6425 Penn Ave., Bakery Square
(Ratings are 0-4 stars)
FARE: Elevated Bar Food
ATMOSPHERE: Club Minimalist
Soups & Apps $4 – $10
Main Dishes $8 – $12
Sun. – Thurs.,11 a.m. – midnight
Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.
Credit cards accepted.
Sample menu available on website
Wheel chair accessibility
11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Social buzz abounds. Going tete-a-tete with the 21st century and its technology, this burgeoning new homegrown bar and eatery with its urban brick skin seems to be a thematic response to the tastes and sensibilities of a generation raised on touch-screens and mobile devices. But before you slip your cell phone into that nifty cradle by your bar stool and think “gastro pub,” know that Social reaches out to serve a broad customer demographic spanning the spectrum from techies to latter-day Luddites. It aspires to become Bakery Square’s social nexus and favorite neighborhood hangout.
Sophisticated GPS assistance is not required to divine the location. Along the Penn Avenue corridor running through the heart of East Liberty, simply lift one’s eyes skyward to the brilliant, multi-colored hues emanating from Google’s corporate logo and follow the beacons back to their source. The restaurant is situated beneath Google on the foundation level of the former National Biscuit Company (NBC): “Oh, ‘Biscuit’—I thought it was ‘Broadcasting,’” says a facetious Mr. Dish. “No wonder I could never get in to see Johnny Carson.”
A New Kind of Good Old Local Joint
Hidden in plain sight, Social is not quaint. It’s not dark. There’s no worn-out carpet reeking of spilled beer. The place has none of the stereotypical traits of the common subterranean refuge or corner hideaway. The industrial/organic design with an earthy green and off-white interior is aesthetically pleasing to a minimalist mindset. Two walls of plate glass make it look as though mandatory sunshine laws have been passed. Windows let in UV rays and curious glances from pedestrians, while conversely allowing patrons a vacation from their cells to take in southwesterly urban views, or, come evening, a random, spectacular sunset.
“When Bakery Square was first being put together, it smelled like cookies,” notes general partner Gregg Caliguiri. “Locals date themselves by those who remember the smell of fresh baking bread wafting from the former Nabisco plant.” Caliguiri, whose resume is widely respected in our city, mentions that he and Matt Turbiner, Marc Hourvitz, and Kirk Vogel first teamed up as partners 20 years when they opened Pittsburgh Deli Company (1993-2007). They are now the general partners in Walnut Tree Restaurant Group which owns Walnut Grill, Shady Grove, “up” Modern Kitchen, and most recently Social. The group will also be opening several Walnut Grill restaurants in the St. Louis, Missouri market over the next 18 months. “Social is at the crossroads of a lot of different neighborhoods,” continues Caliguiri. “We’re a gathering spot for the community, no matter where you are coming from.”
“We’re the only homegrown eatery in this new, self-contained neighborhood and the only spot with a liquor license,” adds general manager Edana Muldoon.“It’s a boon to the community feel that we are aiming for.” Muldoon and Caliguiri are married, and both are equally fervent about the new spot.
The bar is strategically placed in the center of the room. Built on a big, rectangular frame with a brick-red counter, it anchors the space like a crackling fireplace, creating a natural focal point for Social’s nascent community. And while any barkeep will tell you that this configuration is difficult to work (you don’t have eyes in the back of your head), it’s conducive to face-to-face interaction. “Intimacy and community,” repeats Muldoon.
A beer or cocktail after work? Quaff some hoppy Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest or Strongbow (hard cider) from a list of seasonal kegs, or check out the 28 canned or bottled beers and 16 taps. “We are a draught beer place,” stresses Muldoon, although the wine pour, in stemless glasses, is more than hearty. Chris Kuhn, Social’s bar manager/ barkeep, has adopted the “Cheers” TV show mantra “where everyone knows your name.” Kuhn and staff can mix imaginative cocktails while making sure you’ve got the lay of the land and introducing you to your neighbors. Try a Bourbon Blast (fresh grapefruit, maple syrup, Angostura bitters, and Buffalo Trace Bourbon) or a Jacked Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea, Jack Daniels).
Servers wear t-shirts that read “Social worker.” Service is swift, attentive, and particularly good with details. Pull out your cell and send a tweet to a designated hashtag. “Now you really can put words in someone else’s mouth!” encourages the tiny Twitter bluebird. Don’t be surprised to see your thoughts on the back of a menu tomorrow. The dining crowd looks more like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood than Joe’s Corner Bar & Grill. And what’s there to dine upon is “contemporary American bar food” done more than right.
Everything from Killer Apps to Transcendental Pizza
Social’s re-imagined bar fare is made from scratch with pristine ingredients. Head chef Josh Altimus—who started out washing dishes at age 14 at DiSalvo’s Station in Latrobe and the last 10 years cooking at Shadyside’s Girasole—says “I love the pace, the people, the pressure. I also love the change of seasons, and adjust my menus accordingly.” And when was the last time you heard a chef say “I’m here to please the customer,” in a neighborhood bar? “If I have the ingredients on hand, I’ll fix whatever you want.”
The menu starts with a list of killer appetizers, skips entrees, and delivers a hearty list of sandwiches, pizza and salads. A small chef’s “Something to Talk About” menu card fills in seasonal options daily. And there’s a new Saturday/Sunday brunch menu with brunch-specific items in addition to the regular fare.
This is one restaurant critic who concurs with the understated suggestion that we need to move on from ubiquitous appetizers. I can’t resist the cauliflower patties, so often the crunchy ugly ducklings on a veggie tray. Social’s homemade batter with some purposeful chunk is deep-fried, dusted with sea salt, squiggled with fresh lemon aioli, then artistically criss-crossed with chives. Startlingly good. The recipe is close to the heart, remarks Muldoon. It belongs to her mother-in-law; Social added the lemon aioli. Small grace notes like this have helped Social play to robust crowds since opening day July 15th.
Add to my “hard to resist” list: snappy Thai shrimp tacos, with squeaky-fresh shrimp salad including carrots, scallions, and a bossy pepper relish, folded into crispy wonton shells, sensuous and light. I woke up the next morning thinking about that dish. Coming in a close second are the ahi tuna tartare nachos, each with a dab of guacamole, featuring tuna tartare with scallions, finished with sriracha sauce and a wasabi/sesame drizzle. Seasonal bruschetta ranges from traditional ricotta with roasted tomato and a basil/balsamic reduction to blue shallots and scallion oil. Or there’s apple pancetta—one variety with smoked Gouda, another featuring corn and bacon with cilantro. The backdrop for these enticing counterpoints: Mancini’s baguettes, another local favorite, delivered fresh daily from McKees Rocks.
If you’re a wing freak, try the jerk wings. “They’re not doused in some horrible sauce and they’re not real greasy,” says Altimus. He is proud of his dry rub, your choice of cilantro serrano or jalapeno mango. With a lemon and one of Social’s linen napkins, you won’t be afraid to savor these wings right down to the bones. Shoestring fries are served with a trio of sriracha ketchup, sour cream and onion, and truffle aioli sauce. With guacamole going out of season, the kitchen substitutes homemade hummus. If you like it hot, try the stuffed banana peppers with sausage and spinach, smothered in a provolone/mozzarella mix, crusted with Parmesan panko crumbs.
In the sandwich category, burgers reign. A turkey burger with smoked gouda and mango ketchup is currently the MOST popular item in the house. Chef’s secret: a little ricotta in the mixture adds moisture. Rivaling it is a “Pat La Frieda” cheeseburger, sinfully good—a custom blend of ground chuck and short rib made especially for the house. (LaFrieda is a NYC butcher, famed for his standards.) Dare I say it challenges Tessaro’s burger in Bloomfield, practically heresy around here? “Cook it to death and it’s still juicy,” swears Altimus, though he encourages a more medium choice. For the non-carnivorous, a veggie burger, thick and “bean-centric,” is great with crispy onions and chipotle aioli. Pile on the frills.
Sous chef Nate Puck describes the pizza crust as “thin, not super crispy. It doesn’t droop when you pick up a hot slice. It has structure.” Puck uses All Trumps Flour, a premium, high-gluten baker’s flour known for exceptional consistency and the tiny blisters that are the hallmark of high-hydration dough. I like the results. With 14 pizzas available (12/16 inch), four are tomato-based, including a BBQ chicken. I’m currently stuck on the Mushroom Bianca, with porcini pesto, portobello, ricotta arugula and … truffle oil. (“I’m a sucker for truffle oil,” head chef Altimus observes.) Or, one might favor the breakfast-for-dinner Green Eggs and Ham pizza with garlic sauce, prosciutto, asparagus, red onion, fresh mozzarella, and shaved Parmesan, all baked off with a canary-yellow sunny side egg that’s cracked on top at the last possible second.
A tricky test that some restaurants fail is setting the appropriate volume levels for the background music, in sync with the time of day and mood of the crowd. I’ve been in places where the music was so loud, it was hard to talk and eat. The people at Social are working conscientiously to deal with the issue. One nice Friday evening on the patio around Happy Hour, they had it just right. Windows were retracted, breezes blowing, folks sipping “Social lubricants,” the Pirates were winning on eight screens—and yet I could still hear the rhythmic volleys of players at the nifty, cement-legged ping-pong table. I recently spoke with Caliguiri about the audio levels and he explained that “the volume will change depending on what is going on around us, like the ups and downs of conversation.” Just don’t bring Granny for late-night dinner on weekends unless she can boogaloo.
New Tricks with Old-Time Treats
Back in the day (which can mean either last week or the beginning of time), there was tomato soup. For me it’s the memories of my early childhood days, with the ironing board up and my mother’s favorite soap on the tube, that stir a craving for tomato soup. Social’s isn’t watery but deep and velvety, neither too sweet nor too salty. If you dine alfresco on a fall evening you might go for the “cheesy” tomato soup, with a trio of cheddar, mozzarella and provolone on top like a woolen nightcap, keeping the soup hot in the night air. The soup du jour is good, too. On a recent group visit, the sweet potato/bourbon cream with candied bacon had us swooning. As for the grilled cheese sandwich that goes so well with tomato soup, rest assured you won’t get Velveeta on Wonder Bread. Grilled apple bacon and smoked Gouda is downright delicious on thick, hearty Italian with a fresh, glistening side salad.
Salads are my thing, although in restaurants they often are drab and wearying, even when custom-built from a salad bar. Social offers a creative twist on the latter. In addition to menu salads crafted by the chef, there’s a “Build Your Own Salad” option that works from a paper checklist. You mark your choices of greens and four market toppings, adding in extras from lists of meats/seafood, nuts/cheese, exotic veggies, and house-made dressings. Unlike at a salad bar, the ingredients have not been lying around in the open air, and there is no cottage cheese in the sunflower seeds. Note: if you’re choosing from the standard menu, the chef suggests either the classic Cobb with deviled egg, or the Caesar with truffled dressing.
My experience is that dessert at ye olde neighborhood bar is usually coffee with Bailey’s. Instead, try Social’s affogato coffee with vanilla ice cream, served virgin or with a shot of Frangelico. On a lighter (no, make that heavier) note, the kids in our party devoured the Build Your Own Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich. They selected a homemade chocolate chip cookie on top and a Reese’s peanut butter chunk cookie on the bottom—I think the idea is to match the cookies, but the kids are creative and the house obliged—with vanilla ice cream in the center. “It looks like piranha season,” laughed their father. Then along came our server. Without having overheard the dad, he winked, “Looks like the sharks are feeding.”
We grownups shared the night’s adult dessert, roasted pumpkin bread pudding with cinnamon cream cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds, also perfect with coffee. The tastes of fall at Social remind me of moon pies and Halloween masks, and those special candy apples and sticky caramel popcorn treasures in our bags years ago on Halloween night.
Deborah McDonald is a Pittsburgh native who worked in the local food and hospitality industry (dropping many a plate and glass) while earning her degree in journalism. McDonald is one of Pittsburgh’s most highly respected and experienced food and restaurant writers.