Erika Donald will arrive at work shortly after dawn today to prepare for the busiest weekday afternoon of her life. The general manager of Playground Bar and Lounge, 278 E. Congress St., will spend the morning stocking provisions — including an important shipment.
“A lot of beer,” Donald said. “American beer.”
World Cup fever has bitten Americans hard — think Luis Suarez tucking into a T-Bone steak — and Tucson, Arizona’s longtime soccer hotspot, is eating it up.
Playground was packed to capacity for the United States’ first three World Cup games, and figures to be jammed again for today’s 1 p.m. round-of-16 match against Belgium.
Just east of Playground, the venerable Rialto Theatre at 318 E Congress St. will open its doors — and lower its projection screen — to fans of all ages.
Hi Fi Kitchen and Cocktails, another downtown hot spot at 345 E. Congress St., is taking reservations for one of the biggest matches in U.S. history.
The Americans can advance to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002 and second time since World War II with a win today over Belgium.
The big games means big business for local bars, clubs and restaurants, many of which struggle during Tucson’s long, hot, student-less summers. Curtis McCrary, the Rialto’s executive director, said the crowds — and revenue — have been “a pleasant surprise.”
More than 750 fans crammed into the downtown venue for the Americans’ pool-play draw with Portugal. McCrary is expecting an even larger crowd today.
He chuckled when asked if today might mark the busiest Tuesday afternoon in the Rialto’s history. The theater drew standing-room only crowds for matinees in the 1920s and 30s, he said, but has since hosted mostly evening events.
Playground, home of the local chapter of the American Outlaws fan club and FC Tucson’s Cactus Pricks, has become one of Tucson’s most popular soccer spots. More than 1,500 Budweiser and Bud Light cans were sold during the U.S.-Portugal match, Donald said. The drink selections were both patriotic and pragmatic — the bar has been offering specials on the stuff throughout the tournament.
Those fans might be surprised to know that Budwesier is owned by Anheuser Busch InBev, a company that is — wait for it — part Belgian, part Brazilian and part American. Busch’s parent company produces Stella Artois, the Belgian pilsner that has been brewed in Leuven since 1926.
While “The King of Beers” now bows to King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, Belgian waffles are actually an American food, made popular following the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York.
Nevertheless, Waffle House — which has five Tucson locations — declared war with the fluffy breakfast staple Monday.
“We don’t believe in Belgium waffles,” read a bold (but misspelled) statement on the chain’s Twitter account.
Neither do locals. A manager at Mays Counter, 2945 E. Speedway, reiterated Monday that the restaurant’s waffles are uniquely American. The idea of fried chicken on top of breakfast might sound foreign, sure, but the dish’s roots are down home.
Tucson’s gastronomical melting pot will be home to watch parties today, whether it’s at the English-themed Frog and Firkin on University Avenue or at restaurants (like El Charro and Sir Veza’s) that boast Mexican fare and flair.
The biggest contradiction of all lies in U.S. fans, who — despite access to cable boxes, satellite dishes, internet streams and smartphones — will watch today’s match packed shoulder to shoulder, Bud Lights in hand, remembering a soccer past that never really existed.
“Sports are like that,” McCrary said. “It’s a spectator event. You go there to cheer on your team, when you’re attending it live, and the same logic still holds when you’re watching it at a bar with supporters, opponents or whatever.
“Anyone who is even casually a fan wants to be there with their fellow countrymen to support the team that’s representing them in this amazing worldwide event. It transcends all other divisions we have in terms of class or political alignment. …
“It’s an ‘everyone’ phenomenon.”
And it’s good for business, said Playground’s Donald, asked whether she’ll be rooting for the United States, in part to keep the party going.
“Of course,” she said. “That’s a silly question.”