American-style sports bars are taking Britain by storm. Hester Lacey checks out the action
THE BRITISH Open golf championship doesn't have quite the same "Wooooorgh! GO ON MY SON! YESSSSS!" factor as, say, the Rugby World Cup or the FA Cup Final. Golf fans are much more subdued. All the same, in the Sports Cafe in Piccadilly, London, last week, the decibel level was frighteningly high, although half the screens were showing middle-aged men, in unfortunate sweaters, wandering through sand bunkers.

The Sports Cafe is one of the newest and glitziest sports bars in London. Forget the minuscule telly in the corner of the pub; the place to watch the big match - or indeed the small match, or body-building, or bowling, or whatever else struggles on to the satellite channels - is in a sleek, air-conditioned, American-style sports bar.

The first sports bars in theUnited States were basic affairs. In the 1950s, when sports were first broadcast live on television, bartenders installed black and white sets above the cash registers in an effort to keep drinkers in the bar rather than at home in front of the telly. But when cable television companies launched round-the-clock sports channels, sports bars took off in the US in a big way. Over the past 20 years they have spread to every American city. They are also common in Canada and South Africa.

The first one in London, Terry Neill's in Holborn, opened two years ago; its solitary status has changed with the recent arrival of the Sports Cafe, closely followed by Shoeless Joe's and the Elbow Room, both in central London. And this is only the beginning. The Sports Cafe is to expand to five other British cities, and has announced an "aggressive expansion plan for Europe"; 12 sites are to be developed on the continent. Its backer, the Canadian brewing and entertainment giant John Labatt, has already begun work on a similar venue in Nottingham, The Pitch, in partnership with Nottingham Forest FC.

"England is the origin of an awful lot of sports - golf, rugby, soccer, tennis, cricket," explains a Sports Cafe spokesman, "and the passion for sport is inbred in the British people. Film and music venues have had their day - now it's time for sports." The flagship Haymarket Sports Cafe is supposed to be for Londoners, rather than a tourist magnet like the Hard Rock Cafe, and it seems to be surprisingly welcome. "During the Rugby World Cup, we'd have queues of over 700 people outside at 9.30 in the morning," says its spokesman proudly.

At 10 o'clock on an ordinary Friday night, with the day's main sporting offering nothing more exciting than golf, the queue of well-dressed young people outside stretches several blocks along the pavement. (Fashion note: don't even think about slopping by in a sweaty tracksuit in the evenings.) The door is guarded by two burly bouncers; inside there is a curious mixture of the sporty and the swish. Elegant, beautiful hostesses greet the punters and show them to tables in the restaurant; the energetic waitresses are kitted out in brief shorts and T-shirts.

The walls are decorated with a bewildering selection of sports memorabilia: Sally Gunnell's winning running-shoes, Nicola Fairbrother's judo jacket, Robin Cousins's gold medal, Andy Thomson's autographed shirt and bowling ball. But it's difficult to focus on any of them, because of the constant buzz and flicker from 120 television screens. Even in the ladies' there is no escape; over the basins, a looming man in an Argyll sweater was taking a birdie putt.

In the restaurant, all the booths are equipped with small screens, so you don't have to talk to anyone you're with if you don't want to (and you can try to ignore the neighbouring party, whooping joyfully along to "Tequila"). You can focus grimly on, say, the Aerobics world championships, though a team of Frenchmen in alarming PVC shorts might put you off your bifteck. On the menus (rugby-ball shaped), everything is themed; snacks are Lightweights, burgers are From the 25-Yard Line, fish and chips and shepherd's pie are listed under the British Open. The waitresses relentlessly keep it up. "Are you ready to kick off?" said the one with the starters chirpily.

It seems sportspeople keep late hours; the Sports Cafe is licensed until 3am at the weekend. But it's not just about boozing and scoffing and watching TV; there are two dancefloors, DJs, an "activity pit" (table football, games machines) and a basketball ring. Most people, though, were content to stand around drinking beer out of bottles and shouting loudly at each other. "I'm here for the beer, not the sport," explained one red-faced, striped-shirted young executive.