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Everyone’s favorite fungi

by Brian Clarey

All pizzas are not created equally.

You’ve got your New York-style big pies, your Wolfgang Puck-ish wood-fired jobs, your Mexican pizzas, your barbecue pizzas… I’ve even seen pizza crusts loaded high with salads and pickled vegetables.

The Mellow Mushroom in downtown Winston-Salem, with an iteration planned for Greensboro’s urban district in the spring, sells pizzas, to be sure, but it is more cultural outpost than pizza parlor.

Drawing on the hippie aesthetic from the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Mellow Mushroom is… a scene.

Consider this well-placed shop on 4th Street, with windowed corner frontage and a sleek metallic façade. Inside the walls wear deep colors and bright tiles, and giant multi-colored triangles – pizza slices? – hang from the ceilings among the exposed ducts. On one wall there is a giant psychedelic mural that looks like a magnificent acid trip.

The franchise began as the pipe dream of a couple Georgia Tech students who opened the flagship store in midtown Atlanta in the early ’70s, catering to a brand of the munchies specific to people who might be drawn in by the name. One store soon became two, and though the original location has closed, there are now nearly 40 stores in Georgia alone, and dozens more throughout the South.

Each location is unique, an unusual move for a franchise, but one which seems to serve them well. A cookie-cutter look just wouldn’t do for a place like this.

Their culinary reputation has been made on quality pizza, but the menu is loaded with other goodies like hoagies, calzones, salads, soups and pretzels. Also, they have earned a reputation as a haven for beer connoisseurs who gather at the bars to try their selections of microbrews and imports.

Yes, Mellow Mushrooms have bars, and the one in Winston-Salem is equipped with hard liquor and wine as well as beer. There are even a couple of guys sitting there on a weekday afternoon just after the lunch rush, though it was difficult to discern just what they were drinking and how much of it from our booth on the other side of the dining room.

We went with the House Special pizza – pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, black olives, tomatoes, bacon, ham and extra cheese – which the ‘Shroom has been serving since the very beginning. And it is excellent – a light, airy crust that is sturdy enough to handle the abundance of toppings, a non-intrusive sauce and lots and lots of cheese, enough to make long strings when we pull off slices.

We are not strangers to the Mellow Mushroom menu or concept – anyone who’s spent time in college towns in the South has undoubtedly been in one – but we did try a menu item we had not sampled before: pretzels.

They’re made from a long strip of pizza dough twisted in the traditional shape and then baked off in the pizza oven. You can get them with honey and cinnamon or with parmesan cheese, but we opted for the straight salted version with some mustard on the side for dipping. They were quite good.

The Winston-Salem restaurant does a brisk business all day long, and the owners hope to accomplish the same with their planned Greensboro location. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, because there are no chain restaurants in downtown Greensboro (unless you count Chik-fil-A, which I don’t) and the stretch of South Elm Street where the place will be is notable for its abundance of art galleries and dearth of nightlife options. But it’s a safe bet that the joint will be a big draw among those who love pizza and beer, which is just about everybody.

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