Sports bars aim to be your first place

Taking the sports bar venue a notch upscale is in vogue, and BlackFinn American Saloon and 1300 Southend Tavern are striking that pose.

BlackFinn, at the EpiCentre uptown, offers a “contemporary American” menu, which of course means … sliders. Sliders in four variations, plus dessert sliders, that is.

Also look for Firehouse Chili “inspired by the heroes of our hometown, the New York City Fire Department.” (Yes, this is a national chain.) The chili is not at all incendiary stuff, but tasty, as are those sliders. Try one of each kind: beef au jus, bacon cheeseburger, pulled pork and chicken parmesan, on soft potato rolls and of respectable heft. Thin fries are also good, and ours arrived truly hot.

Skip the awful dry chocolate chip cookie dessert sliders, though; even the ice cream can't save those. And steak tips – in a signature Guinness marinade, with caramelized onions, Guinness gravy, garlic mashed potatoes and a vegetable – were dismal: overcooked to toughness and lacking any Guinness tang.

An extremely cool touch are the TV screens right at your table (if you're at one of the right four) in the bar area, with controls and everything, along with many screens from which to view everything all around the room. Dark woods, deep greens and blues and already worn edges give the place a lived-in feel and staff are equally casual.

Once, we were waited on hand and foot, while a second visit's service was nearly lackadaisical – slow, careless (if you're bothering to put a lime in a drink, be sure the edges aren't brown). Still, in all, a reasonable place to watch and get something a little off the beaten path.

210 E. Trade St.; 704-971-4440; www.blackfinncharlotte.com.

1300 Southend Tavern, tucked into the former Dilworth Original Pancake spot, goes a little harder at upscale, from its fondness for blue cheese (in pizza, burgers and chicken, along with salad) to its diversity in appetizers, including fried green tomatoes.

The black and blue burger is a gem, beef seeded with chunks of cheese and the whole a decadent mouthful. A blackened catfish sandwich had great flavor but dripped with oil, though its accompanying fries were thin and pleasantly crisp.

Among more typical fare, wings aren't bad (though the “hot” wings don't live up to that label) and a wedge salad is crisp and positively packed with bacon bits.

Entrees include pastas, meatloaf, fish and a rib-eye with red onion marmalade.

It's a cozy place, a right-angle bar surrounded by bar-height tables, with dining tables at each end of the L-shaped space. Its subterranean feel (several windows offer a view of folks' feet walking by) makes you feel hidden away. Unfortunately, it can get a mite smoky, too.

The staff greets, checks and replenishes as needed (maybe even a little more often) and joshes with customers easily. I could see eight big screens from my perch in one corner – none of them, amazingly for last weekend, tuned to the race, and no customers clamoring for it. In fact, they didn't seem to notice.

1300 South Blvd.; 704-372-2980; www.1300southendtavern.com.