IF I TOLD you an Irish pub was coming to your neighborhood, you'd have a pretty good idea of what to expect: pints of Guinness "on draught," Guinness mirrors and knickknacks on the walls, live Celtic music, perhaps bartenders and staff with lilting accents.
But what about an English pub? Probably English ales, darts, football -- that's soccer, mate -- on the telly. Dark, heavy wood? The Beatles, the Who or Oasis on the jukebox?
We've got dozens of Irish pubs in the Washington area, even two pubs that claim allegiance to Scotland. For whatever reason, though, English pubs haven't caught on, outside of horse country and the British Embassy, which has its own private Union Tap pub. Call it the revenge of the Irish.
This all may be changing, though, as two new "English" pubs have opened in recent months, each with its own vision of what an English pub can (or should) be.
First to arrive was the Elephant and Castle (1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-347-7707), part of a Vancouver-based chain with 26 pubs across North America, from Saskatoon to Boston.
As you'd expect, there's a formula at work here: a few items that scream England (a royal coat of arms over the door, a rowing shell with oars from Keble College, Oxford, suspended from the ceiling), a few mirrors and vintage-style liquor ads, and a display of jugs and pottery on shelves. The chain's logo is prominently displayed on windows, doors and menus, and set into stained glass above the long, wide bar.
Floor-to-ceiling windows take advantage of the view of the Old Post Office Pavilion, while high tables and soft carpets add a touch of the traditional. The room is pleasant enough, though a little bland, as if corporate didn't want to take too many chances with the decor.
(A back dining area strays a bit into the stereotypical McPub, with reproduction beer signs, stone arches over doorways and shelves filled with books that will never be read. I suppose they had a warehouse full of the stuff that needed emptying.)
Of the 20 draft beers available, six are British, as is the Strongbow cider. It's always nice to see Boddington's or Newcastle, but what's most remarkable is that Elephant and Castle has worked out a deal with Fuller's, the West London brewery noted for a number of award-winning beers. Special taps designed to look like (but not operate as) traditional hand-pulled pumps dispense low-carbonation versions of London Pride, London Porter and the ESB (Extra Special Bitter) -- no beer has won more awards from the England's Campaign for Real Ale than the ESB, a rich, malty brew with a liberal dose of hops and hints of tangy fruit in the nose and the finish.
All pints are available in regular (16 ounce) or imperial (20 ounce) sizes; I prefer the larger because it's served in a sturdy English nonic glass, which has a balloon-like bulge below the mouth. People who've never seen one will ask what you're drinking.
Elephant and Castle is truly a "local" for the downtown office crowd to hit after work or a place to grab a plate of fish and chips or tasty shepherd's pie before heading to the theater. Crowds die off on weekend evenings or weekdays after 8, but at least you won't have to finish up by 11.
The more recent addition to the pub scene is Union Jack's (4915 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-2561), which opened last month in the long-vacant Shark Club space. I brought some English acquaintances with me on an early visit -- he from Liverpool, she from the Midlands -- and the opinion was unequivocal: "I've never seen a pub like this before."
That's because Union Jack's is a nightlife chimera, containing the DNA of a pub, sports bar and dance club. The front room, with its extra-high ceilings, tall windows and huge projection screen, was "inspired" by London's Piccadilly Circus, hence the street lamps, DJ booth and large copy of Big Ben (which is actually quite a distance away in Parliament Square). DJs spin Top 40, hip-hop and retro classics Wednesday through Sunday, drawing crowds of young professionals on weekends.
Union Jack's main dining area ostensibly takes its cues from the Leaky Cauldron, the pub in the "Harry Potter" series, so you get a roaring (faux) stone fireplace, exposed beams, lanterns, wooden signs and a thatched hut behind the enormous bar. (If it's beginning to sound like a low-cost Epcot, you're getting warm.) Too bad the fireplace and lanterns are wasted, as the bright lights drain the room of any atmosphere -- think 21st-century sports bar, rather than the dim, cozy old public house shown in the movies.
Farther back is the billiards and dart parlor, a warm saloon-like area with six gleaming pool tables, a trio of dart lanes that are a little close together for comfort and comfortable leather chairs.
"There are four guys involved, and they've taken things they've seen from bars around the country and in England," says managing partner Gary Ouellette. "It's a bit of a different spin on a British bar, but we livened it up with a DJ. . . . It's not your traditional pub."
On the menu, spicy deep-fried wings are named after Elizabeth Hurley because, "These wings are, like Liz, smoking hot," the menu says. The David Beckham is a plate of chicken strips "with a kick." A Pink Floyd pizza is "covered in 'shrooms." And in a move certain to get J.K. Rowling's lawyers fired up, children can pick from grilled cheese, chicken tenders and the like on the Harry Potter Menu.
"We want people to realize that we're trying to have a lot of fun," Ouellette says. "We're not taking ourselves too seriously. We're not trying to be the most authentic pub around. We're not."
Ouellette, who owns Polly Esther's downtown, says that the schedule at Union Jack's is still coming together, but it includes karaoke on Tuesdays, DJs Wednesday through Sunday and a live broadcast of Sports Talk 980 AM's "5th Quarter Show" with Andy Pollin and Joe Jacoby after Redskins games on Sundays. (Live music will be added on Sunday nights.) Wednesday seems like a good night to pop down for a visit -- all British pints are $3 from 5 to close. Just try to grab your own drinks at the bar whenever you can before finding a seat -- servers can take forever to bring orders around, no matter where you sit, and it gets worse on weekends.
At Union Jack's, the Englishness is more of a decorating scheme than an overriding theme, but I managed to catch some of the Leeds United vs. Sheffield United match last Friday night, sipping a pint of Fuller's as a table full of young women gossiped and did shots next to me. Even during "Monday Night Football," a few plasma screens are showing English soccer.
This weekend, besides the expected Halloween parties with costume contests and dancing, Union Jack's hosts an International Federation of Competitive Eating contest with 13 "professional competitive eaters" -- now there's a job title for you -- vying to see who can scarf down the most chicken wings in 10 minutes. Among the contestants is Sonya Thomas of Alexandria, a petite, 90-pound woman known as the Black Widow. Her resume includes the consumption of 80 chicken nuggets in 5 minutes and 65 hard boiled eggs in 6 minutes.
"We're trying to offer more of these offbeat, entertaining-type nights," Ouellette says. "These wouldn't be your typical British pub events."