Over the last few years, more New Orleans restaurateurs have been forced to concede that a nice meal can't always compete with this town's football obsession. Consequently, flat-screen TVs have been turning up in some dining rooms, a hi-def appeal for business during big games.
Manning's, however, is a restaurant custom-built around the TV — about 30 of them, including a stadium-sized monster facing an end zone of recliners. Not only is the big game on, every game is on — everywhere you look. Fans from many tribes of the football nation have found their way here, and as a dozen college bowl games roll this week, someone under Manning's roof surely will be cheering for each of them.
Harrah's opened Manning's last winter in partnership with the New Orleans Saints' legendary quarterback Archie Manning. It's a man cave completed with a casino's budget and enough memorabilia from the first family of football to stock a museum.
Seasoned local chef Jared Tees is at the helm of the kitchen, but Manning's is much less about chef-driven food and much more about the name over the door, atmosphere and entertainment. It feels like a homegrown version of Buffalo Wild Wings, and it compares better with sports-themed taverns of that ilk than it does with serious New Orleans restaurants.
The redfish courtbouillon is the best choice if you're determined to dial in local flavor. It's built with quality seafood in a tomato stew brimming with the Creole trinity. A nontraditional nicoise salad was a pleasant surprise too, with layers of butter lettuce holding portions of its properly oily, Dijon-slicked components. Crab claws also are a good bet, especially with a fresh squeeze from a charred lemon half over them for some smoky citrus flavors.
But what should be easy points for an upscale sports bar were too often lifeless duds — the dry, insipid burger tops that list and the consistently limp fries are only worth eating when completely covered with pork, cheese and gravy. There's also an appetizer-laden "game day menu," served during big games, but like the regular menu it's patchy. I like the alligator sausage sliders for their tang, but jambalaya boules prove that red, gummy jambalaya is not improved by wadding it into balls for the fryer.
Sightlines to TVs are superb, and the long bar opens onto table seating in a courtyard/parking lot. But Manning's has some unusual omissions for a sports bar. It has a gift shop but no draft beer.
Service is what you'd expect stepping into an airport bar to check game scores between flights: friendly and efficient enough, but just that.
The staff is on to something, of course. This isn't the type of place to cultivate loyal regulars, but rather a place that draws new people all the time who are mostly loyal to a team and want to cheer in a glittering temple of sports glory. The food doesn't bring much passion, but the patrons do.