You might think it was ironic that one of the most family-friendly restaurants in town doesn't have a kids' menu — if only it weren't so intentional. In fact, Wild Hare owners Elizabeth Stelling Bills and husband Brian planned it that way, devising a repertoire of intergenerational cuisine, with portion sizes and prices that allow kids and parents to work from the same roster.
With four children and a restaurant résumé between them (Brian used to own the Blue Moon Waterfront Cafe, which closed in 2005, and is a bartending alumnus of Faison's), the couple know a little something about pleasing hungry guests of all ages. "I know that the hardest thing about dinner is keeping kids happy until the food comes," says Stelling Bills, a former math teacher who named the restaurant after her youngest child's unruly locks. So when families arrive at her cottage restaurant across the road from Sprintz furniture store, Stelling Bills offers them complimentary Cheerios and Craisins. She also knows how frustrating it is when she wants a small meal and such portions are available only for kids 12 and under. So the Wild Hare offers flexible options — such as 4- and 10-ounce burgers, whole and half roast chickens, and a variety of sides — with the menu topping out at $16 for a rib-eye.
"We're not going to do chicken tenders, because McDonald's does them so well," Stelling Bills says of the ubiquitous children's meal. Instead, chef John Smyth, an alumnus of MacK and Kates and Cabana, oversees a thoughtful menu of appetizers, brick-oven pizzas, sandwiches and salads, with a few entrées and specials thrown in.
In the casual dining room, with blond wood booths, bright-red walls, local art and a chalkboard mural for kids to doodle on, mac-and-cheese coexists comfortably with braised beef short ribs and grilled asparagus, and omnivores dine happily alongside vegetarians. Meanwhile, the ambiance is equally welcoming to ladies who lunch, mothers who nurse their infants in public, and diners who prefer to nurse a pint of beer.
At a recent family dinner, our booth overflowed with a blend of comfort food and contemporary cuisine, prompting our kids to steal from our plates and vice versa. The popular Wild Hare Pizza emerged from the fire with a slightly chewy crust charred with crisp freckles. Topped with a sweet-and-salty medley of caramelized onions, herbed ricotta, roasted garlic, Benton's bacon and charred scallions, the 10-inch pizza made a generous meal and a lasting impression, all for $8. There's also a vegetable pizza — topped with grilled squash, zucchini, red onions, Roma tomatoes, mozzarella, arugula and mushrooms — and a lobster version — with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, mozzarella and smoked gouda.
Gouda figured prominently on the menu, adding smoky depth to both the mac-and-cheese side dish and the roasted-jalapeño-and-cheese dip that accompanied beer-battered fried mushrooms. An assortment of tempura-fried squash, zucchini and red peppers also came with a choice of the cold jalapeño-gouda sauce or warm chipotle-onion dip. (We preferred the latter, a velvety formula served in a miniature cauldron.) Sheets of shaved and broiled gouda blanketed deviled eggs, which were plated with tangy pickled okra.
Benton's bacon was another popular ingredient, though subject to availability. Smoky rashers of the thick-cut pork belly from Madisonville, Tenn., headlined a BLT on wheat toast with avocado and sun-dried tomato mayonnaise that was too good to be true for $5, while salty lardons accessorized the house salad with mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, carrots and red onions. Strips of bacon crisscross the blue cheese burger, which is also available in 4- and 10-ounce versions. (While we loved the notion of a 4-ounce burger, ours arrived overcooked, a frequent consequence of such slider-sized portioning.)
The Wild Hare's spin on the classic wedge salad plated delicate strips of roasted red pepper, avocado, julienned roasted jalapeño and a fried goat cheese croquette alongside a section of iceberg. With such fresh and unexpected accoutrements, the salad would have been stunning, if only the wedge itself had been larger and fresher, instead of the slightly deflated one-eighth of a head of lettuce.
If you have a nostalgic hankering for Siamese Cat, the signature catfish dish of Bills' bygone Blue Moon restaurant, you might be slightly disappointed by the cornmeal-fried catfish, which was sturdy but unexceptional. But for only $9, it was a generous portion, and the sides — a sweet hush puppy and fries — were outstanding.
We were pleasantly surprised to find such a subtle treatment of pan-seared trout as Smyth's simple sauté, topped with scallions and lime. But be warned: Trout comes with no sides. Fortunately, there is no shortage of excellent items on the à la carte menu for $3.50. Summer succotash added a pretty touch of color, with sautéed cauliflower, grilled corn and tomato plated in a tiny iron skillet; cheddar-garlic grits were shamelessly creamy and delicious; and caramelized brussels sprouts, without a trace of bitterness, could change even the most resolute sprout-hater's mind forever about the oft-maligned vegetable.
Smyth makes the desserts from scratch, and, yes, they are worth the calories. When a dramatic wine glass filled with fluffy chocolate mousse and a wedge of salty-sweet peanut butter pie arrived at our table with a stack of spoons, our family became a greedy tangle of elbows, vying for the last decadent bites of the house-made confections — and getting a little chocolate on our faces.
So as it turns out, Wild Hare may not be the kind of restaurant that treats younger diners like children, but it's a place where everyone has a chance to eat like a kid.
The Wild Hare serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Beer and wine are available.