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Published: Thursday, 10/1/2009

Restaurant review: Sidelines at the Arena ***

It's no surprise that downtown is full of excitement these days with the impending opening of the Lucas County Arena, and one local restaurant smartly decided to get a front-row seat.

Just as local mainstay Tony Packo's couldn't pass up the chance to start a new restaurant outside Fifth Third Field, Sidelines at the Arena has parked itself just across Huron Street from the biggest news in town. Other Sidelines locations are on Mellwood Avenue and in Lambertville on Secor Road.

The downtown site for the bar and grill is filled with neon and oversized posters of great moments in sports history, drawing the eye to everyone from a fierce Muhammad Ali to a soaring Michael Jordan. Televisions are all over the place so you can keep tabs on your favorite team, and upstairs is a comfortable lounge area open for private events and other occasions.

As with sporting events, it's wise to begin any meal by warming up. We started with an array of appetizers that were hit-and-miss. The chicken quesadillas ($6.49) were outstanding, grilled to a crisp and filled with chunks of chicken and real cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, not the cheap stuff you often get. The Sidelines sampler ($9.99), on the other hand, consisted of squishy fried pickles and mozzarella sticks that would have been delicious if much of the cheese hadn't mysteriously disappeared from inside most of them. It also included onion rings, mini corn dogs, and chicken tenders.

The rest of the menu - the main event, if you will - is a generous medley of bar favorites and surprising entrees. The lake perch ($11.99), for example, was much better than a fish dinner in a sports bar has a right to be: not greasy or too moist and served in segments that beg to be eaten with your hands. It also was nice that it came with two generous helpings of side dishes. The eight choices include steamed vegetables, thick, crisp waffle fries, and cottage cheese.

Barbecue is another point of pride at Sidelines at the Arena, and it's highlighted in a variety of items. There are ribs, wings, and a pulled pork sandwich ($7.69) where the sauce perfectly complements the tender shreds of pork without drowning out the taste.

Fowl Balls ($7.99), a one-pound serving of breaded chicken chunks that went down easier than expected, were another success. The flavor of the homemade barbecue sauce was lost a little in the optional toppings added to my dish (coleslaw and cheddar cheese), but the result mixed nicely and was delightfully crispy.

Among sandwiches and salads, the Mandarin grilled chicken salad ($7.99) was average, as was the French onion burger ($7.69), which tasted more conventional than it sounds. The half-pound patty is topped with French onion soup and covered with mozzarella cheese.

While the lunchtime business at Sidelines at the Arena appears to be brisk, a weeknight at the bar was much slower - strangely, there wasn't even an employee in the room when we entered and seated ourselves. With the sports bar's mix of a great location and fan-friendly food, though, it seems like a solid bet.

Contact Bill of Fare at:

fare@theblade.com

Summaries of recently reviewed area restaurants, in the order in which they were reviewed, with the most recent at the top.

•Call of the Canyon Cafe, 109 Main St., Bowling Green, serves light meals and loads of ambience. Outstanding desserts are worth the calories after the healthy and varied salads and sandwiches. The Calamity (Sarah) Jane salad with dried cherries and pecans is worth the visit, as is the fall apple salad. $ 3 stars.

•Campus Oasis, 3303 Dorr St. at Secor near the University of Toledo, has six venues serving Mediterranean and Tex-Mex fare, gyros, pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and entrees such as ribs and lasagna. An array of beverages includes a raw juice bar, fruit smoothies, coffees, teas, hookahs, and alcohol but no beer and wine at this time. $ 3 stars.

•Mancy's Italian Grill, 5453 Monroe St. With an atmosphere heavy on amber colors and redolent with the smell of food coming from the wood stoves, Mancy's Italian is easy to settle into. The menu features delicious steaks, and Italian, seafood, and wood-grilled entrees. Try the 12-year old restaurant's pizza for lunch. $$$ 4 stars.

For more summaries, see toledoblade.com



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