A surprise awaits behind the door at 185 N. Old Woodward in the heart of downtown Birmingham. The quirky, one-of-a-kind setting that is part "Alice in Wonderland" and part cozy bistro gives the Mad Hatter a distinct personality.
A glance around the room, with its array of glittery chandeliers, curving banquettes, swaths of red velvet and outsized pocket watch style clocks set at random times is enough to tell you there's a story behind it, if the name didn't already.
Bistro, bar and tearoom is what proprietor Eileen Sakko calls her 6-month-old restaurant that takes advantage of every inch of space in tight quarters. Tables are close together but that just adds to the intimate feeling in the room seating about 40 on French cafe chairs or against black banquettes. Everything in the room is hand-picked from the red British phone booth backing the bar to the array of teapots in whimsical shapes. The setting absolutely pulls diners from the world outside into a fantasy and why would anyone resist?
Sakko was smart not to make it simply a tearoom. Tea is, for some reason, a hard sell locally. She makes it available by reservation in the time slot between lunch and dinner, and there is a downstairs room where groups can enjoy a private tea experience in a room as fanciful as the one upstairs. Never fear, the dainty little cucumber sandwiches and scones served at tea are not indicative of the full menu — it is more substantial.
At lunch and dinner, there's something of an international spin to the choices, from the all-American hot dog — or Mad Dawg in the Mad Hatter vernacular — to the bruschetta in four varieties, spaghetti and meatballs and the mideastern combination of falafel, hummus, kale tabbouleh and pita chips reflecting the proprietor's heritage. All are well prepared by the kitchen headed by executive chef Derrick Rassam and served by a courteous staff that does a remarkable job navigating the tight space.
Some of the highlights: the featherlight waffles, served with whipped cream and fresh berries on the brunch menu, the creative sandwiches, especially the usually lowly fried egg sandwich, dolled up with chorizo, arugula, roasted peppers, Gruyere cheese and chipotle aoli so that it becomes almost exotic, and the hefty hamburger that puts to rest any tearoom worries.
Tiny as it is, the bar is stocked with a full array of wine and liquor, and there's a Mad Hour from 3-6 p.m. with some bargain offerings.
Proprietor Sakko says the entire project is a tribute to her late father, who loved tea, actually had a tearoom at one point, and always wore a pocket watch. And about those pocket watch style clocks on the wall: they are set to 1:30, 1:08 and 3:20, and all have meaning to her family.
Mad Hatter Bistro, Bar & Tea Room
185 N. Old Woodward, Birmingham
Call: (248) 540-0000
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat., dinner 5-9 p.m. Sun.-Mon., 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Wed., 5-11 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. Brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
Prices: Small plates $7-$15, lunch entrees $10-$16.50, dinner entrees $14-$30. Full afternoon tea $22, light tea $9.
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: Full bar
Noise level: Moderate
Parking: Nearby structures or street
Wheelchair access: No barriers for main floor dining; lower floor is not accessible.