If you wanna talk cocktails in Fort Worth, you're likely speaking of one person and one person only: Brad Hensarling. The thirtysomething behind dive bar The Chat Room and creative cocktail den The Usual has almost single-handedly shaped the Cowtown craft drink scene, and today he expands his empire with the opening of his third bar, The Gold Standard (2700 W. 7th St), in a sector of downtown that's home to a bevy of chains (Gloria's, Eddie V's, Chuy's, Fireside Pies, Sushi Axiom, et al).
I spoke with Hensarling over the weekend to get the scoop on the new place and to try to find out why there seems to be a craft cocktail drought in Fort Worth.
So with The Gold Standard opening this week, you now have three bars. What's the difference between all of them? The Chat Room is my first bar and first love. It is the heart of the beast, my fortress of solitude, etc. It's the first bar that I started hanging out at when I was 21, and it became the first business that I was an owner of. It's smoky, dirty, has $2 drink specials four nights a week and not even the slightest hint of pretense. If you can't get me on the phone and want to track me down, you know where to find me. I can boast of this place too that I have the friendliest bar staff in town. It's not fancy, it just is what it is ... great conversation, great music and great conversation.
The Usual might be proof that I'm schizophrenic. I opened that bar before I even knew that there was a cocktail movement. I got into cocktails out of boredom. When I was still building business at The Chat Room I had a lot of time on my hands while bartending for zero customers and decided that I would learn how to make a Sidecar. Before The Usual only Victor Tangos had a hand in the cocktail game, but The Usual was the first hardcore cocktail bar to open up. Although that is an interesting fact that I like to tell people, the deal that's bigger than that is that my staff has been with me since the beginning. I can say without a doubt that my bartenders have more experience and are more skilled as a whole than any other bar in DFW. Any one of them could leave and successfully run a bar program that is top-notch.
The Usual is definitely unique to Fort Worth. Aside from the cocktail aspect of the bar, the interior (lined with the same American white oak that most of the world's spirits are aged in) is sleek and fashionable but still welcoming. There is a comfortable patio behind the bar that is wedged between two buildings, giving it an urban oasis sort of feel. We also have a food truck in the parking lot called Holy Frijoles that is run by the chef from Sapristi. When you walk up to it, it comes off as a normal little taco truck that does tortas and tacos (which they do VERY well), but when you see the menu of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, crab cakes and artisanal flatbreads that they serve inside, you wonder how they fit all of it into a truck. The Usual is a great experience all around, and although we aren't doing soy lecithin sea salt foam like Standard Pour or dehydrating chartreuse like Private Social, we will give you a solid classic cocktail every time.
What's your objective with The Gold Standard? What's gonna make it worth the drive from Dallas? The Gold Standard is a fun deal for me to work on. The corridor of 7th Street used to be lined with a lot of great little dive bars that have now been bulldozed and relocated to the perimeters of gentrification. Now, Jimmy Moore and I are able to reopen the old 7th Haven building that sits on the most prime real estate corner in Fort Worth as The Gold Standard. We're not here to make things classy. It's going to be loud, raucous and edgy. We will use the most expensive corner in Fort Worth to let everyone know that Fort Worth people like a good time and that if chain restaurants want to overtake our city and push local bars aside, they can spend their money on it, but we won't spend ours.
The booze selection will be a mix of standard bar fare with a bit of quirky "cocktail" shit, and a splash of low-rent. The beer will be the same way (standard, craft, and Natty Light). Instead of overpaying for the same shit that everyone else is pouring, come have a reasonably priced Sazerac shot or $2 Last Word Jello shot and wash it down with the cheapest beer imaginable ... then borrow the bar megaphone and rant from the rooftop deck that you don't like the new noise ordinance. Let's have some borderline legal fun! (Testing ordinances, not committing felonies.) We are the dive bar's last stand on 7th Street and we will make sure that everyone knows it! Gloves off ... that's the reason to drive from Dallas. Make sure you get a hotel room. It seems like choosy drinkers have plenty of cocktail bars to pick from here in Dallas (Cedars Social, Standard Pour, The Chesterfield, Tate's, People's, etc) but your place, The Usual, is really the only one in Fort Worth. Why do you think that is -- you guys like herding livestock more than you like sipping fancy dranks, or what? Yes, we are big fans of herding cattle. It's really fun! If you haven't, then you should. Addressing the bar scene though ... a lot of the people running bars in Fort Worth don't want to go through the trouble of providing different and interesting products to their customers. Thus, only one cocktail bar. There is a "speakeasy" that is opening downtown, but they're not even able to create a cocktail menu for themselves. COME ON! Fireside Pies, Curtis at Del Frisco's, Jason at Bob's, and Grace are doing a little with it, but for the most part if you want a properly made drink hit The Usual. There are a number of ways that bars can differentiate themselves to their customers (ambiance, specials, pricing, theme, etc.), but almost no one is able or willing to differentiate themselves with their product. All I have to say about that is that it makes my life easy. I am willing to sit around all day and contemplate the best ratio of Jamaican rum to bourbon for my Montpelier cocktail, and everyone else can farm their drink list -- their most key way of communicating to their customers that they are in a special and unique place -- out to corporate "mixologists". Hopefully, the fact that I am willing to produce more interesting bar concepts than anyone else in this city will raise the "bar" (no pun intended) for what other people do. Until then, I will just enjoy my spot at the top of the liquor pyramid in Fort Worth and keep opening bars that provide a cooler, better, more desirable product.
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Where are your favorite haunts to drink at on a night off, and what's your poison? When I get finished with a shift I reach for Buffalo Trace and Fireman's 4. If I'm feeling fancy I'll have a Montpelier (bourbon, Jamaican rum, maple-wood smoked maple syrup, and sweet vermouth). It's one of my own concoctions, but just like masturbation I know what I like best better than anyone else. If it's a hot day I'll take a gin and tonic. Otherwise I'll just drink what someone else is buying.
My list of bars that I like to hang out at in Fort Worth (other than ones that I own): Lola's (cool live music), Fred's (great burgers, cheap beer), Malone's (side-of-the-road pub), Del Frisco's (Curtis keeps the bar stocked with some of the coolest booze in town), Tiff and Andi's Place (dive, all dive), Flying Saucer (beer), Wired Willie's (small pub with great craft beer selection), BJ's (my friends call it "Ruthless and Toothless," country karaoke with a twist of geriatric meth), The Poop Deck (talky bartenders and prices haven't changed since 1975), Sarah's Place (shuffleboard, and I stole a rubber chicken from there once).
The Gold Standard opens today at 11am at 2700 West 7th in Fort Worth.