Here's my thinking on $19 scallops at a sports bar.

Maybe your date isn't so thrilled to be watching Idaho's last-minute miracle against Bowling Green. Maybe you lured your date to Cover 3 under false pretenses. 'It's a nice restaurant with a few TVs. It won't be like we're there just to watch the game.'

Maybe you'd better let your date order something nice, like scallops, or there might be a dark equipment shed in your future.

See there? A zillion TVs for you, something besides thermonuclear hot wings for them. It's called coverage.

In football, 'Cover 3' is a defense designed to guard the three deep zones. In Austin, Cover 3 is a sports bar designed to meet the three deep desires: eat, drink, watch the game.

And when a Texas fan needs to be near a TV at dinner time — like say, tonight at 7 — there's no reason a fan shouldn't have a luxury-box option with cushy leather chairs, cloth napkins and high-def TVs at every turn of the head in a tiered contemporary space that takes reservations.

I say that because the knock on Cover 3 since it opened a year ago has been that it's too fancy and expensive for a sports bar. A $15 tuna burger makes that statement by itself, and $5 pints of Firemans #4 can add up over the course of a three-hour game.

But it's possible to have a more traditional sports bar experience, too. The rich, half-pound Chop House Burger on a dense and slightly sweet bun, for example, is a satisfying $9.50 with cheese and a generous side of thin, crisp fries dusted with Parmesan cheese. Cover 3 slaw, another side option, is tart, crunchy and dotted with apples and walnuts.

An appetizer called the Triple — fresh-fried tortilla chips in a tall paper cone served with mild red salsa, white queso with roasted pepper and guacamole topped with a mismatched olive pesto — might seem pricey at $11, but it's enough for three people to get started.

And for a big bowl of hot comfort food, you could do worse than creamy macaroni and cheese topped with grilled chicken, crisp bits of pancetta and flakes of red pepper ($13).

Moving up the scale, beef tenderloin sliders on chewy rolls are $12 for two (or three for $16) with Parmesan fries. I liked the onion jus and creamy horseradish sauce for dipping, but the meat didn't make enough of a flavor difference to support the price for the little burgers, especially after the Chop House experience.

Tenderloin was also the main attraction in a chicken-fried steak dish, cut thin in two battered pieces across good mashed potatoes with green chile gravy and served with al dente green beans. When it's cut that thin, tenderloin could just as well be tenderized cube steak, but at $14, it was only a few dollars more than the going rate, and it made for a fork-tender CFS.

On different visits, service hovered between sports bar and restaurant levels. One Chatty Cathy waiter did one of those annoying things waiters do when you ask for more ketchup. "You mean more? Because I'm like, there's already some on the plate." Suddenly I'm the Oliver Twist of tabletop condiments.

Another time, during a long lunch that turned into a r-e-a-l-l-y long lunch, our waiter kept his composure as things went south in his section, still taking time to describe dishes, still making sure our appetizers and mains came out on a staggered schedule.

One of those appetizers, a cylindrical tower of shredded crab and chopped shrimp layered with pico de gallo and avocado, was nice to look at. But something in that tower (a chunk of shrimp? a bit of crab?) wasn't right, and it made the whole $14 appetizer taste fishy.

Which brings me back to the scallops. What does $19 get you? Four nicely seared medium-sized scallops, a plate with a riot of competing flavors from bacon and goat cheese and some criss-crossed asparagus. And maybe a free pass out of the equipment shed.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Cover 3

2700 W. Anderson Lane, Suite 202. 374-1121, www.cover-3.com.

Rating: 7.2 out of 10

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. The kitchen closes an hour earlier on those nights. On Sundays, the bar and kitchen are open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closing times fluctuate, depending on how late a big game runs. Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays.

Prices: Starters $7-$14. Salads $7-$14. Burgers and sandwiches $9-$15. Main courses $11-$19. Desserts $7 (a rotating menu that includes a brownie sundae, bread pudding, cheesecake and key lime pie).

Payment: All major cards.

Alcohol: Full bar. Cover 3 is known in part for its ice-encased Cobra beer taps, which dispense Stella, Shiner, Dos XX, the `light' family and others, plus a few liquors, including Don Julio tequila. The California-dominated wine list includes about 30 whites, 50 reds and four sparklers. Prices run $24-$99 by the bottle, with more than 20 by the glass -- at least one choice from most of the varietals -- from $6.50 to $13. Half-bottles, reserves and high-dollar magnums push the bottle count past 100. The cocktail lineup includes the Cover 3 Press (gin, lemon grass and cucumber, $8.75) and the John Daly (sweet-tea vodka and lemonade, $7 -- and please keep your shirt on). Margaritas start at $7.

Happy hour: From 4 to 7 p.m. daily and all night on Mondays and Tuesdays, take $3 off appetizers, $2 off cocktails and $1 off wine and draft beer.

Wheelchair access: Yes

What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value