Hillsborough, N.C. — We approached The Wooden Nickel with trepidation.
If former Mayor Horace H. Johnson is to be believed, downtown Hillsborough was to be a “major disaster” if dens of iniquity like The Wooden Nickel were allowed to serve patrons outside. There would be rampant “lewd licentiousness and debauchery,” a hive of scum and villainy not seen since the Mos Eisley Spaceport. Thankfully, we had a fearless regular of The Nickel, Trey Benfield, to guide us.
An insider's take
We asked Trey to give us the skinny on his favorite place to hang out. This is what he had to say.
“The Wooden Nickel is my local neighborhood bar and I will freely admit my bias. I go there are least once a week and more if I can help it – but there is a good reason for that.
A lot of bars try to pull off the neighborhood bar feel, but rarely accomplish it. I love the fact that I know my bartenders and they know me. They are even happy to see me. Most of the people there are regulars – even the current mayor of Hillsborough is a frequent patron. However, what really sets the Nickel apart is the food. Most bar food struggles to be mediocre. The Nickel takes pride in serving outstanding, creative food with mostly locally sourced ingredients. The quality rivals many nice restaurants.
When I first starting going to the Nickel, my wife ordered salmon. I made fun of her for thinking she was going to get decent seafood dish at a bar. I was wrong – it was perfectly pan seared in a way most nice restaurants cannot accomplish.
Though known mostly for their wings and tater tots, the Nickel can serve a great burger. The standard menu consists of classics – a burger with lettuce, pickles, and tomato, a Western burger with bacon and bbq sauce. They even have an emu and bison burger. I am particularly fond of the fried egg burger. Also the Nickel offers a special burger that changes weekly.
The weekly burgers are fun and creative.”
Obviously, the denizens of Hillsborough couldn’t care less for former Mayor Johnson’s warnings.
Cool environment, crafty burgers
The tiny place was packed to the rafters. Beers and food were flung with reckless abandon. Quite literally in Carolyn’s case as she ended up wearing her cheeseburger. Given that she was eight months pregnant at the time of our review, she said that ketchup cooled her down a little bit.
We’ll focus our review on the special burger for the evening: an 8-ounce burger with white cheddar, bacon, and curry peanut butter. An old favorite of TSB, Salem Street Pub, has a great peanut butter topped burger called “My Wife Said It Wouldn’t Sell.” We figured, local pub, peanut butter on a burger, how can we go wrong?
Chad was reminded of a comment he received at a bluegrass jam several years back, “Hey Man, I really like what you’re trying to play.” That fits the vibe we all got from our burgers.
It was a really cool idea, and it had its moments, but it didn’t quite deliver. The patty was solid. The bacon was a little limp. The curry peanut butter could have used more time in the blender. A few bites would be peanut butter only then — BAM — a big lump of curry.
It was distracting and left the experience somewhat inconsistent.
Don put it perfectly:
“Much like the edge of an actual wooden nickel, the curry peanut putter sauce was a bit rough and uneven, but the overall uniqueness of the coin finds a place in your memory.”
Chad would have given it a 3.5 but he ended up at 3.75 because of the degree of difficulty and the terrific atmosphere.
Don’s rating: 3.5
Michael thought the place was charming, but he wished the burger was better. His rating: 3.5.
Carolyn gives it a solid 3.5.
Trey didn’t give a rating, but this is what he had to say:
“Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t quite live up to the promise but they keep things interesting and are fun to try. If you want a great burger in a bar setting, I cannot think of any place that outdoes the Nickel. Tell them Trey sent you.”
Overall rating: 3.56 for 38 out of 70
More about the authors:
Michael Marino, Chad Ward, Carolyn McLain and Reverend Donald Corey are The Straight Beef, professional burgiatrists who review, rate and rank Triangle-area burgers on their award-winning blog. You can read more about The Straight Beef, including their education and scholarship, ratings system, and burger categorization method on their official website.