If you're a woman with a sports-loving man, then you've been to your fair share of sports bars.
My husband was excited when he learned I'd be reviewing the new midtown location of Varsity Sports Cafe/Roman Coin Pizza. I had more trepidation, because I've disliked my fair share of sports bars.
I've eaten some terrible food while watching football games in sports bars. I've seen men in team jerseys howl like banshees in front of a big screen in sports bars. And I simply won't go inside some sports bars, especially on a big game day.
But I liked the idea of Varsity Sports Cafe, on the corner of 49th and Dodge Streets in the beautifully rehabilitated Reniers Piano Building.
I liked the upscale atmosphere I found during three recent visits. I liked the Dundee location. I liked the craft beers on tap, the indie music on the loudspeakers, the free wireless Internet and the friendly, hip staff.
But much of the food, as it does in many sports bars, fell short.
Varsity's 16 big-screen television sets glow through the restaurant's large windows. We sat in a huge booth, and the games didn't disappoint. My husband asked to watch a Nebraska basketball game and within a few minutes, it was on two easy-to-see TVs.
Mark Weber, one of the restaurant's four owners, said the bar has all the special sports packages, including MLB Extra Innings, NBA League Pass and NFL Sunday Ticket. The bar also shows Creighton and Nebraska games.
Varsity has 14 surprisingly varied beers on tap. My husband got a glass of Odell IPA and I had Goose Island Matilda.
We started our first visit with mozzarella cheese bread, a popular choice, our waiter said.
The huge slab of short, thick breadsticks came in two big accordion-like pieces with marinara sauce.
The bread absorbed much of the not-very-flavorful cheese. The marinara, made in-house, wasn't too sweet and had a hint of spice. It was the best part.
We ordered Varsity's version of a Chicago-style pizza with sausage, beef, pepperoni, onions, mushrooms, olives and green peppers.
We both took issue with it because it wasn't traditional Chicago-style: The sauce wasn't on top, and the pie wasn't as thick as it should be.
Varsity doesn't skimp on toppings and ours were a good blend of meat and vegetables. Most of the vegetables were fresh, though the mushrooms were canned, a choice I didn't understand when fresh are so readily available.
In my book, this pie should simply be called “thick crust” instead of “Chicago Style Deep Dish.” Weber told me the restaurant experimented with its Chicago-style pizza and decided to go with cheese on top because their ovens dried out sauce on top.
Though the menu at the midtown Roman Coin Pizza is the same as the three other locations in the Omaha area, the atmosphere is not. It has the same vintage vibe as the rest of Dundee. The building has been thoughtfully remodeled, and architectural details are everywhere. It's fun to sit next to the big windows that face Dodge Street (though it can also be a bit chilly).
The second night, I ordered a glass of house wine, and my glass had lipstick on the rim. The bartender replaced it with an apology, but it was the first in a night full of stumbles. Admittedly, we got adventurous, a bad idea.
The Blackened Blue Burger sounds great: blue cheese, jalapeno bacon and red onion are charred together and placed on a beef patty.
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The toppings came seared together in a brownish lump on a thin patty of meat. The strong, spicy bacon overpowered the blue cheese, which lacked flavor. And the sauceless, dry sandwich needed salt.
The patty is thinner by design, Weber said, because it helps the meat get cooked through along with the toppings, which should caramelize together.
A Thai Pizza was the night's real clunker. I had a hard time finishing one slice of the pizza, described as having a spicy peanut sauce base topped with chicken, red onion, green pepper, garlic, broccoli, mozzarella and cheddar cheese.
The sauce tasted faintly of peanut but mostly of store-bought sweet and sour sauce. Weber told me later it's a blend of the two.
The sweetness overpowered every ingredient and made the crust slick and soggy. Every time I cut into a piece, the toppings and cheese slid off the crust in one big hunk. I also didn't see any broccoli on our pizza, but I did see cucumber, a strange choice.
On our third visit, we tried the thin crust pizza again, but with more traditional toppings. The Super included pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, onion and green pepper. It was average.
The traditional hot sub sandwich we tried had ham, salami, cheese, hot peppers, lettuce and tomato, but strangely, no mayo, mustard or any kind of sauce.
Varsity wins a lot of points for atmosphere. It has a nice wait staff, fair prices, good music and all the televised sports you'd want. It has good beers on tap and free wireless to keep fantasy sports players connected and entertain a girl with an iPad.
Go to Varsity, drink a beer and watch a game. Bring your wife or girlfriend. And hope that the place figures out its menu, because if it does, it could rank as one of the best sports bars in the city.
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