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Dunedin’s Sonder Social Club is serving up more than just good cocktails

The downtown Dunedin craft cocktail hub offers plenty of good reasons to belly up to the bar. | Restaurant review
The Garden Cobbler cocktail made with gin, sherry, cucumber, mint and red fruits cordial at Sonder Social Club.
The Garden Cobbler cocktail made with gin, sherry, cucumber, mint and red fruits cordial at Sonder Social Club. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 21, 2019

DUNEDIN — The bathrooms alone are worth a trip to Sonder Social Club.

Disguised as a bookcase, the burnt sienna shelves are lined with weathered volumes of the classics, vases and other knickknacks. Give that shelf a little nudge and you’re on your way to the loo.

That’s just one of many intriguing design gems at Dunedin’s new cocktail lounge, which opened in August, part of the multiuse Artisan building on Douglas Avenue. The spot is the latest venture from husband-and-wife team Zach and Christina Feinstein, who also run the Black Pearl and the Living Room on Main, nearby, and Iron Oak New American Barbecue, in Palm Harbor.

Sonder Social Club has a strong design aesthetic.
Sonder Social Club has a strong design aesthetic. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Olive banquettes line the room, sitting beneath a ceiling of blond wood paneling — lots of retro glamor yet still distinctly modern. Framed photographs line the walls and, for the Instagram set, the bar’s name is scribbled in glowing neon cursive.

The life force of this operation is a long bar that snakes through the back of the room from which skilled bartenders zip back and forth, deftly leaving their mark on whatever creative tipple they slide toward guests.

I haven’t even gotten to the food.

Sonder Social Club is primarily a cocktail bar, and the beguiling craft and quality of the drinks cannot be overstated. But the dishes exiting the kitchen doors are worthy of attention, too, a small but strong selection of snacks and shared plates that raise the bar (pun intended) on the usual watering hole staples.

Plenty of cocktail bars serve food, but too often it feels like an afterthought: a slider here, a cheese plate there. At Sonder Social Club, the dishes aren’t just good, they are thoughtful and calculated — designed to complement the drink program.

Tommy's Margarita cocktail made with tequila, lime juice and agave.
Tommy's Margarita cocktail made with tequila, lime juice and agave. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

If it’s just a little something salty, sweet and crunchy you’re after, the bar snacks ($3) — a combination of mixed candied nuts, pretzels and other crackly things — are the perfect sidekick to a drink or two. A good start is the Garden Cobbler ($10), a refreshing, tall drink with floral notes from manzanilla sherry, gin, mint and a red fruits cordial.

Steamed buns piled high with braised short ribs ($8) would feel right at home at an upscale pan-Asian restaurant, where they would surely be accompanied by a much higher price tag. Spicy from a healthy drizzle of fermented chili aioli and tucked beneath a gingery daikon and carrot slaw, each bite is fiery and full of crunch, tempered by the pillowy bao holding it all together. I like these with something citrus-forward and zingy, like Tommy’s Margarita ($9), a tart and refreshing quaff sweetened with agave.

Steamed buns with braised short ribs are a menu highlight.
Steamed buns with braised short ribs are a menu highlight. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Baby beef wellingtons ($8) are less brawny than the original dish they draw inspiration from, but they make for a killer sidekick to the potent rye- and bourbon-forward Old Fashioned ($9). Inside the dainty puff pastry orb you can pop into your mouth in one bite, there’s a salty, beefy mix of ground tenderloin and truffled mushroom duxelles. On the plate beneath them, a grain mustard cream provides a tangy counter.

The ubiquitous meat and cheese board ($19) makes an appearance, and here wine feels more appropriate, of which there are several good selections by the glass. Kudos to the chef who thought of slapping down a few slices of summer sausage, an all-American staple that’s sometimes thought of as too low-brow for the charcuterie club. It’s a handsome spread, with generous portions of super-soft lavender honey goat cheese, fenugreek gouda, razor-thin ribbons of prosciutto, a hunk of creamy, funky Rogue Creamery caveman blue cheese and two thin triangles of an earthy duck pate. Accoutrements include an inky blackberry jam (great with the duck), whole-grain mustards, date and walnut pate (good with the blue cheese) and a selection of crispy cheddar twists and breadsticks splayed out like pickup sticks.

A take on tartare uses mushrooms instead of steak.
A take on tartare uses mushrooms instead of steak. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

A smart take on tartare ($12) swaps in caramelized mushroom duxelles and turns the bistro staple on its head. The dish is plump with the mushroom bits and briny capers, served underneath an egg yolk with toasted ciabatta bread for scooping. It’s served next to dollops of lemon aioli and an umami-rich shoyu reduction, and a spicy heap of watercress (which could probably use a little dressing). If given the choice, my carnivorous self would probably prefer beef tartare, but for the meat-averse this is a fine substitution.

Everything here feels in tune with the “social” in the bar’s namesake — from petite snacks to shared plates you can pick at and linger over. In you wanted to make a full meal out of it, the white truffle cauliflower pizza ($13) is as good an option as any. A rich, melty mix of roasted cauliflower and aged cheddar, it’s reminiscent of the Alsatian-style dish flammkuchen, rich with roasted garlic cream and crispy bacon. Holding the whole thing together is an impressive cauliflower crust — a welcome option on the menu for the gluten-free crowd.

The cauliflower pizza, made with cauliflower crust, at Sonder Social Club.
The cauliflower pizza, made with cauliflower crust, at Sonder Social Club. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

The petite selection of desserts includes a layered carrot cake with crushed pineapple ($9), a Grand Marnier fudge cake ($9) and a fig and goat cheese cake ($10) shaped like a tiny pyramid and decorated with wisps of lemon zest and toasted almond slivers. It’s a dreamy dessert, with a light sponge bottom and fluffy goat cheese mousse on top. Tiny discs of toasted figs are showered throughout and add crunch and color.

Service at the bar matches the quality of the craft taking place behind it, but on the floor could use a little polish, especially when the place gets busy. Overall, the bar program is stronger than the food lineup at Sonder (the short selection of appetizers and snacks could be expanded on), but I enjoy the hybrid approach. Part of the appeal lies in the versatility that this space allows for. Maybe you’re stopping in on your way to dinner somewhere else. Maybe it’s a date night or a girls’ night out or just a late-afternoon happy hour. Either way, Sonder Social Club provides more than just one excuse to belly up to the bar.

[ Tampa Bay Times ]

Food: 8

Service: 7

Atmosphere: 10

What the ratings mean

1-2: Don’t waste your time

3-5: Fair, but could be better

6-8: Pretty darn good

9-10: What are you waiting for?

If you go

966 Douglas Ave., Unit 101, Dunedin; (727) 754-6674

Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices: $7 to $15 snacks and shared plates

Recommended dishes: brisket steamed buns; cauliflower pizza; fig and goat cheese cake