Review: Elephant & Castle (Newcity)

Published October 5, 2011 (http://boozemuse.com/2011/10/05/review-elephant-castle/)

Elephant and CastleThere is something about the dark brown hues of the Elephant & Castle at 185 North Wabash, one of three locations the chain inhabits in Chicago, that is distinctly off. Yes, they’ve got the aesthetic of an English pub spot on, but there is something ostensibly lacking in the pseudo-used floral carpets, stained-glass windows and exposed brickwork that looks like it goes back about an inch before reaching plaster. Perhaps it is harsh to judge a downtown pub for being inauthentic in its decor; the bottom floor of a skyscraper is hardly akin to a centuries-old countryside village home-cum-pub with a roaring fireplace and a ceiling that was built when the average height of the human race was a few inches shorter. Regardless, for the uninitiated, Elephant & Castle looks the part.

The walls are adorned with a plethora of contrived artifacts that rather than simply make a nod to life on the other side of the pond, they head bang to the sounds of Black Sabbath. In other words, there is absolutely no subtlety. Each picture frame (which there are a large number of) features one of the following: The Beatles, a beefeater, a member of the royalty, the Spice Girls or a beer advert (typically Guinness or London Pride). What’s wrong with an antiquated painting of a fox hunting scene? Or a depiction of our once great Navy? These are the sorts of images a pub back in blighty would proudly display as representing our culture. Elephant & Castle’s approach reduces English culture to a list of predetermined stereotypes that appeal to the lowest common denominator. How long before Harry Potter, lightning bolt and all, begins decking out these English-style pubs in America?

All is not lost, however, with Elephant & Castle. They managed to adhere to one of the most important requirements of an English pub: the imperial measurement of a pint. Yes, for the first time in the U.S. I could tuck into a twenty-ounce, 568 milliliter pint of beer, unlike the sixteen ounce, 473-milliliter glasses of beer that falsely call themselves pints. This is a crucial requirement for any pub that aspires to being authentically English. Although the Elephant & Castle does dedicate a whole page of the menu to crassly hammer home how it uses imperial measurements and how quaintly English that trait is, we’ve already ascertained that subtlety is not in the vocabulary of the chain. The beer selection itself is also very impressive with Boddingtons, London Pride and Newcastle Brown Ale being just three of the numerous British offerings. Opting for Boddingtons, as the notion of a deliciously creamy pint of bitter whet my appetite, I managed to forget that it tastes like absolutely nothing and there’s a reason I never drink it back home, even when it’s half the price of what it cost at E&C. My compatriot, an American, smartly chose the more flavorful London Pride which has a hoppy richness that brings back the memories of how English beer should taste.

The menu featured all the usual staples: fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie and chicken curry. Opting for the obvious choice, fish and chips, proved to be a wise decision as E&C did a great job of recreating the world renowned pub fare. The batter was delectably crispy and the chips were chunky and well-cooked, and the whole meal came on top of grease-proof paper to give that added level of authenticity. Admittedly though, the meal was reminiscent of a chain pub rendition of fish and chips in England rather than the kind of quality that you’d find in a standalone fish-and-chip shop. Regardless, you could tell E&C did their research.

Overall, what lets Elephant & Castle down is its contrived references to its inspiration. Even in England, there would never be a huge sign with a cartoon arrow pointing to the location of the “loo,” while putting every single English expression in quotation marks is just a little insulting. Someone should let the head honchos at Elephant & Castle know that no one really says “bang on” over there. For the untrained Yank, however, E&C does a pretty good job. (Ben Small)

Elephant & Castle, 185 North Wabash, (312)345-1710

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Review: Duke of Perth (Newcity)

Published October 5, 2011 (http://boozemuse.com/2011/10/05/review-duke-of-perth/)

Duke of PerthA disclaimer should be lodged before I begin discussing the Duke of Perth: It is a Scottish pub, and some may find it slightly audacious, maybe even a little offensive, that an English chap is making evaluations on intended Scottish cultural imitation. I am no expert on pubs in Scotland, although I have certainly frequented a few of the establishments north of the border. Regardless, the Duke of Perth has an aura akin to any given English pub, only with a much larger emphasis on men dressed in kilts and whisky.

The Duke of Perth really feels like it has been around a long time. Shelves that line the walls are stocked full of old clocks, ornate metal plates and bottles of Scotch that look like they’ve gathered a few years dust, while the wide array of wooden furniture has an appearance that suggests the current pub is not the first owner. A particularly impressive ancient wooden cabinet is used to house the ninety single malts boasted by the Duke. This edifice dominates the tiny, gracefully weathered bar. The pub is filled with the assorted paraphernalia that one expects to find in a British pub, such as the antiquated beer advertisements and painted depictions of old British gentry. A few curveballs are thrown with the inclusion of a taxidermy stag’s head above the bar wearing a British police officer’s hat and Celtic tools on the walls that provide the obligatory nod to Scotland.

What is particularly pleasing about the Duke of Perth is that it shuns the innovations of most modern bars as a television-free space with a musical soundtrack fitting to the Scottish atmosphere (if I had closed my eyes and had a fan blown in my face, I could well have been in the Highlands). The music is kept at a reasonable level, allowing the gentle murmur of the patrons’ conversation to fill the pub, instead of the usual practice of people shouting at each other as Journey obnoxiously insists that we shouldn’t stop believing.

The draft selection is dominated by the wonderful Scottish brewery Belhaven. Their Twisted Thistle IPA and “Wee Heavy” beers, in particular, are a great representation of the quality of beers on the other side of the pond. The lack of Tennent’s, however, is a sorry state of affairs, as the streets of Glasgow are fueled by that substandard yet culturally dominant brand of lager. You would be hard-pressed to find a pub in Scotland’s cities not stocking the Scottish equivalent of Budweiser. The Scotch selection is also extensive, featuring an assortment that spans from Islay to Speyside and everywhere in between.

The Duke of Perth has gained notoriety for its fish and chips, which are all-you-can-eat on Fridays and Saturdays for a mere ten dollars. The dish lives up to its reputation, but the portions are so large that the idea of “all-you-can-eat” becomes slightly redundant after you reach capacity with just one plate. The rest of the menu contains a number of dishes that try to force a Scottish connection by placing the name of a place in the country before a typical Americana dish, such as the “Islay chicken sandwich.”

The Duke is a great place to go if you want to feel like you are eating a plate of fish and chips and sinking a pint in someone’s public living room; it has a homely feel that many pubs on the British Isles aspire to. The Scottish vibe is not overwhelming but provides something a little different from the pubs that base themselves on that “small county to the south of Scotland.” (Ben Small)

Duke of Perth, 2913 North Clark, (773)477-1741