Is February the time to open a new bar? Because there are at least three I’ve been to in the last few weeks that aren’t even a month old. I’m not entirely sold on all them. I’m loath to go to the West 7th corridor anyway, and given The Local’s incongruent pinup mural and a string of awful picks on the jukebox, I’m probably going to wait until it’s warm enough to enjoy the patio on the reg. Admittedly, those are both nitpicky reasons to skip out on an otherwise enjoyable bar, but nitpicking is my business, and business, as they say, is good. I guess, if you go to The Local, plug your ears and have a good time.
If, however, having to listen to Breaking Benjamin and Hinder back-to-back-to-back is enough to drive you away (as it should be), just cross West 7th and go to The Mad Hatter. This newly opened shotgun bar also has an internet jukebox, but if you get there early, you can dominate the tunes. What I dug most about the place is that it’s pretty much a small, unassuming place to get a drink. Its layout is reminiscent of The University Pub, and in fact the bar is even on the same side of the room as in that venerable TCU mainstay. As I sat at the Hatter’s bar nursing a Budweiser, I surmised that if the new bar sticks around for as long as the Pub has, it will likely age into similar lived-in grace.
The reason? While a lot of new bars fixate on me-too gimmicks like gourmet burgers, exhausting cocktail menus, and singer-songwriters, The Mad Hatter’s owners only want it to be a neighborhood pub. To me, the no-frills approach to opening a new bar is way more refreshing than a Moscow Mule or a happy hour ruined by someone’s diary entries strummed in the key of G.
I dropped by The Mad Hatter on Monday, thinking I’d have a beer, get the lay of the land, and head home, but I ended up chatting with one of the bar’s owners, a guy named Chris Jordan, who, with a business partner, bought the bar from Irish pub impresario Matt McEntire before he actually opened it himself. “Matt had a lot of stuff from The Shamrock [McEntire’s previous endeavor, now The Abbey Pub] that I took down, because I’m not Irish,” Jordan said, “but otherwise it’s pretty much what he had in mind.”
How lucky is that, then, for a first-time bar owner to step into the driver’s seat of a bar that was already ready to go? Sure, I’m oversimplifying the process, but simplicity is one of The Mad Hatter’s best traits. Aesthetically, it shares the general Irish-pub characteristics of a McEntire bar: dark wood, scrubbed clean, plenty of whiskey, a decent selection of mid-priced beers, affable dudes and ladies behind the bar, and lots of Guinness and Jameson stuff on the walls. Since it’s tucked into about 1,000 square feet between Poag Mahone’s and McEntire’s wife’s law office, it’s a pretty cozy spot. “In the two weeks we’ve been open, I’ve had to take out half the barstools on the weekends just to make room for people,” Jordan said.
While this is Jordan’s first bar, he’s no newbie, having worked in various capacities at Woody’s Tavern in Cityview for more than eight years. After we both kind of lamented how the bars in that part of town are mostly huge, cavernous affairs, he said that with The Mad Hatter he wanted to recreate the kind of neighborhood, service-industry vibe of — wait for it — the Bennigan’s that used to be on South Hulen Street.
That might not sound like a lofty (or worthwhile) aspiration to you, but about a decade ago, that particular Benni’s used to be pretty hoppin’, especially among the service industry crowd. Was there a time in my life when I hung out at a Bennigan’s? Yes. Yes, there was, in part because Bennigan’s offered bar trivia and also because there was this thing on the menu called the John’s Wheelhouse Burger, a monster topped with a wheel of fried cheese, and also a regular clique of alcoholic waitresses and bartenders to bother with awkward small talk. While I’m sure Jordan has little interest in reviving the Wheelhouse, he has managed to create a fairly intimate neighborhood hangout. Just when I was about to get up and go somewhere else, about 10 people came in through the back to do shots. I figured I’d join the crowd and reopened my tab. –– Steve Steward
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