Contemporary restaurant concepts have taken on a distinctly back-to-the-future vibe.
Nomenclature adopted by Proof + Pantry in Dallas, Two Boroughs Larder in Charleston, S.C., and State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, among many others, conjures images of good-old-fashioned, hands-on home cookery.
Pantries, provisions and larders hark back to simpler times, and they stand in contrast to the bar-and-grills that proliferated in the heady pre-recession era, when high levels of consumer confidence were matched by their freewheeling expenditures away from home.
The recession put the kibosh on unbridled spending by diners, signaled a change in their attitudes and aspirations, and shifted the restaurant industry dynamic. High-flying chains have taken a backseat to well-positioned independents, who emphasize fresh, local foods and smartly designed bar programs kept afloat by craft beers, hard ciders and classic cocktails with a modern twist.
A recent restaurant iteration that taps into this trend and proves that everything old is new again is the appearance of eateries dubbed “socials.” Like latter-day saloons, they serve up community and conviviality, along with food and beverages.
· Pinewood Social in Nashville, Tenn., promotes itself as an around-the-clock gathering place and a comfortable spot in which to work with a cup of coffee from the specialty coffee bar. It’s likely that little work gets done after sundown, however, when the bowling lanes and karaoke system rev up for action. The dinner menu boasts some nifty starters, like gazpacho with watermelon, lime sour cream and sherry, and the sexy coffee menu offers seasonal specials like World In All Its Youth, made with iced latte, sarsaparilla and chicory-infused syrup.
· Punch Bowl Social, headquartered in Denver, is a nine-unit, dining-and-entertainment mecca in tune with “the cultural movement in social outings,” which apparently refers to its new age-y approach to engagement prized by Millennials. Two years ago, the Portland, Ore., unit hosted the World Naked Bike Ride, an international cycling event meant to draw attention to the impact of auto emissions. It all sounds too terribly “Portlandia,” and doubtless drove many onlookers straight to the bar for a bracing, appropriately named El Macho, a house quaff that mixes tequila with muddled cucumber, cardamom syrup and fresh lime juice.
· Other restaurateurs take a less obvious approach to fostering exchange, like Presidio Social Club in San Francisco, which turned former military barracks into a modern eatery that promotes “all the comfort of a club without the dues,” as it dishes up appetizers like Crispy Japanese Sweet Potatoes with miso-mustard dressing, washed down by the requisite barrel-aged Negronis.
· Foundation Social Eatery in suburban Atlanta eschews televisions in the bar area in order to facilitate customer conversation. It also puts a large open kitchen front and center, where chef Mel Toledo is always first on the line, visible and approachable to diners. The affable and talented Toledo staged in stellar kitchens like Daniel in New York City and Maison Pic in Valence, France, before opening FSE, and his training is apparent in entrées like Mediterranean Sea Bass with piquillo broth and rouille bread crumbs.
Sociable operations continue to open, like Social Drink & Food in New York City, which has a vast, rooftop terrace that comes complete with beach chairs, film screenings and beer pong. And yes, there’s globally inspired street food, too. Across the country, in Honolulu, chef Michael Mina has just opened the eponymous The Street: A Michael Mina Social House, which promises a place to find food, friends and merriment.
When the dust settles on this social-restaurant boomlet, the winners left standing will be the ones who consistently deliver appealing food and beverages and professional service. The beer-ponging, bicycle-pumping bells and whistles are fine, but without the basics, the losers will be relegated to the theme-restaurant junk heap when consumer tastes change and the crowd moves on to the next big thing.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.