270 Smith Street, South Brooklyn
Carroll Gardens had one too many French bistros. After Sue Perette shuttered its doors this summer, new owners remade the small restaurant into the one thing the neighborhood lacked: a bonafide big-screen TV-laden sports bar. Named for a 19th-century Williamsburg baseball field, Union Grounds has plunked down in an unlikely place. In the heart of Smith Street’s restaurant row, the lights from this bar’s conspicuous television sets stand out like a garish Christmas lawn-display. It’s a matter of taste whether this is welcoming—there’s always going to be a contingent who may go here and consider it fine (burger + Bud Light + big-screen TVs = all you need!!). But if there’s one thing that’s offensive—in any place or circumstance, at any time, to anyone—it’s lousy food and drink menus, not to mention shoddy execution and so-so service.
Alas, Union Grounds is filling a niche, as one bartender succinctly expressed. There are 11 mammoth flat-screens placed around the small den-like space. Framing one such TV, a mahogany bookshelf lined with vintage hardcovers attempts to add some warmth, but it seems staged. No seat is too far to view any of the games on each of the TVs, creating a dizzying effect that’s intensified after a couple of drinks. (For anyone wondering how so many TVs were purchased on Black Friday, a good sum are probably snatched up by bars like this one.) A group of owners had turned around the space very quickly, I was told, which probably accounts for that movie-set meets electronics-store feel. Teal-blue paint colors the walls, coordinating with plush barstool seat-covers in mahogany wood. A few portraits of players and some sports memorabilia are framed, interspersed between the TVs. But it’s clear that the sports on each set are the focal points.
At the bar, there are only four draft lines: Bud Light ($4), Green Flash IPA ($7), Blue Point and Sixpoint ($6). An accompanying selection of unadventurous options in bottles and cans sets this bar apart from neighboring craft-beer bars. Union Grounds’ cocktail list features many two-ingredient wonders, like the Kentucky Saint (Bourbon and Saint Germain) and Grandpa Schilling (Applejack and Vermouth). The Orange Crush is a not-so-glorified screwdriver with fresh OJ, vodka and a splash of Triple Sec, and the Piper’s Pickled Pepper is a dirty martini with vodka, vermouth and pickled jalapeño brine—which raises the question of whether these familiar frat-house “cocktails” need to be listed at all. A bartender didn’t appear particularly enthused when asked for recommendations; he gave us quite a few shrugs. (Maybe he’d just had a long night, given the crowds that swarmed the place during a Knicks game earlier in the evening.)
A full menu of snacks, sandwiches, entrees, sides, salads and “Ballpark Fare” (e.g. chili cheese dogs) is offered here, too, again contrasting vividly with nearby establishments. Union Grounds mashes up global cuisine and down-home American comfort food: a fried eggroll with Philly cheesesteak filling; a stuffed poblano pepper with grits; chicken and waffles. But well-executed bar-food staples are overlooked: for some reason, the chef has dropped the wings from “Buffalo wings” in favor of breaded and fried white-meat chicken smothered in sauce.
Union Grounds is really a test of its local culture: will there be enough sports fans in Carroll Gardens to warrant such a spot? It seems so, at least on days when there are good games to watch. But it could be a risky play to cater to the neighborhood’s appetite for touchdowns over its taste for, well, taste.