First, the televisions. Always the televisions. Televisions are, after all, why people go to sports bars in the first place, why they put on their jerseys and paint their faces and get into their cars and drive to out-of-the-way San Leandro strip malls to engage in an activity — that is, drink beer and yell at things — that they could just as easily do at home. Well-placed and voluminous televisions are what separate the good sports bars from the great, and Ricky's Sports Theatre and Grill (15028 Hesperian Blvd., San Leandro; 510-317-0200 or Rickys.com) — once voted the second-best sports bar in the nation by Sports Illustrated, and housed in the aforementioned San Leandro strip mall, right next to a nail shop — is a veritable television palace.
There are televisions right next to other televisions; televisions hidden like Easter eggs in odd corners and little alcoves; televisions mounted on top of the bar, so you don't even need to turn your head while ordering; televisions arranged in columns on either side of other, bigger televisions; televisions taller than me; even, reportedly, televisions in the men's bathroom (though not in the women's). At one point last Sunday, in the midst of the Raiders' agonizing loss to the Lions, I saw a dude watching the game on his iPad, even as he was surrounded on all sides by televisions; a waitress explained that Ricky's has free WiFi for precisely this purpose. At last count, the bar had more than ninety screens — "3D, HD, Plasma, LCD, whatever," as its website says — though even that count is a little uncertain, as management keeps buying new ones. All told, it is functionally impossible to stand at any spot in one of Ricky's six or seven windowless rooms and not be within eyeshot of at least one television. It's glorious.
Even if, like me, your understanding of the game being played on said televisions is slim to none, Ricky's is a place you can't help but appreciate for its sheer commitment to its mission.
Ricky's has been housed in this very strip mall for some thirty years, and is primarily a Raiders bar, though to be honest there's probably no sport humans do with balls that's not shown here. According to Sports Illustrated, when the team won the Super Bowl in 1977, the bar recorded and replayed the game three times daily for a matter of weeks and to steady crowds. And between 1982 and 1995, when the Raiders decamped to LA, the bar kept showing games religiously, waiting like a Fitzgerald character for its team to come back.
These days it's the official meeting place of the ever-winsome Oakland Raider's Booster Club, and on game days houses approximately three to four hundred citizens of the Raider Nation, a sea of black and silver and heckles and cheers. (It's also said to be a favorite off-hours hangout for players themselves, which seems a bit solipsistic, but I guess they are professional athletes.) Every imaginable surface is covered in memorabilia — photos, newspaper clippings, framed jerseys, massive posters of players past and present — and the same life-size cutout of a smiling Raiderette pops up in several rooms. Dishes are named after great Raiders: "Richard Seymour's New York Steak" ($14.95, huge), "Kamerion Whibley's chicken Caesar" ($11.95, reportedly delicious), "Hue Jackson's buffalo wings" ($10.95, so good we got two baskets). As for beer: Though the menu lists about a dozen beers on draft, our waitress gave us only three options: "Bud, Bud Light, and Coors." Bud it is!
We got there late and found the only vacant table we could, a wobbler in a back room, but for the last few, harrowing minutes of the game, everyone congregated in the main room. Beers were drunk, wings consumed, and epithets yelled as fifty or sixty people sat, transfixed, their faces lit up by the giant flickering screen before them. iPad dude played Ice Cube's "Raider Nation" on his device during the commercial break. One guy kissed the cardboard Raiderette, apparently for good luck, as the clock ticked down. A three-hundred-plus-pound guy in a number 18 jersey was doing a swoony, drunken moonwalk, and then he was dabbing tears away. Long live the Raiders, and long live Ricky's.Ricky's Sports Theatre and Grill by Ellen Cushing