by Eric Ginsburg
It may be because he’d just stepped out of his car after the five-hour drive up from his new home in the Atlanta metro area, but when my friend Michael met us at the W on Elm on a recent Friday night, he quickly compared the new Greensboro venue to a bougie Atlanta cocktail bar.
About a week later, as she sat at a table looking at the sleek back bar and the tender with the top of his shirt open as he shook a drink vigorously over his shoulder, my friend Erin suggested the bar area of the W felt like Miami.
Having never been to a bar in either city, I still readily agreed with both comparisons.
The W on Elm aligns with the sophisticated vibe associated with places where people with flush pockets in larger metros imbibe, the sort of urbane, lively joint that could serve as the backdrop for an episode of “Casual.” With one side wall consisting of windows and another covered in reclaimed, unfinished wood a la Small Batch Beer Co. in Winston-Salem, the newly opened W is the kind of venue that attracts married thirtysomethings who don’t blink at shelling out for a babysitter.
It’s of a piece with recent forerunners La Rue and 1618 Downtown, both within a block, signaling a new era for downtown some have long awaited.
For Michael, a Greensboro native who left a year ago, the experience was a little unsettling. If anything, the Gate City’s been a humble place for the last decade. Nothing to be pretentious about here. When someone opened a martini bar adjacent to the W’s storefront a few years back — a place with a futuristic-underwater-Miami theme and a ridiculous bar-top that a bartender once told me would mess up my phone if I put it down — Greensboro kinda laughed, and I’ve never once seen it even half full. But the future is now for downtown Greensboro, which some feel is long awaited.
The tenancy at 324 S. Elm St., the slim, tall building at the edge of the parking lot in front of the Green Bean coffee shop downtown has always been fitful. The pastel painting on the multi-story wall and the forlorn grassy area on the north side of the lot were long ago relegated to memory, replaced by restaurants pursuing markedly different clienteles. Most recently, a Hams chain, a disappointing addition despite a pretty bangin’ cookie skillet.
And now, the W on Elm.
If you’ve been to the Kress Terrace or Suite 300 in the same building, just a block from the W, you’ve already seen the work of the new venue’s owners. Even if you’ve never been inside, your assumptions about the décor and tone at the event venues that often host wedding receptions is still pretty on point, and gives a glimpse of the W on Elm’s target audience as well.
But the W isn’t all glitz and it isn’t overpriced (though a few dishes pass the $30 mark) — think fine dining made more sociable. It’s a place for a double date with your old friends who would tap their feet to “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” or “Tainted Love.” You’ll order the Sizzling Tuna appetizer to share, a Bluefin dish served on a 500-degree salt stone that cooks the meat that comes with ginger mostarda, wasabi, sesame caramel and a shrimp cracker as a hat. It’s visually compelling, unique, and also delicious.
It’s the only place I’ve ever seen a local TV anchor without a camera and lights set up in front of them — the first time I walked in, Lauren Melvin from WFMY and a colleague of hers sat at a table near the front door.
Servers are well trained and attentive; it’s the sort of place where no matter what you order, the server will respond with, “Excellent choice.” Bumping music masks the sound of voices ricocheting around the condensed and completely refurbished space — the second floor hasn’t opened yet, but will soon, the host said.
Here you can order chicken and gnocchi with fiddlehead fern, artichoke, country ham and lemony pea puree. Or perhaps you’d prefer the blueberry BBQ duck legs with smoked peach applesauce, a peppered bacon-wrapped pork filet or the lobster buccatini with blistered corn and roasted asparagus.
Erin and I kept it simpler, ordering cheaper options including the dried tomato and pesto flatbread and the porchetta sandwich with kale, tomato and pear & jalapeño jam to hold down the cost. Both were tasty, especially the pork sandwich on sourdough, though given its size, I was glad I ordered the Sizzling Tuna as well.
Vegetarians like Erin can find a few things on the menu, including a parsnip tostone sandwich with apple slaw, avocado, mojo and “farm cheese,” another flatbread with roasted mushrooms, garlic sauce, arugula and cheese, a dip plate or deviled eggs to share that are described as “whipped and good” on the menu. But mostly it’s the surf and turf you’d expect at a place like this, with lacquered beef ribs, black bass and pricey ribeyes.
On a follow-up visit, I’d be tempted to stick to the small plates, not out of malice towards the entrees but because the more affordable apps would allow experimentation and sound appealing: a turkey meatball with gouda burrata, chicken skins with plum mayo, beff tataki with wagyu, orange miso mayo, dashi and charred pickle shiitake. And there’s poutine — the dish Greensboro just discovered and that recently appeared at Crafted, Freeman’s and Marshall Free House — with pulled chicken, country ham gravy and a fried egg.
The next time Michael visits, I know he won’t be asking to go back to the W. It doesn’t suit him. But I’ll likely return, albeit infrequently, without him. He’s vegan anyway.
Visit the W on Elm at 324 S. Elm Street (GSO) or check out thewonelm.com.