Los Angeles-area sports bar owners excited to welcome back fans

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When the Dodgers won the World Series last October, Diana Naftaly and her coworkers at Q’s Billiard Club and Restaurant stopped to take in the scene. There were fans inside their bar celebrating, yes. But the scene was muted — a socially distant reminder of the situation they found themselves mired in.

“We filled in as many people as we could, but of course it’s just a totally different environment,” Naftaly said. “You can’t have people walking around. It’s limited groups. It was still a really fun atmosphere, but definitely we all looked around like, ‘Man, if this wasn’t COVID, this would have been such a huge day for L.A., a huge day for Q’s.”

When the Lakers won the NBA title earlier in the month, it was the same feeling.

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But when football season kicks off, there will be a feeling unfamiliar to bar and restaurant owners in Los Angeles during the last 18 months: optimism.

Though the Delta variant has reintroduced mask mandates and case rates have crept back up, indoor bars and restaurants have been open at full capacity since late May. Fans can pack stadiums. And, more importantly for an industry that has been one of the hardest hit by pandemic restrictions, they can pack bars.

“Not gonna lie, it’s been really tough,” Naftaly said of staying open during the pandemic.

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“We were closed 154 days,” said Tony Palermo, who runs Tony P’s Dockside Grill in Marina Del Rey. That number doesn’t count the days the restaurant only could serve outside, or when it could serve inside but was barred from turning on its televisions. Palermo hasn’t counted those up.

He opened in 1997 with advertising on the Third Street Promenade. The first Saturday, 125 Florida Gators fans showed up in the parking lot. “Beautiful thing,” Palermo said. They’ve been a presence ever since.

At Q’s, fan groups have found their way through the door in any number of ways. Facebook groups, alumni chapters, groups of friends that start showing up every week. And it’s not just football.

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In the upstairs lounge at Rush Street on Oct. 20, 2019, in Culver City, New Orleans fans react with joy as Chicago fans react with dejection while watching the Saints play the Bears.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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“I think the busiest we’ve ever been is probably during the World Cup soccer games. When the Kings hockey team, when they won [the Stanley Cup], that was just craziness,” Naftaly said. “But so much fun. The energy is just crazy.”

Last fall, though, was just about survival. The packed weekends that represent the biggest days of the year for so many bars — fans showing up for the early morning kickoffs on Sundays with yellow pads to track their fantasy teams, alumni groups filtering through on Saturday, beer flowing all weekend — existed only as a shell of themselves, if at all.

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But now, business is ramping back up. Naftaly said it’s at about 75% of the level it was pre-COVID, with some lingering hesitancy because of the Delta variant. Palermo said at Tony P’s, the customer base is back in full force.

This football season might not look exactly like 2019 at either establishment. But it will at least be a more reasonable facsimile than last year. The Cowboys and Jets and Rams crews will show up at Q’s at full force. The Gators and Michigan State fans who have gathered at Palermo’s restaurant since he opened in 1997 will return.

“We’re just a big sports bar. We got a lot of TVs. … We have 120 beers. We have 40 on draft,” Palermo said. “It’s a great place to watch a game.”

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