1291 Folly Road, James Island

A.J.’s ain’t your typical generic sports bar. Inside, you’ll find elegant booths decorated with hanging light fixtures and curtains, a tasteful bar area with a battery of handsome beer tap handles, and a roomy deck with comfy tables.

Despite its humble James Island shopping center facade, the recently-opened A.J’s Sports Bar & Grill has an unexpectedly upscale feel. Tucked in the south-end corner of the Island Plaza (just off Fort Johnson Road, right beside Planet Smoothie and Gold’s Gym), A.J.’s initially resembles a ho-hum neon-sign tavern. Approaching the main entrance, one easily imagines walking into a sparse room filled with oversized TVs, plastic seats, cheap beer, and flavorless food. Fortunately, the simple facade doesn’t tell the inside story.

Open daily for dinner from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. — and for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. — A.J.’s functions as a fancy but welcoming neighborhood tavern with a full menu of good grub. It’s also a live music club with a stage and dance floor, featuring local rock and dance bands on weekends.

Formerly the Sundog Cafe, the new owners have overhauled the place. Several cozy, tall-standing booths enclose the dining space. It’s easy to find a private corner or nook to settle into.

The outside patio accommodates two dozen extra tables and a weekly dog-friendly brunch. An adjoining lounge by the stage has pool tables, dart lanes, and a massive wide-screen TV.

The main bar area features a winding U-shaped counter with leather bar seats. It’s the swankiest part of the whole operation, tastefully decorated with staggered liquor shelves and mirrors.

A half-dozen beer taps are hooked up to kegs of quality beer, recent choices included Guinness, Blue Moon, Yuengling, Stella Artois, Newcastle, and a seasonal Sam Adams. During a recent happy hour (4-7 p.m.) main bar manager Mel poured a well-conditioned Stella into a chilled pint glass ($3.50, $4.50 regular hours) and served it with a wide smile.

A.J.’s puts a hearty spin on a lot of bar fare, offering a decent array of dips, nachos, quesadillas, sizeable salads, seafood, and steaks. Wings and burgers are the biggest hits so far. The substantial, barbecue-style Hoopie Burger, made to order on a toasted kaiser bun with romaine, tomato, and red onion, is already a popular favorite, as is the plate of Stealin’ Home Sliders (four for $5.95). Wings are available in eight different sauce styles. Ask for a list of extra “Can’t-Get-Enough” menu specials from your server, featuring the Hot Legs (four-oz. chicken legs served up wing-style (four for $4.50), and the one-pound Homewrecker hot dog ($6) smothered in chili and fries.

In addition to the usual booze selection, the bar also offers some notable watermelon, green apple, and pomegranate martinis made with Smirnoff vodkas and Stirrings Super-Premium mix. The Saturday all-day Bloody Mary bar, Wine Wednesday specials, specialty frozen drinks, and mojitos are a nice touch as well.

By the season’s end, this unpretentious venue could become one of James Island’s most popular hangouts and eateries.

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