The trick to finding seating at the Iron Hen is a willingness to sit at the bar.
The “Fresh. Local. Good.” restaurant at the nexus of Fisher Park, Irving Park and Latham Park neighborhoods recently remodeled and added more indoor seating, blowing out the former bar area along the back wall. Still, diners are often hard-pressed to find a seat in the Hen’s coop. But show up in a small party (we’re talking one or two) and you can probably find a spot at the counter without a wait.
The makeover extends beyond seating to envelop the interior and exterior décor — gone is the green, replaced with an energy that is just a hint more gussied up but still eminently casual. It vibes with the reconstituted, heartier menu that offers 14-hour smoked brisket, cornmeal and pork rind-crusted catfish with grits and collards, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, pork rind nachos and fried chicken livers.
This is the new South, much like the old South, which is — like the restaurant — re-imagined yet recognizable.
In my circles, the Iron Hen is regarded as primarily a brunch or light lunch spot, somewhere you could order a salad and not regret it afterwards. Despite regular trips, it’s never been somewhere I particularly considered drinking, though I’d ordered a cocktail there once before.
But with the bar displaced, its belongings took up residence on the counter, with jars of strawberries and blackberries taking up space next to simple syrup right in front of us. Behind and above it, a functional, white triangular pattern acts as shelf space for the back bar. As servers bumped into each other and passed orders back to the semi-open kitchen, I realized that between the action, the redesign and the lineup of liquor, I’d been distracted from my date.
My girlfriend and I had arrived in pursuit of comfort food on a rainy Friday evening, and found it in the chicken pie turnovers with mashed potatoes (I highly recommend this) and the satisfying Hoppin’ John with sautéed Cajun shrimp. After overcoming my brief distraction, I turned my attention to her. And our cocktails.
I wouldn’t have realized our server lacked experience behind this bar if I hadn’t seen him checking the recipes periodically for our two gin-based cocktails — the Rosemary Bramble with Beefeater, blackberries, lime, rosemary syrup and ginger beer for her and the Fancy Mountain Gin with Cardinal barrel-rested gin, apricot brandy, angostura bitters, a little OJ and pomegranate juice for me. He executed both well, though the lady and I preferred the Rosemary Bramble.
In an unusual move, three of the 14 cocktails on the Hen’s list don’t contain liquor, instead relying on liqueurs for their alcohol, including Aperol, Grand Marnier with schnapps and another with Pimms. More predictably, vodka is the star elsewhere, appearing in five of the drinks including one with ancho chili vodka, green tomatoes and tomatillos.
We almost ordered a gin drink with kiwi, fresh orange juice and soda; maybe next time.
The Iron Hen’s beer selection is relatively short, at least in comparison to most popular restaurants in the vicinity, which recognize the popularity of the state’s crafts. Here, customers can find three Natty’s beers, Red Oak and four other North Carolina crafts in cans, as well as the old guard of Blue Moon, Sweetwater 420 and Yeungling. Wine is a little easier to come by, though not exactly copious.
But before you give the Iron Hen folks a hard time about their lack of brews, it’s worth noting that the restaurant is in line to join Preyer Brewing’s Chef Series — specialty-brewed beers with a very limited release in partnership with local chefs. So far, the only beer in the series is a pairing with Kris Fuller of Crafted called the Art of the Mango-zuh, a mango gose sour brew.
There’s only one draft line set up at the Iron Hen, with a beer can-shaped tap handle that reads “Coop’s Kick’n Ale.” For now, it pours Preyer’s Lewis & Krunk West Coast IPA, though staff mistakenly believed it to be an IPA brewed specifically for the house. Not quite yet, Nicole Preyer confirmed, but if the relationship moves forward, it will likely draw considerable local attention.
Better snag a seat at the bar now then, while you can.
Visit the Iron Hen at 908 Cridland Road (GSO) or at ironhen.com.