We’ve been to a lot of places in this country that are billed as “pubs,” but few of them capture the warm and homey vibe—and the genteel shabbiness—you might encounter in similar drinking establishments in the United Kingdom. There’s a reason for that: time.
The pubs of the U.K. frequently have that comfortable, lived-in feeling that comes only with time, with the rubbing of innumerable elbows on the bar, many arses on the stools, and an ocean’s worth of pints hoisted in the air.
From this perspective, Armitage Alehouse, new from Hogsalt, has the relative disadvantage of being a new star in the Chicago dining and drinking firmament, and thus it has a ways to go before it becomes a time-honored pub. But this bright and shiny new pub has the definite advantage of serving better food than we’ve had in any other pub, anywhere, ever.
Sitting down at the gorgeous, not-yet-watermarked-and-scuffed bar, my eyes were drawn to the entrée served to the gentleman next to me. It was a pot pie, a sterling example of this classic British food, with a marrow bone mounted in the center and, most importantly, a top crust. Double-crusted pot pies are a rarity in the Chicago area: what you are usually served when you order a pot pie is a meat stew—chicken, beef, whatever—with a dough or pastry plate mounted on top. An outrage, a travesty, a platter of bullshit. Not a pie, most definitely not a pie. Our chicken pot pie, on the other hand, was a fetching piece of baked beauty, an actual pie with top and bottom crust, a medium-weight gravy and large chunks of mostly dark chicken meat (probably luck of the draw, but if I were given the choice, I’d have opted for this moister, more flavorful darker meat of the bird).
Fish and chips are about as standard as a pub dish gets. What set the Armitage Alehouse version apart is the delicacy of the breading, the crispy fried crust shattering slightly when bitten, revealing planks of gorgeously white pike. On the side is a tarragon-heavy tartar sauce, which is the best argument for this sauce I’ve ever eaten: this creamy condiment never made much sense to me, but with the added herbal uptick, it brought flavor to the table.
The English Cut Prime Rib Sandwich was fantastic: pretty much just the excellent meat, English cut, which means sliced from the shoulder, with enough fat—and a long, slow cook—to render it delicious. On the side, a creamy horseradish. Divided into finger-food segments, this sandwich is a hearty entrée, full of flavor and feeling just right in the pub atmosphere.
For dessert, the Sticky Date Cake with toffee sauce, very similar to the Sticky Toffee Cake we’ve enjoyed in U.K. pubs, a super-sweet and chewy confection that appeals to even a dessert-averse eater like me.
To drink, there are a lot of beers (no surprise), but I went with a gin martini made with one of the house’s Indian gins. As at Bar Goa, the Indian gins on offer at Armitage Alehouse are strongly aromatic, though big sips of herbaceous flavors do not conflict at all with the food—they enhance the food, as they should, adding another dimension of enjoyment.
There’s a lot of Indian food on the Armitage Alehouse menu, much of it listed in a menu section designated “London Curries,” reflecting the general Anglo-Indian tradition that befits this pub’s character. It’s perhaps understandable that the Indian influence on British food might be, at first, a little disorienting; of course, though, the Brits were in control in India for almost two-hundred years, and so the influence is understandable. The Indian curries at Armitage Alehouse are Green Curry Mussels, Aloo Chana Masala, and Chicken Tikka Masala. This last curry is believed by some to be English in origin, but others place its origin in Glasgow, Scotland, or perhaps India’s northern state of Punjab. Chicken Tikka Masala is undeniably a favorite in the U.K., which raises questions about cultural appropriation, but this is an issue that the Brits have not seemed overly concerned about—and if a pub in the States mimics a pub in England that serves Indian food, whose food is being appropriated?
A challenge with opening a tradition-inspired pub in the United States is that you run the risk of creating a Disney-like experience, with comfy leather banquettes, dark wooden ornamentation and a jolly, white-aproned owner who cheerfully shouts out, “Another pint, guv’nah?!” Armitage Alehouse has the first two of these three signifiers, and it skillfully treads the line between homage and parody, respectfully and tastefully reflecting the traditional look of a pub while avoiding the descent into caricature by, for instance, serving excellent pub food… Better, as I’ve said, than anything I’ve had in a British pub.
It takes time, but the Armitage Alehouse may well become one of the great Chicago pubs, punching way above its class with the food and drink. It’s also in what should be a very propitious location, in the DePaul area, and less than half a block from the Brown Line stop. Handy, if you become enamored of Indian gin.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org