It’s easy to become enthralled by the skills and capabilities of today’s professional athletes. Whether they are derived from God-given ability or attained through countless hours of hard work and dedication (or, more likely, a combination of the two), these qualities are a joy to behold on the field, court, links, or ice.
But it’s easy to forget that these athletes have nurtured other talents as well. For instance, they’re probably much better at communicating with the media than the average person, simply because they have to do it on an almost-nightly basis (and practice makes perfect, right?). And the greatest athletes can adapt to changing conditions and situations seamlessly, unlike some people who are almost allergic to change of any kind.
Another area in which most athletes are experts is food. Think about it: the vast majority of pro athletes are bigger-than-average humans anyway, and the amount of physical activity they engage in on a regular basis requires a substantial amount of fuel. Therefore, athletes are intimately familiar with food consumption, both in quality and quantity.
Given this knowledge of cuisine, it’s perfectly logical to see how some athletes gravitate toward the restaurant industry after (or even during) their competitive careers. Smart athletes can call upon their culinary expertise into food selections that can satisfy some of the most discriminating diners. And while the restaurant business can be dicey even for the most renowned foodies, athletes can leverage their fame and name recognition (not to mention earnings for start-up cash) to help their eating establishments succeed.
That said, there are some athletes who (like in sport itself) perform at a higher level than their peers when it comes to creating and operating a restaurant. Here are ten of the best eateries in North America who were founded and/or are owned and managed at least in part by professional athletes. Bon appetit!
10. Billy Sims Barbecue (named after the former Detroit Lions running back)
The former Oklahoma Sooner won the Heisman Trophy in 1978 and went on to play five years in the NFL for Detroit, three of which he earned All-Pro honors. Upon retirement, he took up his other passion: barbecue. Today, Sims has the most restaurant locations on this list, with almost three dozen Billy Sims Barbecue restaurants throughout Oklahoma, as well as two in Missouri and three in Michigan. His entrees sport football-themed names as the “Sooner Magic,” “Smokes Jayhawk,” “Pulled Razorback,” and the “Bevo Plate.”
9. Arnold Palmer’s Restaurant (named after the legendary pro golfer)
Palmer was one of the top names globally in golf during the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, winning an unbelievable 62 tournaments, including seven majors. Since retiring from competition in 2006, he has designed golf courses, spawned apparel lines, and purchased LaTrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania. And his signature restaurant in La Quinta, California (a few miles southwest of Indio) offers diners a “taste of the good life.” You can order appetizers like the Proscuitto di “Palmer” California Antipasto Rolls, as well as entrees such as Maple Glazed Atlantic Salmon or Arnie’s Famous Meatloaf. And we assume you can order an Arnold Palmer to wash it all down.
8. Majerle’s Sports Grill (named after Dan Majerle, former Phoenix Suns guard/forward)
“Thunder Dan” as he was known early in his career, played a total of eight seasons with the Suns and had his jersey retired by the franchise. He served as a Phoenix assistant for a few years and now is the head coach at nearby Grand Canyon University. However, Majerle began getting a toehold in the restaurant business during his playing days by opening the first Majerle’s location in 1992 in downtown Phoenix. Since then, Majerle has opened four others in Arizona, and the original Majerle’s was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the “25 Best Sports Bars in America.”
7. Island Way Grill (Owners: Mike Alstott and Dave Moore, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Alstott, nicknamed “The A-Train,” played fullback for eleven seasons with the Bucs; while Moore notched sixteen seasons as a tight end in the NFL, with ten of them in Tampa Bay. Both men retired after the 2007 season and partnered with businessman Frank Chivas to open this restaurant in Clearwater, Beach Florida. Given its location, the Island Way Grill is all about high-quality seafood. In fact, the grill’s website boasts, “If it’s any fresher, it is still in the gulf.” The eatery actually has its own boats which go out and catch several varieties of fish to be served at its tables.
6. Hom Wood Fired Grill (Owner: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers quarterback)
Rodgers is still playing playoff-caliber football for the Pack (despite his injury this past season), but he recently became a restauranteur when he helped found a restaurant in 2012 in Brookfield, Wisconsin. The grill specialized in what it calls “farm-to-table” foods while putting a heavy emphasis on locally-produced cuisine and beverages. However, the restaurant’s name had to be changed this past September to Hom (pronounced “home”) when it disassociated itself with one of its partners; namely, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, who was suspended for the second half of last season for violating MLB’s performance-enhancing substance policy. The previous name of Hom was the 8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill (after Braun’s and Rodgers’ jersey numbers).
5. Brett Favre’s Steakhouse (named after the former Green Bay Packer quarterback)
Rodgers and Hom have to compete for Wisconsin diners with another famous Green Bay signal-caller. Favre played for twenty years in the NFL, sixteen of those in Packer green where he won three straight MVP titles and Super Bowl XXXI. These days, you can find a treasure trove of “#4” memorabilia at Brett Favre’s Steakhouse in Green Bay, which is run by Favre and his family. You can chow down on steaks as large as 32 ounces, nibble on Brett’s Seafood Platter as an appetizer, or enjoy down-home fare like Jambalaya, Bayou Pasta, or BBQ Baby Back Ribs.
4. Greg Norman’s Australian Grille (named after the legendary pro golfer)
The Aussie could have easily rested on his laurels after a pro career that featured 89 tournament championships and two major titles, but Norman threw himself into a wide variety of business ventures, including real estate, golf course design, organic chemicals, and beef and steak products. The latter category is on display at Greg Norman’s Australian Grille in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a fine dining restaurant that promises patrons that they will “feel like they are dining in Sydney’s finest harborside restaurant.” In addition, to top-quality steaks, the establishment features Australian-inspired entrees, fresh salads and seafood appetizers. Not to mention a wine selection which garnered praise from Wine Spectator magazine.
3. Elway’s (named after John Elway, former Denver Broncos quarterback and current general manager)
If Elway hasn’t achieved deity status in Denver, he’s the closest thing to it. He led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles as quarterback in the late 1990’s, and then took over as GM and helped Denver reach the Super Bowl this past season. In between those achievements, Elway joined with longtime friend Jim Schmidt to open a fine dining restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Denver in 2008. Elway’s has since opened additional locations in the Cherry Creek section of the city and in the ski resort town of Vail. Along with upscale favorites on the list of entree’s, Elway’s also boasts creative side dishes and appetizers like Lamp Chop (green chile cheese) Fondue, Grilled Artichoke with garlic aioli, and Elway’s Fried Rice in a crab or duck confit.
2. Yao’s Restaurant & Bar (named after Yao Ming, former Houston Rockets center)
One of the most beloved athletes in China, the 7’6″ Yao Ming left the Shanghai Sharks to play for ten seasons in the NBA for Houston. After his retirement in 2011, Yao, his wife, and some friends got together to open Yao’s Restaurant & Bar in the trendy Westchase area of Houston. Today, some of the best Chinese-American cuisine in the city can be found at Yao’s, and the staff takes pride in food that is high-protein and low-fat and contains fresh produce which is delivered daily. The eatery also features four private dining rooms, including one with its own large-screen TV.
1. Wayne Gretzky’s (named after the former NHL forward)
After two decades in the NHL with four different clubs, “The Great One” cemented his legacy as perhaps the greatest Canadian hockey player in history. But prior to retirement, Gretzky teamed up with Tom Bitove in 1993 to open Wayne Gretzky’s in downtown Toronto. The establishment is actually three restaurants in one: the main dining room, the sports bar, and an “oasis” rooftop patio (if weather permits). The dinner menu feature’s some regional favorites like perogies, poutine, and Buffalo wontons as well as items like Wayne’s Famous Wings and The Great One Burger. And of course, there’s plenty of memorabilia for sale at Wayne Gretzky’s “99 Tuck Shop.”