When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, English society was going through a major upheaval. The Hundred Years’ War was still raging on while Chaucer skewered the Church for hypocrisies like indulgences.
Back here, in 2014, a different kind of hypocrisy could be the cause behind some of the backlash against the new Canterbury Ale House, a remodel of the old, beloved dive bar.
A look at Yelp will show some pretty negative reviews. I’ve seen friends of mine grimace when mentioning that they had heard it had been remodeled, and was “nice” now. (I can’t say that I didn’t do the same before I visited it.) The general sentiment seems to be that it’s sad and awful when Capitol Hill dive bars turn into modern restaurants.
“A lot of people have said we’re part of the further gentrification of 15th, but 15th is already gentrified,” co-owner of the new Canterbury Ale House, Mike Meckling, told me. “It’s not like we’re the final nail in the coffin. These are million dollar houses right over there. The old business model of the old Canterbury worked for a while, but then it wasn’t working anymore. It couldn’t survive. Will all due respect, I didn’t want to do something that was going to fail.”
And that’s where the trouble lies. Having warm, fuzzy feelings about dive bars and the “old” Capitol Hill doesn’t translate into the dollars that restaurant owners need to keep their businesses alive and pay the astronomical rent. A lot of people talk about loving dive bars, while then going and spending $15 on a drink at Canon. The owners of the new Canterbury Ale House say the bar’s updated atmosphere is just a reflection of the neighborhood around it.
“We wanted to honor the old Canterbury, and its history, but this isn’t the old place. We wanted this to be a friendly restaurant for everyone who lives here,” said Meckling. “This is a place where families can feel comfortable during the day, and people can still come at night to drink. Both types of people live in this neighborhood now.”
The night I went to Canterbury I wasn’t even expecting to go. I’d tried to grab a burger at Smith’s, but there was a wait. (On a Thursday.) I’m definitely not willing to wait in line for a burger and a beer, so I headed down the street to Canterbury Ale House.
It was immediately shocking to walk in and not be overwhelmed by the stench that used to emanate from the old Canterbury. But it’s not just the smell; basically everything feels different now. It’s bright, open, and airy, with beautiful wood tables and a huge bar. There are still games, but they’ve been updated. A suit of armor still stands in the corner, and much of the old woodwork still exists, but it definitely feels like a very different, modern restaurant now.
It does not feel like the old Canterbury.
I was able to grab a seat immediately at the bar, and got a drink within seconds. The menu was not what I was expecting. It was full of intricate and interesting dishes, ranging from Steak Tartare with Bone Marrow Tots to Scotched Quail Eggs with Curried Aioli. The drink menu featured eight different kinds of mimosas, including the Almond made with orgeat, lemon, and an orange twist. I ordered one of the simpler dishes, the Beerburger with Gruyere, Canterbury Sauce, and fries.
And it was delicious.
The burger was flavorful and juicy and I loved the sauce, full of big chunks of pickles. The next day, I also tried the Beecher’s cheese curds with tomato chutney and thought they were done perfectly: not too greasy, not too much breading, and nice sour notes from the chutney to cut the fattiness of the cheese.
It does not taste like the food at the old Canterbury.
Chef Cormac Mahoney is the man behind the menu. In 2012, he was named one of the “Best New Chefs” by Food and Wine Magazine. He’s worked at Etta’s, Dahlia Bakery, Sitka & Spruce, and the now-closed Madison Park Conservatory. He’s a serious chef making serious dishes, not just the average pub food. They plan to start serving brunch in mid-July and also add a kid’s menu.
There was definitely not a kids menu at the old Canterbury.
During the remodel, Meckling and his partners found an old, 1980’s mural of the Canterbury Tales buried beneath layers of sheetrock. It’s now the centerpiece of the dining room and a reminder not only of the old Canterbury, but of the fact that while places change and evolve, some things about people stay the same.
“Some people thought the mural looked suspiciously new,” said Meckling. “But it’s from the 1980’s. Really. This is what the really old Canterbury looked like.”
Overall, the new Canterbury is definitely not the old Canterbury, or even the old-old Canterbury from a time most of us can’t remember.
Perhaps the re-design homage missed the mark, or perhaps people just really hate change, or maybe Capitol Hill residents just want to think of themselves as dive-bar-lovers, not craft-cocktail-swilling schmucks. Whatever identity crisis is represented through some people’s disdain of these types of remodels, the fact remains that Capitol Hill is changing.
“Things are actually going well so far, we’ve been really well-received by the people who live in this neighborhood,” said Meckling. “The families are stoked to have a place to come and sit with their kids. And the old Canterbury clientele is coming in now. They’ll sit over there, where the old bar used to be. Some guys have been here almost every day, so I’m glad to see they’re back.”