Iron Hen rules the breakfast food roost

by Emily Brown

The “Fresh. Local. Good.” food group isn’t quite four years old, but it’s already died and come back to life. The Iron Hen Café opened its quaint, café doors in 2010, its niche being a menu of dishes prepared with locally grown, organic ingredients. Seating was limited, and the only bar to speak of was for coffee and espresso, but the restaurant relied on the quality of their food and their home-grown Greensboro spirit to draw in crowds, and it worked. They never tried to be a diner, and had a dramatically different take on breakfast food from veteran restaurants, but the Iron Hen excelled at the morning-time rush — although you could order a “morning salad,” which amounts to a light bowl of fresh spinach with blueberries and your choice of dressing on the side, hearty plates of peanut butter banana French toast doused in syrup or crab cake benedicts covered in creamy, traditional hollandaise took up a larger portion of the menu. And with nurtured side dishes like home fries or buttered grits, they guaranteed that nobody left completely comfortable in the pants they arrived in.

Having conquered the hearts of Gate City breakfast and brunch loyalists in their first three years, it appeared the only way to generate foot traffic after lunchtime would require a radical change: They closed their doors.

Walls were knocked down to build a fully stocked bar and expand seating options for patrons, cashiers were trained to be servers, a new chef was hired and the menu was refined, and then they opened back for business with the promise that their new full-service restaurant would make up for lost time.

As opposed to ordering at the counter and taking a number — laminated alongside Greensboro icons such as Guilford Courthouse National Military Park — a server now greets you before escorting your group to a table, unless you want to take a seat at the bar. Left intact is the mintgreen hallway leading to the restrooms, its wall taken up by a bold outline of the Greensboro skyline. It’s mostly the same restaurant as it was before, I note, but it’s also completely different.

I grab a bar stool for myself on my lunch break and order a Cheerwine, which they bring in a glass bottle. It’s always better in a glass bottle. Lunch at the Hen isn’t as heavy as breakfast. Crab-cake medallions are much smaller when they’re not sandwiched between a biscuit, an over-easy egg and a rich, buttery breakfast sauce. At lunch, they’re served with corn salsa and spicy-garlic aioli. The lighter fare leads me to also order Gouda mac and cheese, a creamy clump of macaroni that arrives steaming in a paper bowl. An integral philosophy of the Hen is that every meal is better with a “real good” deviled egg, so every entrée comes pared with a whipped half-egg, sans relish.

The bar fills up with white-collar locals who are on their own lunch break, speaking with the servers in tones of familiarity and intimacy.

“The client I told you about last week came back with an even worse idea this morning,” one starts. Another ends a phone call to order a cup of coffee and “that cake I loved so much last week, if you’ve got any left.” The waitress brings him a gigantic slice of the pie, reminding him that it’s called “Hummingbird,” and that it’s so light he may as well wait for it to fly off the plate. The restaurant and its baker, formerly in business as Ellie Mae, have recently gone in to business together to launch a coffee and cake truck around town, and reviews like that make it sound like it’s worth tracking down.

More than half of the tables are seated with groups of two or three who trickle in and out as they quickly finish their meals, but the crowd doesn’t come close to the size on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Which confirms what I suspect: Weekend breakfast is still their sweet spot.

Their location on Cridland Road, a mile before the North Church Street and Wendover intersection, may have something to do with it. Save for the neighboring gas station, mini-market and Dunkin Donuts, they’re on their own to attract customers for dinner rushes. Since re-opening, Iron Hen has instituted weekly specials such as Kids Eat Free nights, Taco Tuesdays, Heart Healthy Wednesdays, Thursday Supper and (sometimes) Song, and Fried Chicken Friday. They haven’t abandoned their coffee bar, advertising the seasonal favorite peppermint mocha in mint-green Hen coffee mugs. It’s unlikely to pop up in your peripheral on your way home from shopping, but it’s worth the additional two-minute drive.

Stop for the sides; stay for the cake.

Mad Hatter, a new restaurant specializing in burgers, pizza and breakfast, with a large selection of local craft beers, opened at the site of the old Ham’s at 201 Smyres Place off of Friendly Avenue in Greensboro on Dec. 26. !