Thinking Man Tavern
537 W. Howard Avenue, Decatur GA 30030 (Map); 404-370-1717; thinkingmantavern.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Thoughtfully-designed burgers overcome commercial-grade components in a smart-and-smart-ass setting
Want Fries with That? None to be had, but the Mound of Rounds is a sensational substitute
Price: Tavern Burger, $8, Aegean Burger, $9
Sure, plenty of neighborhood bars have an impressive beer list. Many serve better-than-average chow. Lots can boast a friendly, relaxed vibe that encourages you to hang out longer than you intended to. But the progressive burgh of Decatur is home to the only watering hole I know where you can enjoy all three of those things to your heart's content—while looking up the atomic weight of manganese*, the official medical term for the tailbone**, and the names of Jupiter's moons*** in a reference section of books that puts some libraries' to shame.
Thinking Man Tavern isn't necessarily reinventing the burger or anything, but they put a thoughtful spin on just enough that if you're looking for something a bit different, they may well have the answer.
Remember that one professor in college? The kooky mad-scientist-type whose office was tucked under the stairwell of the oldest building on campus? Remember the one time you went there, only to be stunned silent at the dusty piles of miscellaneous crap everywhere? Stacks upon stacks of books that made the shelves sag? Antiquated maps and indecipherable charts plastering the walls? Odd academic artifacts crammed in every nook and cranny? Some sort of stuffed weasel staring at you from atop a bookcase? Holy crap, is that a brain in that jar?!? Yeah, that's kind of the motif at Thinking Man Tavern.
But it's not all Island-of-Dr.-Moreau; it's equal parts smart and smart-ass. There's a staggering collection of board games for you to pass the time with. A vintage-arcade Dig Dug machine. Dart boards. TVs more apt to be tuned to South Park than SportsCenter. Books that aren't even AP-level textbooks. All are worth exploring as you work your way through an eight-page alcohol menu that goes way beyond draft, craft, cellar, and cider beers to also feature a full page of whiskeys, another full page of bourbons, and a jaw-dropping selection of American-made spirits. I mean, they have three varieties of domestic absinthe.
As for TMT's burgers, you have eight to choose from. Some are standard-variety favorites, like a Mushroom Swiss and the obligatory Veggie Burger. Others require a bit more thought. Ordering the Aegean Burger brought a quick pronunciation primer from our server, along with a mini-geography lesson of where that sea actually is.
This burg came topped with feta cheese and garnished with kalamata olives and pepperoncinis. The Greek flavors were a welcome change of pace—nice to see this sort of option over yet another dime-a-dozen barbecue-and-onion-ring-crowned monstrosity—but the olives and peppers were served whole. Seems someone might have consulted a physics tome on-site to see what happens when you put a handful of golf balls on a flat table and then try to pick the table up. Cuisinarting the veggies into a spreadable tapenade—or just halving them—sure would have aided assembly and allowed those flavors to stay topside where they belong. It's a minor note, though, the kind of mild annoyance that dropped the Aegean burger from a B+ to a B.
The straightforward Tavern Burger features the same half-pound Angus patty as all the beef burgers here. This one gets the LTO treatment and comes on a cornmeal-dusted Kaiser roll. Ordered as is, it comes cheeseless, but you can add cheddar, Swiss, or pepperjack for 75 cents; feta, bleu, goat, or house pimento for $1.50.
The flame-grilled patty displayed appropriately-attractive markings and the autopsy shot showed spectacular interior color. These patties, pre-formed from a commercial supplier, come out precisely round and uniformly thick—although I like to pretend that someone in back is just that much of a hand-pattying perfectionist. (If any kitchen in town is using a compass and micrometer to calibrate their meat discs, it'd be Thinking Man Tavern.) The beef itself is a finer grind than I typically favor and hope to see in a true pub burger, but the griller's skill at absolutely nailing my medium-rare earns major extra credit. Even if mass-produced, this was a tremendously juicy burger with well-balanced toppings, and while the Masada Bakery bun was passable, a less airy, slightly more substantial version would have bumped this burg's B+ grade up to an A.
The star of the evening was TMT's Mound of Rounds. The supersized app is a pile of fried potato slices covered with melted cheese, sour cream, and salsa. They may look like crisp house chips, but the extraordinarily light fry job, gummy (in a good way) chew of the spuds, and gooey (in a great way) topcoat makes them a forkable treat perfect for kickstarting a late-night study session or soaking up a wee-hours run through that beer list. Since TMT doesn't offer fries, the Rounds are also available as a side item, but getting them pre-meal allows you to satisfy that fried-tater fix and then get a little sophisticated with your burger pairing by sampling the tavern's black or red beans and rice, sautéed green beans, roasted corn salad, roasted squash and zucchini, or mashed cayenne sweet potatoes.
I love that Thinking Man Tavern has put some extra thought into so many unique menu items that make it more than just your usual pub grub. I'd love it even more if they upgraded to a coarse-ground, hand-formed, boldly-seasoned patty and a denser, doughier bun. But it is a tavern, not a gourmet burger boutique—an enjoyable tavern where you can get a solid burger, three kinds of absinthe, plus a quick brush-up in a variety of scholarly subjects.
* The atomic weight of manganese—abbreviated Mn—is 54.938045.
** The coccyx is actually four bones fused together and gets its name from the Greek work for "cuckoo," since the tailbone resembles a bird's beak.
*** Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are the names of Jupiter's moons. These are just the Galilean moons, the four largest of the planet's 66 confirmed moons.
But, of course, you knew all that. Or you would if you ate at Thinking Man Tavern.