Just when the gastropub phenomenon was hitting full stride this side of the pond, the good blokes at the Good Food Guide, an annual guidebook well-respected in England, went and declared the gastropub movement brown bread (that's "dead," for those of you not up on your Cockney rhyming slang).
Here, the phenomenon has taken a life of its own, and nowhere is this gastro-morphosis more evident than at Orlando's newest and most tersely appellated pub – the Pub. Sandwiched between Cuba Libre and the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Pointe Orlando, the nearly 8,000-square-foot behemoth is more the size of a Fatboy Slim (gym) than a rub-a-dub (pub), allowing plenty of room for diners to marvel at the kilted lads and lassies scurrying about. The decor is worthy of mention – imported fixtures and furnishings and whatnot – but without proper food and drink, a pub is as insufferable as a Scotsman's runner-up speech at Wimbledon. Some of my mental observations: Pint of Guinness: not too cold, not too warm – check. A "Pour Your Own Beer" wall? Cool. Bacon-wrapped Medjool dates? Wonderful. Kilts? Still loving them.
Taking our enthusiastic server's suggestions, we gobbled up crisps heartily heaped with English farmhouse cheddar, bacon, scallions and Young's Double Chocolate Stout barbecue sauce ($8.95). Then came the goat cheese dip ($10.50), which gave rise to a few huzzahs, but when the fish and chips ($13.95) arrived, we were utterly flummoxed. The spongy batter made it seem like I was eating a haddock dosa, and it was sided with largely forgettable chips. This may seem harsh, but the fish was no better than a Gorton's fillet.
On the other hand, the pot roast ($11.95), its pliant shreds of beef topped with Bordelaise sauce, was remarkably good. Eat a full order of the whiskey bread pudding ($6.95) and you'll feel like you've hit the sauce; lightweights should stick to the tipsy laird ($6.95), a fried pound cake slathered in English custard and topped with berries sautéed in brandy. If it weren't for all the bloody tourists, we'd consider the Pub a regular go-to watering hole.
Over in less-touristy Dr. Phillips, a pub long loved by many has laid its limbs in the Fountains Plaza off Sand Lake Road. Cricketers Arms is but a slim shadow of its former self, and not nearly as inviting as it was when it anchored the now-razed Mercado Marketplace. Even the Festival Bay site had more country-pub charm, but you will see vestiges from the old taverns: A few of the 400-year-old wood beams owner Phil Coppen brought over from England have been incorporated into the bar area; neckties and cricket bats still lend the appropriate atmosphere; and, of course, there's no shortage of Chelsea FC fans.
In chef Matt Shea's hothouse, a new striker is promoting the kitchen into the premier league. Jennie Skingley, a former co-owner of the Best of British Pub now cooking at Cricketers, is certainly making her presence felt. On pre-Jennie visits here, we were less than enthused by the food, but since her arrival, the comestibles have improved greatly. Her sausage rolls ($9) and savory steak-and-Guinness pies ($13) are worth the trip alone, and her traditional Sunday roasts live on at Cricketers. Fish and chips? While the crispy battered cod ($9 lunch; $13 dinner) was a true highlight, the chips were utter rubbish and had me reminiscing about the chips served at Best of British – those were the dog's bollocks.
That said, the bangers and mash ($12) with caramelized onions and brown gravy were right proper, as were crisp brisket sliders ($12) served with Guinness barbecue dipping sauce – a Brit twist on a Texan classic. Skingley's ultra-rich rum-and-butter-soaked bread pudding ($6) made downing a pint of Guinness ($6) seem like sipping Perrier. I'm patiently waiting for sticky toffee pudding to make its way onto the menu, but until that day comes, I'll just Keep Calm and Drink On.