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Owen & Engine: BYOFantasy

A nice-looking woman sits opposite a nice-looking man at a table along the wall. She refills her teacup from a small pot every few minutes, never letting it get close to empty. She’s hardly looking when she does it. She’s an Earl Grey enthusiast, a Darjeeling dynamo. She gently clinks the china down on the saucer and leans forward like she’s got a secret to tell.

“I never drink tea.”

 

I was only able to steal the occasional over-the-shoulder glance from the bar, but she could’ve fooled me. Like several other patrons I had noticed around the place, she was in character. An impromptu scene was unfolding, and I could join at any time.

Owen & Engine Outside

Plenty of restaurants and bars compel us to participate in role-playing. It’s difficult not to let our minds run wild at an authentic dim sum house in Chinatown or a traditional taco stand in Little Village. From the food to the staff and clientele to the language spoken, the experience is immersive. We’re transported elsewhere because the unfamiliarity of our surroundings really is disorienting.

 Owen & Engine Bar

Owen & Engine is not like that. It would be simple to stumble into the place after a movie across the street. You admire the clean and classic English-style décor and begin to scan the impressive menu. A robust local craft beer whets your appetite. The Mustard Glazed Soft Pretzel with Welsh Rarebit makes you hate yourself for devouring that cinema Super Pretzel during the film’s final act. The Haddock, battered and fried, is cooked so perfectly you have trouble sharing with your date. But you’ve got a burger coming – locally-raised beef topped with caramelized onions on a potato bun – and soon you can’t recall the last time the omission of cheese was without doubt the right move. You catch the end of the Bulls game on one of several smallish flatscreens and talk Fantasy Baseball with the bartender, a clean-cut Midwesterner with a nice smile. On the way out you thank the host for an astonishing meal, fully intent on returning for a Dry-Aged Ribeye or Pistachio-Rubbed Chicken or those fish and chips again. That’s how it would go down. You would have thoroughly enjoyed the ambitious British-inspired flavors, all the while keeping your feet firmly on the ground and head out of the clouds.

O&E Pretzel with Welsh Rarebit

Mustard Glazed Soft Pretzel

And yet, just one table over is “I Never Drink Tea” girl, steeped in an English reverie. She chats with her other, the William to her Kate, and I swear I overhear them discussing names and thunder-stealing little sisters. At the very least, she definitely says ‘brilliant’ and ‘sticky toffee pudding’. Three chaps down the bar have just driven over from the nearby Windy City Fieldhouse, where they suffered a heartbreaking defeat in their men’s soccer league. They sit and twirl near-empty glasses of Wells Bombardier, looking every bit as downtrodden as a band of Tottenham supporters after a home loss to Arsenal. The squad captain reenacts a clever move he nearly pulled during the match – “a Cristiano [Ronaldo] move”, he explains – and looks to the bartender for a sign of compassionate understanding. The barkeep knows little about soccer, let alone football – despite the English theme, there’s nothing football about the place at all. But he’s happy to oblige, as if he’s counseled countless blokes feeling dejected after a tough loss. He’s playing along too, this time as the commiserating pint-puller named George or Ian or Clive. He pours shots of whiskey for each of his new footballer friends and for whoever else will take one. They do this every night, for everyone, at 10:22 on the dot.

 O&E Well's Bombardier Pint

I thank the staff for the drink with a grateful “Cheers”, but that’s as British as I get that night. I’m sitting with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, perfectly content to simply be myself. I decide to try the broccoli, an enchanting preparation spiked with Sambuca and chiles. ‘London fantasy’ me would have never got that, but the real me eats it like candy. My companion orders the burger, and the bite I sneak tells me it’s every bit deserving of its Time Out Chicago ‘5 best in the city’ designation. We chat with the bartenders about all manner of things: how long the place has been there (will be three years in October), what that device is behind the bar (a wine keeper, a tap system connected to a tank of nitrous to keep it ultra-fresh), if they have a signature cocktail (if they did, it would be a variation on a classic Victorian Pimm’s cup). They mix Pimm’s No. 1 with a pink peppercorn tincture and Fentimans Rose Lemonade, a complex variety flavored with rose petals. It’s a refreshing end to a wonderful evening.

O&E Rose Lemonade

 Owen & Engine Painting

I crack one more joke about the Cubs with the bartender as I start towards the door, stopping momentarily for a glance at another nice-looking couple. They’re seated near the front underneath a large oil painting, an illustration of an equine scene fit for a museum. I was seated at that very table just weeks before, deep into a plate of Fish and Chips and even deeper into my own English fantasy. I was in London at a corner chip shoppe after an early afternoon match against Chelsea, champions of Europe. The fumes from the fryer wafted into the Middle-Eastern market next door, and hooligan chants of “Who are ya!” crept in from down the street. It was mundane but magical.

Fish and Chips

Fish and Chips

It’s rare that a bar or restaurant can bring out both sides of me like that. By toeing the line so precisely between familiar and foreign, Owen & Engine puts the onus on us to set the trajectory of our evening: Chicago culinary master class or a stroll along the River Thames? Neither sound too bad to me.

Owen & Engine

2700 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 235-2930

 

 

Stefan Castellanos

Stefan Castellanos is a Chicago native and current resident of Ukrainian Village. He has written and blogged about everything from sports to theoretical linguistics, fearlessly mixing various genres and topics to create a style all his own. His more recent fascinations include nightlife and travel writing, each piece a toilsome yet toothsome exercise in self-discovery. He's liable to drop everything one of these days and board the next flight to southern Italy, where he'll cover the regional soccer team and sip table wine with locals each night at some corner trattoria.

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