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Mad Hatter tries variance from a familiar locale

by Jeff Laughlin

Iusually don’t hang out in nice bars.

The slick, silver look of Mad Hatter — they call the décor “industrial casual” — scared me immediately. The inclusion of a drink menu intimidated me even more.

But my favorite bars have lost their luster. Their sheen usually contains a certain clientele and bartenders that know what I want. Obviously, a new bar would not have that yet.

There was an easy way to beat intimidation, though: Ask questions. I told the staff — who jumped at the chance to help — that I wanted to eat and drink what they love the most. I asked what they wanted to be known for.

Really, I looked for a regular meal. If I can come in and comfortably order an item that I could imagine eating multiple times, I feel like a place has done its job.

Both the food and the drink menu felt expanded and the weekend brunch menu even offered more than the standard fare.

Craft beer enthusiasts have seen their share of new places in the past few years, so a new craft beer house with a large menu may not inspire the avid drinker (though Sessions recently announced it will close). The choices needed to be both numerous and rare.

Greensboro’s Mad Hatter has some work to do there, but the choices ranged from local flavor such as Red Oak to kegs of nationally distributed and expensive brews. The cost — from $5 $11 — might price out regular bar drinkers if not for the inclusion of a few domestic choices that drive down the mean price, including a $3 tallboy of PBR available on Saturday night.

The food menu varies between typical bar food and experimental, with an emphasis on local, house-made ingredients. The shrimp and bruschetta pizza, served on the same flaky crust as a burrito bowl, looked the most enticing by ingredients alone and came out looking more like a dessert than a dinner, but was nonetheless filling.

In my inquiries, however, I settled on what the staff said was the best item on the menu. I chose the pimiento cheeseburger on pretzel bread, which comes with bacon, accompanied by some tall PBR cans. The bar may have been beautifully decorated, but my pretentions lay elsewhere.

The burger did not stand out among the sea of Greensboro bar food and burger spots, but it certainly came in a large portion accompanied by a healthy dose of fries. The applewood bacon and pimiento cheese did a fine job of dressing up the burger and the pretzel bread added a toughness to each bite that was enjoyable.

The burger represents one side of Mad Hatter — after all, the staple item is the focus of the menu. Sports play on huge televisions and the burger served proved perfectly satisfactory as an accompaniment.

The other end of the business focuses on expensive beer, plentiful amounts of wine and a diverse menu. With the higher end comes expectation. Those looking for a local sports bar and a cheap beer may find themselves lost in the chrome glow, but it isn’t like Greensboro lacks options in this category. Those looking for a nice place to eat with other working stiffs, the hucksters or the regular Joes and their band of dopes may find the atmosphere excludes them, but an array of patrons appeared to have already made the venue home.

The expansive menus and upscale decorations, despite a vastly improved exterior, cannot hide the fact that this used to be Ham’s on Friendly. Whether Mad Hatter wanted me to forget that or not, the air of sophistication precluded the actuality of the restaurant.

I went to a bar with some friends and watched football. I had a burger and a few beers. I talked about rap music loudly. When I left, though, I felt like I had done something wrong, but like I said, I don’t usually hang out in nice bars.

For me, my conflict lies in whether or not I found a new place to watch the game (an activity Mad Hatter caters to but that few patrons were concerned with, despite the late stage of the NFL season). I might have. The food, the atmosphere and particularly the friendliness will carry them through to my next visit, for sure.

If only this review could come out when the place found a stride. Or when I found my favorite item on the menu. Only then can I really judge Mad Hatter.

Maybe they just need to get a little dirtier.

Greensboro’s Lucky 32 hosts “Everything Louder than Everything Else,” a six-part meal featuring beer from Foothills Brewing, on Jan. 9. More info at lucky32.com. !

WANNA go?

Wanna go? Mad Hatter: 336.274.7005. 201 Smyres Place, Greensboro. Visit madhatterbb.com

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