There 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