Whether on the gridiron, hardwood, diamond, or ice, athletes raise our expectations, and in crucial moments, dash our hopes or fulfill our dreams. Some of them cement fame and glory by following through on guarantees. Others fall, get backpage bullied, and live accepting that they never won a ring. Whatever their success in the record books, many gridiron heroes and ballpark messiahs have splashed their names on dining establishments that also serve as a shrine to their athletic glory. But there's not necessarily any correlation between winning and the ability to open a great restaurant.
For the last two years, The Daily Meal has evaluated the best athlete-owned restaurants in America, looking at restaurants owned or invested in by boxers, golfers, skateboarders, hockey players, quarterbacks, and basketball legends. For most, the formula is pretty standard: generic pub food, lots of TVs, even more memorabilia covering the walls, and always, always, spinach artichoke dip. The only thing usually missing is the athlete himself.
Don’t expect to spot Brett Favre greeting guests at his steakhouse in Green Bay. And what about say, for instance, Michael Jordan's The Steak House N.Y.C.? The website may claim that the restaurant was "designed to reflect Michael's sense of taste and style," but the way its representatives respond to the most innocent of questions about His Airness' basic involvement lead you to the conclusion that the only connection to him is a licensing one.
But the reality is that whether or not the athlete is there, or even regularly involved, there are athlete-owned restaurants that put out popular food — and some of it's even good. On the West Coast, skateboarder Tony Hawk has invested in a restaurant that's kitchen is run by a James Beard Foundation "California Chef of the Year." Meanwhile, NFL quarterback Vince Young not only has a steakhouse in Austin, but also supplies his own brand of smoked meat to area grocery stores.
To determine this year's champs we investigated reader suggestions, evaluated local reviews, tallied popular rating sites, and scoured menus for more than 35 athlete-owned restaurants across the country to narrow the list. This year's list includes steakhouses, Southern specialists, barbecue joints, sports grills, high-end dining, and Chinese restaurants that are owned, or partially owned, by athletes.
1. 8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill — Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Braun (Brookfield, Wis.)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers teamed with Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun to open this farm-to-table bar and restaurant in 2012. The restaurant gets its beef from nearby Hidden Creek Farm, and the comfort food-heavy menu includes items like Cheddar and Gouda tater tots, fried cheese curds, pastrami-spiced pork chop, and surf and turf.
2. Joe Theismann's — Joe Theismann (Alexandria, Va.)
Many dishes at Joe Theismann's sound pretty run-of-the-mill — wedge salad, seared ahi tuna,— but you have to be doing something right to have the staying power this former Redskins' quarterback's restaurant does, since it opened more than 35 years ago. Of greatest interest perhaps is the steakhouse-cut pork chop with a "secret rub," a longtime customer favorite.
3. Billy Sims Barbecue — Billy Sims (Various Locations)
After a brief but sparkling professional career as running back for the Detroit Lions, Sims turned his attention to his other passion: barbecue. There are currently a whopping 30 locations of Billy Sims Barbecue throughout Oklahoma, Missouri, and Michigan (with a 31st opening soon), with traditional barbecue favorites like pulled pork, brisket, and smoked chicken joined by regional specialties including Frito Chili Pie and smoked bologna. He also, of course, offers tailgate-friendly "super packs."
4. Vince Young Steakhouse — Vince Young (Austin, Texas)
Though he now plays in the NFL, quarterback Vince Young remains king in Austin for leading the University of Texas football team to the NCAA national championship in 2005. A few years ago he returned to his college stomping grounds to open his first restaurant downtown. The menu specializes in beef, from short rib chili to locally sourced Texas prime grade steaks and a rich Wagyu brisket burger balanced out by briny house-made pickles.
5. Bubba's Q — Al "Bubba" Baker (Avon, Ohio)
After retiring from professional football, defensive lineman Al "Bubba" Baker and his wife Sabrina opened a catering business featuring "Southern-style barbecue cuisine." Bubba's Q has since done pretty well, at least according to the accolades they list (among them Cleveland Magazine and Silver Spoon Awards for "Best Ribs" and "Best Barbecue Restaurant" from 2009 to 2011).
6. Greg Norman’s Australian Grille — Greg Norman (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)
An Australian grille in South Carolina? It might not be the first thing that comes to mind for the Southern states cuisine, but its there, set along the Intracoastal Waterway in the golfers paradise of North Myrtle Beach. From the open kitchen comes tuna sashimi crusted with sesame seeds served over a cucumber seaweed salad tossed in a plum vinaigrette, oven-roasted half duckling served with black pepper fettuccine and garnished with asparagus tips and a cherry ginger sauce, and slow-roasted 28 day-aged prime rib. The links legends signature chardonnays, rieslings, and cabernets round out the Wine Spectator Award for Excellence-recognized list of spirits.
7. Yao Restaurant & Bar — Yao Ming (Houston)
Yao Restaurant & Bar was good enough to be featured at number 19 on The Daily Meal's list of 25 Best Celebrity-Owned Restaurants. Former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and his wife joined with friends and local restaurant owners to create a large space serving Chinese and Chinese-American food. Lettuce wraps, Peking dumplings, Kung Pao (Yao?) beef — it's all there.
8. Arnold Palmer's Restaurant — Arnold Palmer (La Quinta, Calif.)
"Taste the good life" is the tagline of Arnold Palmer's Restaurant in La Quinta, Calif. Makes sense. If anyone's living the good life, you'd think it would have to be Palmer. He won 92 national and international championships (61 of them on the regular PGA Tour), he's designed golf courses, and hey, he even invented a famous drink. Menu highlights include date and strawberry salad, honey-soy glazed Chilean sea bass, rack of lamb, and pan-seared sea scallops.
9. Tresca — Ray Bourque (Boston)
Twenty-one seasons with the Boston Bruins made Ray Bourque a legend in Boston. Even though it wasn't until joining the Colorado Avalanche that he won the Stanley Cup, Bourque chose Boston as the place to open his Italian restaurant, Tresca. There's a four-course tasting menu to help you navigate choosing between crespelle, vongoline, cioppino, osso bucco, maiale Abbruzzese, and other promising and authentic dishes.
10. Elway's — John Elway (Denver)
In Denver, John Elway is God. The former Broncos quarterback did what few legends have done: won his second Super Bowl in 1999, retired on top, and then stayed retired.His foray into fine dininghas been equally successful. He co-owns three eponymous restaurants, one in the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Denver, one in Denver's Cherry Creek neighborhood, and a third in Vail, Colo. The steakhouse menu will please carnivores with a cavemans appetite, but skirt the standards to find the creative apps and sides, like lamb chops dipped in green chile fondue, crunchy calamari tossed with stuffed olives and cherry peppers, and truffled beet and mozzarella salad.
More from The Daily Meal