“Wow, this is crazy.” That slack-jawed comment upon walking into Hubbard Inn was from a friend who’s a general contractor and has built his fair share of restaurants in this town. He was confirming my assumptions from a previous visit that yes, indeed, someone had spent a lot of money on this place. The “Hemingway-inspired” set for the production that is Hubbard Inn includes brass sconces illuminating chalkboards behind marble-topped mahogany bars, Moroccan tiles crawling from the floor up to the walls, Publican-esque globe light fixtures suspended from the ceiling in brass casings, shipping containers repurposed into tabletops, leather club chairs, velvet church pews, deeply embossed lincrusta wall coverings and on and on. Aside from the dusty-book library look bumping into the sports-junkie flat-screens mounted around, this is a classy joint—beautiful, in fact—with attention to detail at every turn. Other than the food.
To understand how someone could spend over $1.5 million on an 8,000-square-foot space that seats 250 deep-pocketed people at once, yet be content to serve mediocre food, a primer on the Eat Well Drink Better crew might help. They made their money in the light-beer biz of Lincoln Park institutions the Central and The Grand Central then parlayed it into the gastropub English (whose biggest coup was acquiring Top Chef castoff Radhika Desai, keeping her for only a few months then returning to burgers-as-usual). Next they opened Angels & Mariachis, focusing more on the Mexican folk-art decor than the tacos but banking regardless off a Wicker Park margarita crowd. With Hubbard Inn, it’s a similar story, shifted to Old English as a theme and with an admittedly more ambitious bar: Craft beers abound and classic cocktails are generally well executed. Chef Bob Zrenner’s food, however, is not.
We pulled for the chef at the short-lived Graze, when he showed promise with big flavors on small plates. But we were somewhat deflated by his opening menu at Branch 27, which lacked focus and finesse. Hubbard Inn’s menu seems like a repeat: It’s all over the place, aiming to please everyone at once, to ill effect. It pulls diners from an unbelievably basic deviled egg and a caprese flatbread that looks and tastes like the product of a hands-on kids’ cooking class, to a dense ricotta ravioli that proves that pasta isn’t as easy at it looks. Sinewy steak spoils the tartare, parsnip puree under braised short ribs is simply a snooze fest, the bar-and-grill-quality burger is basic at best, and the ubiquitous bacon-wrapped dates arrive almost as blackened as the crusted mess masquerading on the menu as chorizo brandade, as unappetizing to eat as it is to look at. But then there’s the trout dish, a smart combination of manila clams and grilled onions in a guanciale-boosted pan sauce, crowned with a crispy edged fillet of fish. And there’s also the grilled chicken thighs, rightly tender in contrast with al dente rapini, flavored with preserved lemon and green olives. If these dishes could anchor Zrenner’s menu while the everyman favorites were stripped away or improved upon, Hubbard Inn might just have food on par with the space. But when the house is packed, the coffers are full and everyone’s busy ogling the monastery doors salvaged from Bali, the food seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind, owners included.