Mary’s of Course, of course

by Brian Clarey

I would love to say that I discovered Mary’s Of Course, the hip little caf, bakery and bruncheria nestled in the foothills that limn the business district of Winston-Salem, years ago, way before it became part of the lunchtime zeitgeist and the noontime crowds grew thick by the door. Alas, I cannot. I did wander in there once in the spring of 2001 for a simple cup of coffee, and I remember thinking it looked kind of cool. But to my discredit, I haven’t been back until today. And today the place is banging at lunchtime, with bodies packing the small grid of indoor tables and a small, efficient waitstaff negotiating the spaces in between. Three line cooks work the kitchen like a six-armed freak and the ice machine kicks into overdrive during the lunch rush, which is typical of a weekday. People come here for a lot of reasons. It’s a funky little neighborhood joint with good coffee. The dcor is cheery and familiar, with rotating art shows, locally made jewelry and in-house kitsch exhibits that include lots of Hello Kitty, some Tammy Faye Bakker album covers, an army of thumb-puppet figurines, a copy of Are You Hungry Tonight – the Elvis Presley cookbook, a statue of the big red monster in sneakers from the “Bugs Bunny” cartoons (his name, by the way, is Gossamer), and a genuine Susie Moppet doll, still in the box. On the wall by the door hangs posters for rock shows, art exhibits and local theater offerings. On each table sits a small vase of short-stemmed flowers and unique salt and pepper shakers (mine are cacti). By the register a cluster of chalkboards announces the day’s bounty. But with the menu this place has, they could thrive in a cinderblock shack. They do a lot of things right: local produce, vegetarian and vegan options, quality ingredients, quirky entrees. And the drink selection is something to behold. Besides the usual bevy of coffee drinks and sodas, they offer an enormous selection of tea – black, herbal, green, oolong, red and a short list of herbal remedies that changes frequently (today there’s a special on the “liver recovery” blend). They have Italian sodas and sweet tea, of course, and a menu of sparkling lemonades with additives like strawberry, raspberry, blood orange and lavender. I order a glass of pomegranate lemonade – for the antioxidants, you know? – and from a lunch menu that has a couple soups, a chef salad and a slate of sandwiches that range from barbecued tempeh to ham and provolone to a California veggie burger, I select a Reuben sandwich made with tempeh instead of turkey. For a side item I choose sliced tomatoes, foregoing the house favorite of grits which are locally milled and seasoned with sea salt, fresh ground pepper and sweet butter. And while I wait I eat some of the best pimiento cheese I’ve ever had, light on mayo and with enough fresh green pepper, pimiento and scallion tails that I can really taste them, with multi-grain tortilla chips speckled with flax seeds. I barely have room for the sandwich, which is stacked high on thick bread with sauerkraut and the aged soybean cake and has homemade Russian dressing oozing – in a good way – onto the plate. It’s big and drippy enough that eventually I resort to eating it with a fork. And, astonishingly, I can’t finish it. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened, and frankly I’m a little embarrassed. But more so I’m disappointed, because I don’t have enough room for dessert. If I had come here more often, I would have known that. But the next time I come will be for brunch or breakfast – which they serve all day – and likely it will be on a weekend, when the menu features a build-your-own eggs Benedict item which turns me on more than you know.To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at