Despite challenging odds for bars and restaurants, two New York hangouts have made it to the Super Bowl.
Wicked Willy’s, the Tampa Bay rendezvous in Greenwich Village, and John Brown Smokehouse, Kansas City’s hangout in Long Island City, credit the devout fanbases they each host for getting them through this tough year.
The Underdogs Find Their Place in Greenwich Village
Wicked Willy’s would fit right in on Duval street in Key West, but in the Village, the pirate-themed haunt is more of an outsider. Its black awning—reminding passersby that “time flies when you’re having rum”—just doesn’t seem to fit in among the restaurant’s more refined neighbors on Bleecker.
Nonetheless, Wicked Willy’s has found its place as a game day headquarters for New York City’s most devout fans of the Super Bowl-bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And in a challenging year for New York City bars and restaurants, Marisa Braat, the restaurant’s general manager and marketing director, argues that there couldn’t be a more perfect fit.
“We typically tend to be what sometimes people think the underdogs of the neighborhood are. Like, ‘Oh it’s a dive bar.’ Like ‘that silly place,’ you know,” she said. “The funny thing is, we have a team who’s typically the underdog. And it’s exciting because now they’re thriving, and I think it’s the same for us.”
Braat said the bar first made a name for itself among Floridians in the city during the 2019 college football season as the go-to place for Florida State University fans on Saturdays. She said the restaurant pulled out all the stops to make them feel at home—even going as far as recreating iconic menu items from cherished spots in Tallahassee.
“When we get into something here, we go like all out,” she said. “They do these crazy bomb shots in Florida with like, Red Bull. They’re called Y Bombs. They poke a hole in it, they put a shot of vodka, then they shotgun it. So, we started those here, too. It was just so fun.”
As it turned out, Braat said, feeding this nostalgia not only made the Florida crowd feel more at home, but it was also great for business. “We would have like 120 people here. We would pack the whole place out. It was a great time,” Braat said. “The lines would just be down the block. Everyone was like “What’s going on there?”
Wicked Willy’s quickly built a reputation with Floridians in the City and, according to Braat, when the Tri-State chapter of the official Tampa Bay Buccaneers FanFamily, the Buccaholics, found themselves without a home after their previous headquarters closed, also in 2019, they approached Wicked Willy’s.
The rest is history. The Buccaneers were far from a sure bet in 2019. It had been years since their last showing in the playoffs, and a time when no one would have guessed Tom Brady would ever wear the Jolly Roger. But Braat said she had no reservations when she agreed to host the Buccaholics. “They were underdogs,” she said. “I respect that. Like, a fan no matter what. So, I wanted to be a Bucs bar.” On game days, Wicked Willy’s reserved the large lounge in the back of the restaurant, outfitted with a 15-foot projector, for the Tampa Bay crowd. “And so, every Sunday,” Braat said, “it was like Buccaholics Sunday.”
Despite bars and restaurants across the city shutting down because of lost business and on-again, off-again indoor dining restrictions brought on by the pandemic, Wicked Willy’s has continued to host on Sundays. “We figured maybe we’d have to like, shut down. We weren’t sure. But we made the decision. We spoke about it. We were like, ‘You know what, let’s do it. Let’s stay open. Everybody else is closing, our neighborhood needs a place to stay open.’”
Braat said they’ve had to change quite a few things to meet city requirements during the pandemic. All seating is outdoors, tables are spaced according to city guidelines, and they have plexiglass dividers between them.
While remaining within city guidelines, the establishment’s outdoor capacity is about half of its indoor capacity. Wicked Willy’s invested in outdoor heaters and ran cords to five TVs so no one would miss a snap on game days. But the bet appears to have paid off.
“Honestly, we packed out every table. We’ve had a wait list,” Braat Said. “It’s insane. People wait like 45 minutes here to get a table just so they can sit and watch a game with their friends.”
As the Buccaneers take the field for their first Super Bowl since 2002, Braat says there is nothing holding them back from hosting Bucs fans in a snow-blanketed New York City. “I know we’re going to go through like thousands of chicken wings,” she said. And yeah, we’re just going to have our party but it’s going to be a little different this year. A little more distance,”
Braat said hosting the Florida crowd is about more than wins and losses. It’s about providing a sense of place in a city where that can be tough to come by. “Almost everybody in New York City is from somewhere else, right? And you come here and you feel like a little fish in a big sea. So, it’s really important to kind of find that sense of home here in New York City,” she said. “It feels like you’re at home when you’re here. You know?”
No matter the outcome on Sunday, Bucs fans have a home at Wicked Willy’s.
The Reigning Champs Keep John Brown Smoking in Long Island City
Josh Bowen, owner of John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City, the official gathering spot for Kansas City Chiefs fans in New York, says Patrick Mahomes saved his business.
Bowen is no stranger to the ups and downs of owning a restaurant. He said he started his first location with $5,000 and a partner he found on Craigslist. He eventually opened a second location that was almost wiped out by Superstorm Sandy, then finally closed due to the pandemic. But he was able to keep his last remaining location on 40th Ave. open due, in large part, to the following the Chiefs have garnered, and the growth of the fan base throughout the city.
John Brown stays true to Bowen’s Kansas heritage. He named the bar after the Bleeding Kansas abolitionist whose roots still permeate the prairie soil. The Kansas State Capitol houses a John Steuart Curry mural, “Tragic Prelude,” which depicts a zealous John Brown standing with his arms spread—a bible in his left-hand, rifle in his right—before warring Union and Confederate armies. A somewhat more subdued, but quite large portrait of Brown graces the restaurant’s façade.
Bowen does, however, acknowledge the Chiefs’ Missouri fan base as well. Kansas City straddles the border, and officially, Arrowhead Stadium is in Missouri. So, Bowden says they are welcome. But the alliance has its limits. “We’re all great Chiefs fans,” he said. “You start talking about basketball and it starts getting sour in here.”
He began to see a steady growth in fans after Andy Reid began calling the plays for the Chiefs, he said, but it has just exploded with Mahomes.
“We have a core group, like 10 people are always there,” he said. “And then we started getting kind of like a second core group. And then it just went haywire after that to a point.”
Bowen said last year’s AFC Championship game stands out as a particularly exciting time at John Brown. He said the place was packed, and the revenue from that season has continued to sustain the restaurant through the drop in business brought on by the pandemic.
Bowen gives Mahomes the lion’s share of the credit. “Well, I mean, winning always brings them in,” he said. “But Patrick Mahomes is the greatest goddamn football player in the history of the human race.”
Bowen says his gatherings continue bring a sense of the Midwest’s hey-how-ya-doin’ vibe to the Big City. “We try to foster a cool atmosphere of like, hanging out and getting to know each other,” he said. “I mean, everybody’s super nice. My wife bartends for all of the games and she always remarks like, ‘Kansas City people are always the nicest people,’ you know.”
This year’s Super Bowl will be a little different at John Brown because of the pandemic. The restaurant has a sizeable back patio, perfect for complying with the city’s outdoor dining mandate. But he still has to limit the crowd to 30 to ensure social distancing. He sold tickets online for in-person dining, and he said he is planning on a large volume of delivery orders.
The Chiefs have been good for John Brown Smokehouse. Patrick Mahomes may have saved the business. But, for Bowen, there is more to it than dollars and cents.
“I mean, you know, there’s money involved. And that’s great. But I just want the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl. I would give it all away for the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl,” he said. “But luckily, I don’t have to, you know? I get to sit here and hang out and be the Kansas City place in New York. And that’s shit you never really thought when you start a restaurant.”