Dude food 

The Tavern Sports Grill's man-cave chic injects some machismo into the Promenade.

click to enlarge THE TAVERN BURGER: Every pub needs one. - BRIAN CHILSON

There's no drought of sports bar and grills in and around Little Rock. So it's hard to get hot and excited about the addition of yet another ESPN and carbs and beer joint to the list of local restaurants. That said, we can get down with Monday Night Football, cheeseburgers and Bud Light just as much as — maybe more than — the next guy.

So it's hard to moan about The Tavern Sports Grill, the two-month young restaurant and The Promenade at Chenal's newest kid on the block. It's an unapologetically machismo eatery, oversized and standing in contrast to the shopping center's bustle of boutiques, shoe stores and nicer dining establishments.

But a traditional or authentic sports bar it isn't, so don't expect to find cozy, neighborhood drinking hole ambience. The ceilings reach up 30 feet or so, the booths and tables are still shiny and wanting for wear, the interior smells like "clean, new restaurant," not, you know, like food. And you're not going to find Cliff and Norm arguing about the Celtics at the bar.

That said, it seems the owners were aiming to establish a warehouse-sized man cave, and they did a fine job.

The first thing you'll notice when you step through the door is the enormous screen on a far wall, blasting last night's highlights. The Tavern also flaunts "over 30 HD TVs," so you'll never have the game out of your sight line.

We anchored down in a booth overlooking the Chenal 9 IMAX and debated whether or not to give the wings a shot. After all, $8.99 is always a hefty wager to make on a dozen wings that may or may not be worth the energy it takes to chew them. Boy, we were happy we took the dive.

The 12 wings — half hot, half honey mustard — were some of the best we've had in town. So good, in fact, that my lunch partner and I sent our thumbs up to the chef, who came out to tell us that it takes five hours in a smoker, a flash in a deep fryer and more time over burning applewood chips to bring out a smoky flavor and make the meat slide right off of the bone.

We debated ordering up yet another round, but remembered that our main courses were going to tax our stomachs' elasticity enough as is. Again: a good move.

The pulled pork sandwich ($8.99) is a monster: tender, smoked pork, wet with sauce and slapped onto a roll. After tasting what the kitchen staff can do with a smoker, our expectations were set high. And quickly lowered. Simply, it's a fine sandwich but another exhibit in why barbecue should be done by the people who obsess over it and not just filler on a menu.

The Tavern Burger ($9.99), on the other hand, is one of those kitchen sink numbers with everything piled high and sloppy: bacon, mushrooms, grilled onions, jalapenos and cheese. In our case, Cheez Whiz, because, after all, if you're going to eat something ridiculous, you might as well go for the gold. It's the "suicide Slushy" of burgers, with any and every flavor canceling each other out and turning into one big, meaty tongue bomb. In other words, the exact type of thing we're trying to order in a sports bar.

During The Tavern's first few weeks, we shied away from checking it out after hearing a few less-than-stellar reactions. Fortunately, it seems like the grill is working out some of the kinks that are to be expected when opening a new place.

While we're not going to get evangelical about any paint-by-the-numbers sports bar, one thing's for certain: Those wings sure are damn tasty.


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