by Brian Clarey

I approach the Triad’s newest Mellow Mushroom Pizzeria on Elm Street’s south end from a Lewis Street parking space — four hours, non-metered! — and am almost immediately approached by a couple down-on-their-luck fellows seeking directions to the nearest pawn shop. Their plan is to pawn a cell phone in their possession for enough money to catch the PART bus back to Winston- Salem. I have heard variations on this bustle, by the way, upwards of a hundred times. I direct them to a pawn shop on Lee Street, and also to the nearby shelter. Dissatisfied, one of the guys asks me to take them somewhere in my car. I don’t think so, fellas. It is activity just like this, I believe, that denizens of South Elm Street hoped that the new Mellow Mushroom would drive out, due to its high profile and populist approach to America’s favorite food. Either way, the two grifters shuffle off and I head inside just an hour or so after the lunch rush. I’ve heard anecdotal reports that the Greensboro branch of the Mellow Mushroom has seen enviable crowds in its first few weeks of operation, with lunchtime specials and a funky reputation that draws from neighborhood galleries and apartments. There’s a huge draft beer selection, evidenced by a long row of taps against the rock-built bar, and room enough inside for a decent putt-putt course. I order a plain cheese pizza. Small. Because what the hell do I care? I’ve tried the food at a couple different Mellow Mushrooms in the South — they all feature adventurous pizza combinations made with high-quality ingredients, an array of hearty hot and cold sandwiches, some truly great salads and creative nibblers like the hot pretzels, which I really, really like. No, I’m here to appraise the place and see how it fits in to the greater Mellow Mushroom esthetic, to the artsy-fartsy neighborhood, to the evolution of downtown Greensboro itself. The Mellow Mushroom began in the early ’70s in Georgia as a place for college kids to sate their munchies — a post-joint joint, if you will. But in the ensuing decades, the brand began to embrace a healthy corporate philosophy akin to the House of Blues or Ben & Jerry’s: Everything is run with precise efficiency and a degree of sameness, yet each restaurant retains its own individual character. It is one of the reasons why Mellow Mushrooms, which now number about a hundred, are so successful… and why downtown Greensboro was so eager to get one. This newest

Mellow Mushroom is all grown up, decorated in dark wood tones accented with burgundy and brown. And while the Winston-Salem ’Shroom features bright colors, new-wave shapes and a busy wall mural, Greensboro’s version carries an avant-garde ballroom chic, with stylized chandeliers as its main motif.

There are 22 of them by my count, juked out and refitted with gauzy fabrics, steel mesh cutouts, beads, chains and other ornamentation, casting off amber light. An electric candelabra holds down the hostess station. Stained-glass windows moored into the south wall illuminate the open ceiling structure, where new wood girds the arch among steel girders and raw tin ductwork. There is nary a trace of the Two Art Chicks gallery that once held the lease to the building. It’s very quiet in here now as I chew my pizza and sip my iced tea — they don’t serve coffee. Some late-lunchers like myself add a bit of life to the dining room and there’s a few day drinkers holding court at the bar. Music — an eclectic mix of modern, classic and alternative sounds — sifts through an excellent sound system. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see this place throbbing with life, pulsing with commerce — which by all accounts is exactly what is happening here at lunchtime and after dark. And it is a great addition to a neighborhood that needed a commercial anchor. But for the time being, remember not to give rides to strangers. And keep your eye on your cell phone.

The Mellow Mushroom 609- S. Elm St. 336.235.2840

Nothingfancy — just a plain cheese pizza from downtown Greensboro’s mosttalked-about pizza joint, eaten in artful splendor. (photo by BrianClarey)