Two Worlds, 20 Steps Apart
The differences between neighbors Bull & Bush Pub and The Social Chameleon work in your favor.
|Social Chameleon owner Bret Ashman holds a glass of organic wine and a slice of mushroom pizza. ||At the Bull & Bush, Johnny Prevatt expertly hand-pulls a pint of Guinness.|
There are several ways to experience culture shock. Visit a foreign country, or move from a small town to a big city. Or walk the 20 steps across the parking lot from the back door of Bull & Bush Pub to the wooden gate behind an arty little restaurant called The Social Chameleon.
Both places are on a strip of Robinson Street behind the landmark T. G. Lee Dairy, in what some call “The Milk District,” in Orlando’s Colonialtown. The street doesn’t have much visual appeal, but there’s an interesting mix of businesses: two boutiques, a skate shop and the 50-year-old billiard hall/bar called Sportstown inhabit the block.
Bull & Bush is as typical a British pub as one can find, filled with smokers ordering hand-pulled stout while watching soccer beamed from Manchester. The Social Chameleon draws a hip crowd, debating the merits of organic spinach between glances at the Cartoon Network.
As good as the beer is at B&B, and as appealing as the menu is at the Chameleon, what fascinates me most about both places is the communities they’re fostering. We all have favorite places to eat; it’s more difficult to find places to hang out, and these are definite “hangs,” remarkably different, if physically close, destinations.
Visiting Bull & Bush reminded me of the many hours I have spent in pubs in Scotland and England. B&B would be recognized by an 18th century Londoner or a modern-day Glaswegian.
When we walked into the little pub, Johnny Prevatt, the bartender, was having a debate with two regulars about the merits of lying down versus screaming if attacked by a bear. The manager, Amy Altman, tells me that her pub was named after the Old Bull & Bush tavern in London, a fixture since 1721. Orlando’s version has been in its current location for 22 years, and with a dark wooden bar, partitioned booths along one wall and area for dartboards, it’s an instant transport to Britain.
I sat down and ordered an India Pale Ale (draft beers are $4.25 per 20-ounce “Imperial” pint). Crisp and slightly more alcoholic than American beers, it’s hand-pulled rather than gas- or electric pump-propelled, which makes for a smoother pint. Johnny’s strong forearm seemed equally talented at drawing the characteristic two-toned draft of Guinness or a golden glass of ale. The beer is cool from the cellar instead of refrigerated, allowing you to actually taste—and smell—the hops and barley.
As for food, the less said the better. Over the years, the fish part of fish and chips at Bull & Bush has gone from appealing servings to frozen planks. The law says food sales must be limited in order to keep a smoking-allowed status. Still, a basket of fries ($5) is one of the best ways to soak up some of the alcohol the Bull so pleasantly serves.
Pubs are for drinking and smoking (a plus at Bull & Bush; smoking isn’t allowed in Britain), and also for spending time with friends—what Brits call “going to the local.” The season of dart shooters league play started in August, and every second and fourth Saturday is trivia night.
Head out the back door, and a quick glance to the right will reveal another destination: The Social Chameleon, which has been open only since April. I’ll guess and say that your living room is larger than this restaurant. There are eight bar stools and four tables inside, and another five in the back patio area.
At any one time you might find members of a local community group having dinner, or actors singing in the sand-filled parking lot. They come at first for the food, an eclectic mix of tapas-sized plates, lavash-based pizza and salads.
Bret Ashman owns The Social Chameleon. He once owned Artistry Market Place, where downtown’s Central Station Bar now stands. The restaurant had been open for three months when I entered, and new arrivals were being greeted by name from the bar as they waved to unexpectedly encountered friends. The singing actress I’d seen in the parking lot the night before was sitting behind me. I already felt like a regular.
Ashman is chef and host, shouting “Thank you” from the tiny kitchen where he works seven days a week. He turns out an inventive variation of hummus in the “dip trio” ($5.15) by adding roasted sesame oil to the chickpea mash, along with servings of black bean dip and fresh salsa. Thin flatbread crust holds up under various nouveau pizza toppings and, in one case, sliced meatloaf ($4.20 to $9.25).
It’s a quirky establishment. There’s a menu for dogs. If you like one of the hand-made tables, you can buy it.
Stand in the frighteningly narrow driveway shared by these two establishments and you can practically touch both buildings. British rugby fans and Orlando Fringe patrons head down that same drive; medieval pub sports are played a couple of yards from students on MacBooks. It’s like the Jets and Sharks sharing a parking lot, but without the knife fight.
My advice: start out at the Bull & Bush for a pint of Guinness (smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em). Then take 20 steps to The Social Chameleon for a “fungi fun” mushroom pizza and a glass of organic wine. Both gangs of regulars will ease you through the culture shock.
|The Social Chameleon|
ADDRESS 2406 E. Robinson St.
Bull & Bush