Tom Sietsema wrote about the Madhatter for a March 2010 First Bite column.
When Madhatter relocated from its well-worn roost on M Street NW, where it had served beer and burgers since 1981, to a location on Connecticut Avenue NW with more than triple the space, its owners decided to upgrade everything else, too.
They hired a pro, chef Bobby Varua, late of 701, to remake the menu.
They set the tables with teacups, in line with the Alice in Wonderland theme, and began greeting customers with hot tea sweetened with apricot simple syrup.
The owners even hired an art director. Lauren Houston, a freelance graphic designer based in New York, says her job was to give the 7,000-square-foot space "a somewhat structured Victorian elegance" but to make it "quirky."
To that end, she created big collages of characters from Lewis Carroll's classic children's books -- "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There" -- then framed them and mounted the art on the walls of the expansive main dining room. Houston also hired a sculptor from Pennsylvania to create a four-foot-high papier-mache top hat, which now graces a front window. In a private upstairs dining room, there's a funhouse mirror above the mantel; the ground floor features The Upside-Down Room outfitted with an upside-down table set for a tea party -- and suspended from a ceiling painted to resemble a checkerboard floor. (Light fixtures poke through faux candy dishes.)
It's all great fun, and pretty tasty. The kitchen grills an impressive burger, which it delivers with a thatch of good fries. Fried chicken pieces pop out of an adorable miniature fry-basket on the plate. The entree's coleslaw drowns in cream, but the chicken is piping hot, crisp and juicy: finger-lickin' good. Varua also makes room on his menu for dishes whose sophistication might have raised eyebrows at the original watering hole. They include rack of lamb with apricot sauce and hash browns, and salmon served with an orange-curry glaze and soft polenta. (The menu hasn't gone completely fancy on us. There's Frito pie, after all, topped with house-made chili.)
The saloon-turned-restaurant quietly opened its new doors in early February, but it saved March 5 to toast the launch. Perfect timing: Last Friday was also the debut of Tim Burton's latest flick, "Alice in Wonderland."
(March 10, 2010)