To be a haunted pub, you're really supposed to be an old pub. London's Viaduct Tavern, known for its poltergeist activity, has been a tavern since 1875. New York's waterfront Bridge Cafe, wherein regular patrons swear they are being watched, had a former life as a brothel and provenance in 1794. Yet Chicago's Red Lion Pub, which dates only to the culturally infamous era known as the early 1980s, still manages to show up on pretty much every listing of Chicago's most haunted bars.
It did so even while closed from 2008 until this summer.
The Red Lion (2446 N. Lincoln Ave.) has returned from the dead, rebuilt virtually from the ground up and back in its old spot, dead across from the historic Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park. And as its home city's various dining blogs have been announcing its return, Colin Cordwell, the savvy and famously loquacious owner, has been at pains to make sure the ghost stories rise again with the new incarnation of his dad's old pub. There's some story going around the Internet about construction plans falling off the walls. Whatever works.
Among certain circles in Chicago — theatrical circles, literary circles, expatriate circles, chatter-drink-beer-and-waste-the-day circles — The Red Lion has a particular place in recent Chicago history, all ghosts aside. In the history of Chicago eating-but-mostly-drinking establishments with a British influence, The Red Lion, young as it may be, still predates the soccer pub phase (The Globe Pub, et al.), the gastropub phase (Owen & Engine, Longman and Eagle and the like), the gourmet Cornish pasty phase (Bridgeport Pasty Company) and, certainly, the tearoom phase, as writ newly large by Nicholas Spencer's Jolly Posh on Southport Avenue. The Red Lion was there before 'em all.
Hail you from Ireland or England, it is a fact of the expat life that the foods and drinks you miss from home are available most readily in expensive bespoke and gourmet versions that don't hit the nostalgia taste buds quite right. In the early 1990s, when I started going to The Red Lion, the menu never had that problem. There was a pasty on the menu that tasted not like the 8-buck masterpieces you can now get fresh-baked in Bridgeport, but the ones from the town bakery in my native Rochdale, England, that were less than fifty pence. There were thick English-style chips, fried, on many nights, by the bartender himself. The peas did not come with mint.
Part of the appeal of The Red Lion long has been what it is not, i.e. not like all the other intolerably awful (to me) bars on Lincoln Avenue. The Red Lion is a writer's and an actor's bar and a professor's bar, especially of the tenured variety. It is inextricably linked to the Chicago theater — many a rude mechanical has wetted his whistle therein. Without The Red Lion, there perhaps would not even be a Chicago Shakespeare Theater, given that theater was founded with a production of "Henry V" in the old pub's roof garden. The new joint has a poster from that show, directed by Barbara Gaines, in pride of place.
Cordwell's new Red Lion is quite the eye-popper. Although there is a small upstairs cozy (more of a small party room really, given that it serves only one group), the new spot has a positively regal vibe, not unlike a Tudor meeting room or something near London's Inns of Court. The decor is very English and frequently picaresque — old cartoons, tributes to the fighting forces, that kind of thing. Cordwell has been able to honor the endeavors of his famously adventurous dad, a wonderful opportunity. On a recent visit, I found the conversation there animated; there is a palpable sense of relief that the place has come back, rescuing a certain kind of drinker from the rest of Lincoln Avenue and offering up the rare likes of a Spitfire Kentish Ale (on draft, forsooth) or Marston's Oyster Stout or a Green Goblin Oak Aged English Cider, of which the act of ordering may cause you to die of thirst.
And the food? Well, the menu, which is too small for the beer list, surely lacks a good hearty hot pie, preferably of the steak and kidney variety, there presently being no place I know in the entire city of Chicago regularly offering such a delicious (although daunting, it seems) pie. The Duke of Perth, a Scots pub a few blocks north on Clark Street, wimped out on this dish some years ago, subbing in mushrooms and ruining the very notion. I had hoped The Red Lion would see steak and kidney as a niche. Alas, no. Just charcuterie and a cold pork pie, the latter always reminds me of boring Sunday afternoons watching the rain. Nor has the famously tasty pasty and chips returned to The Red Lion, which is an oversight. One does not want to have to go all the way to the Celtic Knot Public House in Evanston for a pasty and a good beer, especially since they use the descriptor "turnover" in that northern suburb.
There is, though, quite a decent cod and chips ($14), although not so different from what one can eat in many places on the North Side. And there's a shepherd's pie. I've eaten most all of those on offer in this city over the past couple of decades. Although a gourmet offering made with Kilgus Farms lamb (a shepherd's pie made with beef is, technically, a cottage pie) The Red Lion model is, for my taste, overly tart, clumpy and chunky for what should go down smoothly with one of those Spitfire Ales. This is a $15 shepherd's pie that makes demands. It lacks the bay leaf of comfort.
Actually, I'd say the whole overachieving menu feels a bit that way. "You might want to order something green," it says, naggingly, right under the bangers and mash ($14), which, for the record, is a complex but tasty sausage (of Spencer-like quality) accompanied by a fair-to-middling mash not quite up to its pal on the plate.
Who, pray, when ordering bangers and mash, wants to order something green, especially something not included? Baked beans, maybe. Why make us feel guilty?
The burger is juicy, and works if you like two patties, which strikes me as weird, given that burgers get juicier and tastier with size. If you're only offering one size of burger, then why the pair, given that the HP onions are perfectly happy to function like roof tiles? Indian food being a crucial part of any British pub menu, the menu's vindaloo chicken feels like a smart choice. But I passed. It's a sandwich. A chicken vindaloo sandwich. On a burger-style bun, which, in all frankness, feels like one fusion too many.
The Red Lion doth try too hard to be a part of the gastropub revolution, methinks, with even the curry fries, a dish designed to soak up beer, lacking the requisite creaminess. The desserts (a steepish $8) are similarly eccentric. One, a faux trifle, fuses banana pudding, toffee sauce and gingerbread, which tend to fight in your mouth at the finish rather than offering the more traditional trifle pleasures of cake, fruit, cream and a little booze-soaked treat in the crevices of the jar. Banoffee Trifle, it's called, reaching. I was just hoping for a really good trifle. Another entry is a cornmeal scone, much better than it sounds, but it does not exactly offer the anticipatory thrill of a treacle tart.
Ghosts, and those of us who really missed this place, just don't like too much change. Newbies might be fine. The new digs are spiffy indeed, and the quarters are spacious. It's good to see The Red Lion spanking clean with a bit more of a roar. But I might go in there at night and scribble a few changes on the menu. Cordwell could call a press conference, and say the ghost did it all. And then the Kentish Ale would flow and flow.