Tucked into the busy lineup of Clinton Street storefronts, wedged between two other doorways, an unassuming red awning marks the entrance to one of the city’s newer and more exciting dining establishments, the Clinton Street Social Club. This elusive entrance opens to a flight of stairs that lead up to the second floor. This obscure entrance to the restaurant gives the feel of being transported to a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Emerging from the staircase, exposed brick walls, rough-hewn wood furnishings and bare filament bulbs set the stage for a dining experience that not only transports the mind to another time and place, but also offers a menu inspired by the best of American comfort foods.
As the sweet and haunting sound of Mississippi John Hurt’s music filters through the dimly-lit space, I take a seat at the bar, a 4-inch thick slab of wood that runs nearly the length of the restaurant. It’s my third visit and I order my usual, the Porch Crawler, a concoction of ale, vodka and lemonade. In addition to my favorite tipple, the drink menu includes other creative and surprising beer cocktails, as well as a generous offering of cocktails inspired by prohibition classics and given names like “Annabel Lee” and “The Dirty Birdsong.”
The food embodies as much character as a Flannery O’Connor novel and I start with a generous portion of chili glazed pork belly served with shaved fennel. It is rich, delicately sweet, and accompanied with just enough of a kick to remind me that my taste buds are alive and well. Following the pork, I continue my indulgences with the chef’s Oyster Po’Boy, a delicious take on the classic that is served on a fresh baguette with the slightly spicy creole aioli. I finish my meal with the sweet and boozy Caramel Apple Bread Pudding that comes drizzled in whiskey sauce.
My enthusiasm for this place doesn’t hide areas that could definitely use some improvement. Service is often slow and disorganized. It is unclear if this is a result of poor communication between the wait staff and the kitchen or simply a result of being understaffed. Either way, be prepared to sit. The lighting, although charming, can at times seem way too bright, and consequently offensive to the senses. Nonetheless, from first bite to last, neither quality nor quantity of the food fails to disappoint.
The bottom line: come early and come often. The Social Club will surely cure what ails you…as long as you’re not in too big a hurry.