The only thing left from Snooty Fox, the British-style pub that faced 86th Street for nearly three decades, is the elevator shaft. In its place is Big Lug Canteen (1435 E. 86th St., 317-672-3503), a completely rebuilt and whimsical beer lover’s playground that only Eddie Sahm and Scott Ellis could have imagined. Sahm, son of prolific restaurateur Ed Sahm and owner of Sahm’s Place on Keystone, and Ellis, former head brewer at Ram Restaurant & Brewery who has also worked at Three Wise Men, met a few years ago and bonded over their love of beer. The wheels have been turning ever since on a spot for average Joes that was still serious about the beer. The burly, bearded pair even took a trip to Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont last year to gain some brewing know-how and score some hops in preparation for their first Pilgrimage beer, a crisp, yeasty Belgian-style saison with plenty of American character.
But don’t think their nearly 6,000-square-foot place is all snooty, full of beer snobs arguing phenols and IBUs. Opened on October 12, the brewery makes for a pretty fetching spot just steps from the Monon Trail with a soaring beer tank on the exterior emblazoned with Big Lug’s signature red-and-blue logo. Inside, beer lovers and neighborhood folk have plenty of seating options in sight of the brewing machinery upstairs or at a more intimate and cozy bar area and growler-filling station on the ground floor. It’s the kind of casual gathering spot that Nora has been wanting for years—the place has been crowded nearly every night since it opened with customers enjoying their fill of the smooth and balanced toffee-rich King Jive English Brown Ale and the fruity, floral Kristofferson American oatmeal pale. But Ellis has quickly found out that patrons love his IPA. “We went through so much in the first week that I decided to start another batch,” Ellis says. “It’s definitely an IPA crowd.”
As for the food, Sahm has drawn on his culinary pilgrimages, nowhere more colorfully than in the appearance of Nashville hot chicken in various dishes on the menu. “I had the original at Prince’s [Hot Chicken Shack] in Nashville,” Sahm says, referring to the Southern landmark that put this lightning-hot chicken dish on the map, “and I knew I had to have it on my menu.” His versions come in the Willie’s Special salad with black bean–corn salsa and Fritos “salt,” in servings of 6, 12, or 18 wings, and perhaps its best form, a crispy battered breast served on a “knot” (a soft house-made bun) with cooling pickles, chopped romaine, and Green Goddess dressing. And while the staff warns that the hot version has reduced some customers to tears, the mild option isn’t exactly, well, mild. Less he-man cuisine includes excellent poutine that is as straightforward and close to the original in Quebec as anywhere in town, with a rich gravy that is only made more deep and savory when topped with smoked pork belly. A vegetarian version is available topped with vegetable gumbo.
Salads, hoagies (including a nicely layered “Bahn Lug” with more of that smoked pork belly, chicken pate, and pickled veggies), and fish and chips round out the menu, as well as fried cheese curds and charcuterie plates for starters. Heartier specials currently include a French onion steak and a big bowl of Indy-style Vietnamese pho with pork in the broth. Sahm and Ellis hope to offer a few bigger dishes from time to time, as well as a short selection of brunch creations on weekends. The brewery is 21 and over, but parents who are fans of Ellis’s beer can get it at the recently opened Rockstone Pizza (another Sahm’s original) next door while dining with their kids. And while the weather this week was warm enough to sit on the second-floor patio, customers will have to bide their time this winter before they can bike or jog up to the outdoor concession stand to order a Chicago dog and a pint. No doubt Sahm and Ellis will be there to serve you themselves.