When established West Magnolia Avenue hot-spot Bearded Lady announced it would be relocating to South Main Village last year, the ripple effect of that news reverberated throughout the city. Glass-half-full types were excited that the change spawned a new eatery/drinkery where the Lady once reigned over the street. Magnolia Tree Tavern (1229 7th Av, 682-703-2004) took over the abandoned space. So the good times are back, right? Sort of. Something about the exchange just hasn’t felt right. The patio is still brimming with people on weekends, but the Tree doesn’t seem to have the same magnetism of the Lady.
I went to both gastropubs with the idea of writing a witty, insightful comparative piece about the food. The thing is, the menus at both places are eerily similar. The Lady took some of its popular classics with it, and the Tree kept them as holdovers. Both kitchens offer okra apps, tomato soup, pork wings, a grilled cheese sandwich, parmesan fries, and so on. If I were scoring on points, the Lady would win on variety and for serving the critically lauded L.U.S.T. burger, but the split feels like a messy divorce in which both parents are trying to create a new identity.
The first thing you’ll notice about the new Beaded Lady (300 S Main St, 817-349-9832) is its patio/beergarden, which is appointed with outdoor games, a small overhanging roof, and a few tables and chairs. Inside, the space is open, with an attractive bar on one side of the room and several comfy booths, banquets, and tables with Edison bulbs dangling overhead on the other. The vibe is industrial chic – a far cry from the homey feel of its former environs – with exposed air ducts and pipes. There’s also a goodly amount of quirk like the painted eagle that hangs in a corner and wire (or maybe wicker) chandeliers.
The menu doesn’t lack for variety of sandwiches, burgers, salads, and comforting apps. My guest and I opted for the fried okra starter ($6.40), whole missiles coated with a thick batter dotted with maldon salt and served with something called Comeback Sauce, which leaned toward sweet. The batter was crunchy enough, but it overwhelmed the veggies. On top of that, the okra was undercooked. The only flavor I detected at all was salt.
Better was the Legit Grilled Cheese ($9.90), its Swiss, cheddar, and provolone mingling between two thick slabs of toasted, buttery sourdough. I’d recommend ordering the fresh-tasting tomato soup ($3.10 for a cup) for dipping, though I also wish the kitchen pureed and strained it. The texture was grainy and clumpy. My guest’s spatchcock chicken salad ($10.40) would have benefited from a healthy dose of salt. Still, the combination of miso-lemon chicken, red onions, celery, lettuce, and tomatoes between a soft brioche bun was heartier than most chicken salad offerings and seductively creamy.
Appearance-wise, the Magnolia Tree looks almost exactly like the Lady. I’m not sure what changes the new owners have made to the decor, but they’re mostly cosmetic. The attractive bungalow still feels like you’re dining in someone’s living room.
Instead of ordering the same thing at both places, I went with our bubbly, attentive server’s recommendations on both the appetizer and entree. The fried-green tomatoes ($7) were coated with the same thick batter as the Lady’s okra but without the salt. The veggies were perfectly fried but suffered the same over-battering problem as its progenitor kitchen. And without the salt, the tomatoes were flavorless.
The 4-ounce pork wings ($10 for three), slathered in a spicy chile glaze, were tender, spicy, and addictive. It was by far the best thing I put in my mouth at either place – and it looks like both places serve something similar. The accompanying fries were limp and undercooked, and the ranch dressing was superfluous. The Delicious Chicken ($12) sandwich, with its tempting amalgam of grilled chicken breast, bacon, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, and housemade hickory-smoked garlic aioli, was burned to a char on the edges, and the aioli was undetectable. It tasted like a steakhouse’s idea of a fancy sandwich.
Both the Bearded Lady and The Magnolia Tree Tavern appear to be lively, hip landing-spots for beer lovers. In terms of food, they both have a lot to offer – and an equal claim to some of the popular items on each menu. Like any divorce, this split hasn’t made things better or worse, just different. We’ll adjust.