Three reviews for the price of one. I've never been a big fan of "chains"—except for briefly stint following Alice in Chains in the 90's—but as far as franchised drinking establishments go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Elephant & Castle. With their reasonable efforts to recreate an English Pub atmosphere, E&C is what Bennigan's could have been if they had given a damn about their faux-Irish chicanery.
Founded in 1977, Boston-based Elephant & Castle operates 21 establishments in the U.S. and Canada, including three outposts in the Windy City—185 N. Wabash, 111 W. Adams and the focus of this review, 160 E. Huron. Having imbibed or dined at all three locations, I can safely say that each offers a similar experience, which can be either comforting or produce a sense of déjà vu depending on your perspective.
E&C on Huron is located at the corner of St. Clair Street, and attached to the Avenue Hotel. Large glass windows filled with neon beer signs line the exterior, with a red awning providing cover from the elements as you enter. Past the revolving door and vestibule sits the hostess stand, but seat yourself if you're heading for the bar area.
The cocktail area lies straight ahead, offering plenty of high-tops and table seating for gaggles of hotel guests and workmates. To your right is the roomy elliptical bar that allows for seating in a "J" formation. A half dozen booths, across from the service bar, define the boundaries of the bar, with the rest of the spacious room devoted to the restaurant. The carpeted floors might seem wildly out of place in a bar in the U.S. (though common in merry old England), but brick columns, a high beamed ceiling and a mix of modern and retro fixtures somewhat compensate. And of course there's the backlit imitation stained glass above the bar, a signature design detail of every E&C. A few flatpanel TVs can be found, but if you're sitting at the bar it's almost impossible to watch anything. In back, you'll find an ATM machine, a pair of one-seater facilities and an extra room, which surprisingly offers two regulation cork dartboards—though I failed to inquire whether it was B.Y.O.D.
You'll find a nice selection of 21 beers on tap largely focused on English-Irish-European offerings, but if you want a Fat Tire or Bud Lite you won't walk away thirsty. Each E&C has one hand-pumped beer, in this case Fuller's London Porter. When I asked whether it was cask-conditioned, the bartender shamelessly shrugged and passed me off to the manager, who at least had the decency to read the corporate manual. Since a true cask-conditioned offering isn't practical for their purposes, E&C uses a low-pressure keg at 12% CO² rather than the usual 28%. The bartender's muscle-power compensates for the difference, producing a low-headed brew that's served at "room temperature"—closer to 50° rather than 35°. You won't find any specials per se, but E&C does pour a 20-oz. Imperial Pint for your $5-$6 (piss off, Pheasant & Firkin with your wee 16-oz. pints). Also a nice touch, you'll find 15 single malt and blended scotches available for your sipping pleasure.
Food is a fairly standard collection of English Pub and American Bar fare. My advice: stick with the classics. My friend's fish & chips were spot on, but I stupidly opted for the steak and blue cheese salad. The bed of romaine came topped with a steaming hot portion of "sautéed steak, mushrooms and onions" on top, so I spent more time watching my lettuce wilt than I did eating. Was I wrong to think the steak would be cooked and then chilled before serving? [Editor's note: the shepherd's pie, Yorkshire pudding (a.k.a. "roast beef stuffed Yorkshire) or steak & ale pie will do you right. One also quickly learns that you can never go wrong with bangers & mash ;]
As a quasi-hotel bar, this E&C opens promptly at 6:30am for breakfast and closes at 11pm during the week (just like in merry old England) and at midnight on weekends, a time when many of the Chicago Bar Project faithful are just heading out. The crowd is varied and transitory, with most coming in for a quick bite or a few rounds, so expect to see a fresh set of faces every 45 minutes—you can set your pocket watch to it.
Elephant & Castle doesn't fill the void left by the legendary Red Lion, but if you're shopping on the Mag Mile or staying nearby it's worth keeping in mind. If you're even remotely interested in Elephant & Castle, you must visit Duke of Perth, Globe Pub and possibly John Barleycorn Memorial Pub. If you want more information on E&C, check out their Huron Street website. Cheers, mate.
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