During my annual trip out to Dickinson, ND, I like to take my dealer and his guys out to dinner after we finish our meetings and trainings. The only problem is that there are only a couple of nicer places - Applebee's and Sanford's (click here to see my entry on Sanford's) - that are open later than 9 p.m. in Dickinson. However, on this trip they were telling me that there was a new sports bar called Players Sports Bar and Grill that had opened earlier this year. Reviews amongst the guys were decidedly mixed - it appears that even a few months after opening the cooking staff was still working out some kinks and the food was inconsistent. I said, "Well, hell, let's give it a try. Maybe we'll get them on a good night."
The money behind Players comes from the Fisher family, owners of Fisher Industries in Dickinson. "They have a LOT of money," my dealer told me. "They're involved with road construction, heavy equipment and sand and gravel pits. They've got a corporate jet that they fly to offices in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. And they're doing nothing but getting richer with the oil and gas boom out here." The football field for Dickinson State University - Fisher Field - is named for the patriarch of the Fisher family who donated the money for the stadium. The family hired Wayne Rau, who used to formerly manage Applebee's and Pizza Ranch in Dickinson, to run the restaurant for them.
The business opened toward the end of January of this year. My dealer still had a small burr in his saddle over a business dealing that he was part of - or, I should say, got passed over. "I got the blueprints and designed the sound and video system for the place," he told me before we went over there. "I gave them the design along with my quote for about 50 flat screens and a whole bunch of speakers with a sound system. They went elsewhere to buy the equipment and have it installed." He said he learned a little bit about the business of designing systems without getting compensation. "I'll have to get some sort of deposit the next time I do something like that," he lamented. "I spent hours on the design of the system and didn't get a penny."
Players is on the far north side of Dickinson, east of the main north-south route into town, North Dakota State Highway 22. (see map) We got into the place around 9 p.m. The restaurant is split into two areas - the sports bar (below left) and the dining area (below right). We decided to eat in the dining room as most of the tables in the sports bar are high tables and we wanted to sit down and enjoy our dinner.
As my dealer said, there were televisions throughout the building. He said it probably took him 20 to 25 hours to come up with the design and the quote on the sound and video for the place. "And they pretty much used my whole design," he said dejectedly. "Well, what are you gonna do? I mean, the guy is my friend and he's still my friend, but that one kinda hurt."
We were given menus and one of the servers came to take our drink orders. I saw that they had Alaskan Amber on their list of draft beers and I ordered up one of those. The server came back a few moments later and said, "I'm sorry. I guess we're out of Alaskan Amber on tap." I looked through the beer list again and nothing else caught my eye. I ended up getting a Bud Light instead, bummed that they didn't have the Alaskan Amber. I was hoping that would be my only disappointment of the evening.
Most of the food on the menu at Players is your typical sports pub grub - sandwiches, burgers, appetizers, etc. But they also had a handful of entrees including steaks, pork chops and pasta dishes. For burgers, they had elk burgers as well as their own Twin Cities-style stuffed cheeseburgers, the Juicy Lucy. I thought about getting a burger, then I got to looking at one of their pasta dishes - a spicy Cajun pasta dish that was tossed with a spicy churrasco-style sauce with sauteed shrimp. Everyone else was getting the burgers or chicken wings, I went for the pasta dish. I didn't know if I'd be sorry or not, but I was determined to find out how it would be.
Our meals came out and I was pleasantly surprised by the presentation. The square deep dish was filled with linguine noodles, tossed with a creamy spicy sauce and about 8 sauteed shrimp. A melted parmesan chip rested on top of the pasta. I was impressed with how the Cajun pasta and shrimp looked. If it tasted as good as it looked, I'd be very happy.
A couple of the guys ordered the elk burgers - lean ground elk meat topped with cheese and sitting on a basic bun. I've never tried elk burgers, but I've been told that they're very similar to bison burgers. The two guys that got them said they were pretty good that night. "I've had them cooked good like tonight," one of the guys told me. "But then I've had them when they're overcooked and taste like shoe leather."
One of the guys got the Juicy Lucy - two ground beef patties with cheddar cheese in the middle. I warned him about biting into the molten lava of the cheese in between the two patties and he said, "Oh, I know. It's squirted out on me once before. I thought it was going to burn my arm." I proceeded to tell the story of the time I was at Adrian's Tavern in Minneapolis and how the first bite into one of their Juicy Lucy's literally exploded all over me. (Click here to see that entry.) It's not a pleasant experience.
Getting to my pasta dish, I was extremely pleased with the taste from the first bite. The Cajun sauce was spicy, but didn't overwhelm the taste of the perfectly cooked linguine. The sauteed shrimp were plump and meaty, and had a wonderful taste with the sauce. I was happy with what I got.
As were the other guys I was with. Each of them said that this was one night when the kitchen got it right. "Maybe they've got it together with their food," one of the guys told me. "This is much better than the time I was here a couple months ago." I told them of my 90 day rule on visiting new restaurants - my wife and I will wait 3 months after a new restaurant opens to give them time to work out the kinks for food preparation and service. But as one restaurateur told me, "If everyone had that philosophy, most restaurants would be out of business in 90 days."
We finished our meals, then sat around talking shop and throwing back and forth marketing ideas until they kicked us out of the place just before they closed at midnight. The servers were very nice to us and they got a nice tip from our table.
I wasn't expecting much from my meal at Players Sports Bar and Grill. I mean, it is Dickinson, ND and there isn't a lot of choices for upscale dining in the area. But I have to say that the Cajun pasta with shrimp was very good. Even if I'd had the meal in a much larger city, I still would have thought it was pretty damned good. A lot of people in and around Dickinson think Players is a little overpriced - it was $22 for the pasta and shrimp. And it probably is expensive compared to other places in the area. But I thought every thing about Players was good. You could pick the place up and drop it in any mid-major Midwestern city and they'd do fine there, too. After all these years of traveling to Dickinson - probably eight years now - I'm happy to see some other casual dining place in town. (Players exterior photo courtesy Foursquare.)