In an increasingly craft beer-crazy city, what does a beer bar have to do to distinguish itself? One option is to serve good food.
Sounds simple, but look around. Green Bench, no food. Cycle Brewing, no food. Brass Tap and World of Beer, ditto. Brand new 3 Daughters, nope. Doesn't look like St. Pete Brewing or Yard of Ale will, either. Urban Brew and BBQ does barbecue, and the Ale and the Witch's adjacent sister project, Witches BBQ Den, also offers barbecue. Brewers Tasting Room, which launched with a mostly Cajun menu, has just switched to, you guessed it, barbecue.
So on one end of the spectrum there's barbecue, on the other, nothing — seems like there's a lot of room to carve out an untrammeled niche somewhere there.
Philippe Theodore and Jason Rappaport closed St. Petersburg's first World of Beer late in 2012. They brought in tenant Johnny Ciani to reinvent the space as Social. For about six months it continued to be just a bar (the addition of a full liquor license was financially hog-tying for a bit). Then in June, Ciani launched what he intended all along: a casual, Florida farm-to-fork menu to work synergistically with a Florida-centric beer list and array of savvy craft cocktails.
It still looks a little World of Beer-ish, although Ciani repainted, added funky mismatched chandeliers and invited a number of local artists to festoon the walls with their work. It has the high-top tables and long bar of a drinking-centric establishment, although a new patio out front provides a nice option on balmy evenings. And although a smart lineup of cocktails and wines is available, it still seems like a beer bar. The taps showcase the local bounty: Cigar City Gourd Times ($6), Barley Mow Mavens Milk Stout (a house favorite, $5), Dunedin Brewery Vagabond Swing Dark Ale ($7), etc.
Based on the menu, I'm guessing that there's slightly limited equipment in the kitchen — nothing seems to be deep-fried or grilled. But that leaves lots of room to show off some of Florida's signature ingredients and dishes. The best one is a spin on a Cuban sandwich, called the Cigar City Drench ($13), a pressed sandwich of mojo-marinated pork, caramelized onion, molten Swiss and house-made pickle, served with dipping sauce similar to au jus. So, a French dip meets a Cuban. Good idea.
Same goes for a fried green tomato BLT ($7) with a big puff of microbasil (local microgreens appear as a welcome garnish on a number of dishes) and the "fig and pig" flatbread ($8) of Brie, prosciutto, fig spread, more microbasil and a sploosh of balsamic. Flatbread bases are puffed and crunchy, more like an open-faced Mexican torta. We had a second one that was topped with cumin-scented hummus, zucchini and yellow squash, roasted red pepper and a little cilantro cream ($6). An appealing combination of textures and flavors, it read more like a bruschetta than a flatbread, but no matter.
As the name implies, Social is the kind of place you go with friends and, over a few pints, share an order of savory citrus- and rosemary-marinated baked wings ($9, not unlike those at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza) or a lovely rectangular tray of local tomato salad with cubes of Mazzaro's fresh mozzarella and hunks of crouton moistened with a zippy red wine vinaigrette ($13).
Even desserts, made in-house, have an eye to local ingredients, from a locally made vanilla ice cream on a bourbon caramel apple ($7) to spiced quick breads infused with local beers ($5). Service is casual and dishes wend their way out of the kitchen in spurts, which suits the feel of the place.
The Tampa Bay area has been slow to embrace the concept of the gastropub, partly because there seems to be so little consensus on what one is. Some insist it's a term that simply means a pub with ambitious food; others say it's that, but more specifically a place that makes its own charcuterie and other labor-intensive and meaty snacks. If we're going with the former definition, Social qualifies; the latter, not so much. Still, Social gives St. Pete beer drinkers some new options for what to do between pints.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.