Let's start by stating the obvious. George & Dragon in Central Phoenix is a dive. A well-loved one, yes, but a dive nonetheless. It's the kind of place where you expect your food to be greasy and cheap because you're mostly using it to chase pints of beer or two-ingredient alcoholic concoctions.
And that's why the English pub's many fans were so concerned when we learned that the spot was slated to appear on an upcoming episode of Bar Rescue — you know, the Spike TV show in which host Jon Taffer comes in and yells at a bar owner and all the bar's employees in an effort to save the business? Though the pub couldn't confirm anything official last month, owner David Wimberly has since announced that George & Dragon did, in fact, film an episode of the show. It's set to air sometime this summer.
Don't wait for prime time. You can check out the makeover — parts of it, anyway — for yourself.
Drive by the midtown Phoenix mainstay and you can see some of the more obvious changes to pub. The exterior got a brand new layer of navy blue paint, as well as new signage and a set of red curtains in every window. The differences, however, are more than surface deep. Though Wimberly says he's already gone back to the menu George & Dragon served before taping the show (at least, for the most part, due to complaints from the restaurant's fans), some changes in the kitchen are here to stay.
They include the restaurant's treatment of fish and chips, which according to both a server and Wimberly (who swung by our table for a chat during a recent lunch visit) are now cut, battered, and fried to order. We don't want to think about what that means the restaurant was doing before, but the new and improved version of the dish is certainly easy to like. Your order includes a fillet of flaky white fish wrapped in an extra crispy beer batter. The fish fell a little on the dry side for our liking, but with a dab of tartar sauce the issue was remedied. And the chips were even better than the fish, well-seasoned with a thin crisp exterior and soft potato-y insides.
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By late afternoon, the restaurant was already out of the cheese and onion pastie lunch special, the result of the restaurant's phase-out of the dish, our server said. Instead we opted for the Cornish pastie ($6.95), which was an excellent choice. A flaky, pastry crust surrounded a piping hot mixture of beef, peas, and carrots that was surprisingly flavorful and moist. The side of mashed potatoes, which could have served at least three people, was bland but had the pleasant, imperfect texture that comes when mashed potatoes are handmade. We politely declined, however, to finish our serving of mushy green peas.
Finally, we ordered a plate of the restaurant's Indian chicken curry ($11.49) after our server's recommendation and her assurance the kitchen makes the dish from scratch. With this dish, George & Dragon lives up to the British reputation for loving and offering excellent Indian fare. The red chicken curry was deep with flavor and offered just the gentlest amount of spice. It was served over long grain rice (that might have been slicked up with a generous amount of ghee), but thanks to the complexity of the sauce, we didn't even miss the customary basmati. Simple, but remarkably well done, this curry rose above versions we've had at some of the Valley's Indian restaurants.
As far as the changes to the interior of the restaurant, don't worry, things are spruced up but the spot still retains its dingy-in-a-lovable-way vibe. The front room is brighter, thanks to a nice blue-brown color scheme in place of the former black and white, and the ceilings feel higher without the many flags that used to dangle from the ceilings. Shiny high tops now fill the space where booths and Union Jack-covered low tops used to sit — but they're not gone; you'll find some of the old tables decorating the walls.
So, sure, the redesign is nice. And it might make George & Dragon less scary to those who didn't know it in its former glory. But for those who loved the place and always will, the only thing we have to say is, "Seriously, you've got to try the curry."