag as it was being unfurled and needed on-field officials’ assistance to emerge. Not exactly a harbinger of good tidings for long-suffering Browns fans. The team went on to author the kind of ghastly loss that only the Browns could, somehow intercepting the Eagles’ Michael Vick four times yet still managing to lose. But if he’s been carrying the torch this long, I doubt a game like that would deter a guy like Rich.

I enjoyed the conversation, and it gave me visions of, a few decades from now, being able to regale young ‘uns with stories of watching Tom Brady and the Patriots in their dominant glory years. We may be spoiled here in New England, but I’ll take it.

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For the countless Sunday afternoons I’ve spent at Shopper’s, I’d never actually been there at night until this past Wednesday. Melissa and I stopped in and found a completely different vibe. I suppose it’s no surprise – it was a cold, rainy Wednesday night, there were no Boston sports on TV, and the NLDS wasn’t exactly luring the masses. When we arrived at 7 p.m., there were about 10 people at the bar, and I got the impression they were regulars.

Since there was no need for a pitcher of cheap suds, I perused the craft beer options and settled on a Baxter’s Hayride Autumn Ale. It was crisp, hoppy, and well suited to the weather.

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Melissa got the Shopper’s Margarita, which puts a twist on the traditional version by adding cranberry and pineapple juice. It was an interesting combination – the tartness of the cranberry and the sweetness of the pineapple worked pretty well together. The drink as a whole was a refreshing match for Mel’s spicy Kickin’ Chicken sandwich, made with Cajun spices, jalapenos, Swiss cheese, and honey mustard.

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It took all of my restraint to not order my customary wings, but I figured this was a good opportunity to try something else for a change. I opted for the Reuben sandwich, which was well made and satisfying.

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And since no blog trip would be complete without a cocktail, I figured I’d give Shopper’s’ intriguing “Honey Manhattan” a whirl. Made with Wild Turkey American Honey, it was deceptively sweet up front, making it the kind of drink that could go down just a wee bit too easily – never a good thing when the alcohol in question is whiskey. I’ll stick with traditional Manhattans, but I do like checking out variations now and again.

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Coming to Shopper’s on a quiet weeknight broadened my perspective about a bar I was already immensely fond of. When there aren’t 60+ people cheering, yelling at TVs, and performing impromptu victory dances, the pride and personal touch you’d expect to find in a long-running family business is unmistakable. I sensed a real earnestness among the staff, and it makes Shopper’s feel not just like a good sports bar, but a true neighborhood gem.

Our bartender, Joey, was incredibly nice and took great care of us. He filled us in a bit on some of Shopper’s’ long history, including the fact that it burned down in 2006. They rebuilt it as the top-notch sports bar it is today, with gleaming hardwood floors, posters and memorabilia covering the walls, and all those TVs. Joey rattled off various siblings and cousins who work there, including our regular waitress. “Of course, we hire people who aren’t family,” he assured me. “But they become our family.”

I don’t doubt it.

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Last Call

I remember back during the 2004 ALCS, when the Red Sox were on the verge of completing one of the greatest comebacks in professional sports history, discussing with my friend Brian whether we would watch the game at his place or mine. Then he suggested we might watch Game 7 at a bar.

My response? HELL NO!!!

This was one of the most important games ever, and there was no way I was entrusting my fortunes to the vagaries of a crowded bar. What if we missed out on witnessing history because we didn’t have a good view of the TV? What if we were next to a table of yahoos who wanted to do a shot every time someone hit a foul ball? No, we had to watch at home, so I could focus (and change shirts if necessary).

How things have changed. Don’t get me wrong – I love watching sports from the comfort of my home, with my own customized selection of beer, snacks, and other amenities. But there’s much to be said for watching at a bar, getting caught up in the energy and intensity the home crowd, celebrating or commiserating with friends or complete strangers. And you don’t necessarily need a bar with dozen TVs; if it’s the right kind of place, one TV, a bowl of popcorn, a good game, and a steady supply of PBR might be just as satisfying.

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Shopper’s Café caters to casual and diehard sports fans with its TV setup, multiple sports packages, and overall spaciousness. But as I’ve learned, it’s a cool bar even if you’re not there to watch sports. The prices are a welcome change from what I normally plunk down in Boston. Sandwiches and burgers are all under $10, my Baxter’s was under $4, and our mixed drinks were about $7.

Whether it’s a chaotic Sunday or a laid-back weeknight, I’ve always found Shopper’s to be a fun, casual place. When a family can keep a place like this running for 75 years, you know they’re doing something right. Here’s to 75 more.

Address: 731 Moody Street, Waltham

Website:http://www.shopperspub.com/