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There’s not a deli in Fort Worth that makes a better Reuben than Varsity Tavern. Photo by Lee Chastain.

Brian Franzman, the chef of Fort Worth’s three-week-old Varsity Tavern, also developed the menus at J. Black’s Feel Good Kitchen & Lounge in Austin and Houston. It’s apparent that Fort Worth’s new sports bar/gastropub shares some of that slick urban DNA.

[box_info]Varsity Tavern
1005 Norwood St, FW. 817-882-6699. 11am-2am daily. All major credit cards accepted.[/box_info]

Food choices at the West 7th-development eatery include easy-to-consume bar standards and comfort foods such as mac ’n’ cheese and meatloaf. For starters, the Varsity Balls, which my dining companion and I ordered primarily because of the giggle-worthy name, were actually pretty spectacular and would have made Saturday Night Live’s Pete Schweddy proud. The well-seasoned fried outer shell of the ping-pong sized balls surrounded a motherlode of melting cheddar, diced ham, and pimentos. The five-piece appetizer came with a spicy ranch dipping sauce, but the sharp cheese, ham, and the spices in the crust made the dip seem superfluous. 

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Sadly, the roasted chicken poutine fries were a disappointment. Sure, we can pretend that a plate of potatoes covered in thin white gravy and shreds of barely melted cheddar cheese is the same thing as the classic Canadian hangover-sopping mess of fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds. But it isn’t the same. Varsity’s version was saved by the tasty, almost fluffy waffle fries, even if the hot mess actually came out cold.

It’s plainly evident that the Varsity kitchen is still tinkering with the menu. One of the weekend brunch options was chicken and biscuits, which turned out to be a poor choice. The biscuits were flat and heavy, and they were a disgrace to place in front of anyone who could wield a rolling pin or even open a can of Poppin’ Fresh dough. But the three oversized, flavorful, crispy chicken fingers, covered in more of that thin, spicy white gravy, were delightfully filling.

A better choice was the Reuben. The smoky, warm combo of pastrami, horseradish sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese on buttery Texas-toasted marbled rye bread was a phenomenal mix of crunchy and chewy. There’s not a deli in Funkytown that makes a better Reuben. All sandwiches come with a choice of sides, and the maple-bacon Brussels sprouts are not to be missed. Any potential bitterness in the perfectly al dente veggie was cooked out, or drowned, by the delicate maple sauce.

The Fruity Pebbles panna cotta was a mini-Mason jar of heaven. The rich, fancy pudding tasted like the milk after your breakfast cereal has been sitting in it –– sweet and slightly citrusy. A sprinkle of the titular cereal on top added a perfect little crunch. Most of the food comes out on parchment-covered baking trays (à la the Trinity River Tap House), although the cloth napkins were an unexpected, classy touch.

Varsity’s interior is a combo of chic-meets-garage sale. There are aluminum bleachers (straight out of a high school pep rally) in one corner of the room and a stage on the opposite side. A long, sleek, comfy leather banquette with tables dominates the middle of the room. The rest of the chairs are backless stools high enough for your feet to dangle and your legs to swing like they did when you were a tiny toddler in a church pew. A hand-drawn chalk sign reads, “Have fun. No standing on tables.”

From the street, Varsity seems like any number of other nearby bars with kitchens (Reservoir, Brewsters, and Magnolia Motor Lounge, for example). The outdoor patio far above street level will probably be a great people-watching space in a few months. The pocket-sized parking lot means that the restaurant’s competing with the aforementioned places, as well as other local businesses like The Velvet Box, for that precious street space. Parking in the area is already nightmarish.

Although some of the food is very good, there’s really nothing new here. Varsity’s kitchen doesn’t do much to stand out from the crowded field of area gastropubs, but it’s possible that with a little time and some seasoning, the place could eventually rise above its lookalikes.

[box_info]Varsity Tavern
Roasted chicken poutine fries     $11
Varsity Balls     $8
Reuben w/maple-bacon Brussels sprouts     $11
Chicken and biscuits     $10
Fruity Pebble panna cotta     $7
Bloody Mary or mimosa     $6[/box_info]

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