Behind the portcullis, the Canterbury Ale House looks the same, even better, really. The Bayeux tapestry-inspired mural — once obscured by sheet rock — has been returned to full view. Nearby the stained-glass coat of arms has been refurbished.
Yet, the old knaves and wenches who have made this their watering holes since the late ’70s will not recognize, or maybe even acknowledge, the place.
For the uninitiated, the Canterbury used to be a neighborhood dive that kept many Capitol Hill lifers inebriated on cheap beer until it went out of business last year. Then the dudes behind Neumos and Sam’s Tavern saved it. And now there’s $275 Dom Perignon on the menu.
Their vision for Canterbury is more ambitious. They hired the respected chef Cormac Mahoney, formerly of the much loved but now closed Madison Park Conservatory, to wow them, and he did.
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When Canterbury reopened two months ago, the gastropub menu featured steak tartar, bone marrow tots, scotched quail eggs and lamb shepherd’s pie topped with mashed potatoes in the style of famed French gastronaut Joël Robuchon.
It was the best bar food I had this year.
Since then, Canterbury has dialed back on the gourmet fare, with more burgers, sausages and Irish nachos to satisfy the locals and the cheapskates who long for the old Canterbury. So, it ends up being a bar still trying to find its identity. The menu is all over the map.
There’s $14 Chimay Belgian beer but also $3 Hamms can beer. Listed next to that three-figure Dom is $5 Red Bull that comes in five flavors. The cocktail menu — Harvey Wallbangers and candy vodka drinks — looks like something cribbed from a nightclub.
It’s part Tudor House and part medieval dungeon, something you would sooner find at Excalibur in Vegas or at a food court at Epcot Center. With its 30 craft beers on tap, nine flat screens and two giant projectors, this grog house has become the Von Trapp’s (recently renamed Rhein Haus) of 15th Avenue East. And on game days, it’s one of the busiest bars on the Hill, with patrons scattered around, shooting pool or playing darts or shuffleboard.
Though the food isn’t as ambitious as when it debuted, it’s still better than your average pub fare. The shepherd’s pie is one of the few remnants from its stellar original menu.
If you go by just the beer, food and layout, the Canterbury is one of the best spots to open on the Hill this year. Of course, this Canterbury tale is more complicated than that. For some locals, the reincarnation is more an allegory about gentrification and the lost soul of Capitol Hill.
Canterbury Ale House, 534 15th Ave. E., Seattle, offers happy hour weekdays 3-6 p.m. and again 10 p.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday with a burger and fries for $8 and other $5-$7 bar snacks (206-325-3110 or http://thecanterburyalehouse.com).