Is the craft cocktail trend approaching its “jump the shark” moment? More and more often, it’s hard for me not to do an eye roll when I look at the cocktail list at O.C.’s trendier restaurants.
Bitters infused with every ingredient under the sun; egg white foam dumped on top of drinks that don’t need it; Bloody Marys that are so crammed with extras they look like a salad instead of a cocktail.
And the prices. O.C. is approaching the dreaded red line that I’ve encountered only in New York and a few other cities that thrive on expense-account meals: the $20 drink. It’s not uncommon for even classic cocktails that use less-than-premium spirits to hit $16 or $18. The profit margins must be dazzling.
Some new places seem to be offering cocktails only because it’s expected of them, not because they’re into it. David Wilhelm’s latest venture, Tavern House in Newport Beach, comes to mind. While the food presented at the recent media opening was up to Wilhelm’s usual standards, the cocktails seemed uninspired and, frankly, not that tasty.
SOCIAL, on the other hand, knows what it’s doing. When it opened five years ago in Costa Mesa, it garnered an instant following with trendy but approachable food and a lively bar with imaginative drinks. A second location opened earlier this month in Huntington Beach, in a former tri-tip and barbecue joint called Sea Salt — a prime location on Beach Blvd. not far from the coast.
The place looks considerably more upscale than the original SOCIAL. Costa Mesa’s Haus Design has given a breezy, open-air vibe to the 3,200 square-foot space, which is dominated by a large outdoor patio with a roll-up door.
SOCIAL bar director Grayson Diercksmeier has put together an inventive yet intelligent cocktail menu, and the prices are right: $14 for the specialty cocktails, which is about average these days.
Usually I’m not a fan of cutesy names, but Diercksmeier and his team have concocted a few monikers that are as creative as the ingredients. And I’m happy to report that egg white foam is never used inappropriately.
A few of my favorites (Note: these ingredients came from the cocktail list at the opening, and I was cautioned that there might be a few adjustments as the team plays with the recipes):
You Wanna Pisco Me? is tartly citrus-y. It’s made with fennel-infused pisco, grape syrup, lemon, lime, lemon foam and activated charcoal (an increasingly common touch these days, mainly for the dark hue it imparts).
The Lil Beach includes coconut-infused Xicaru mezcal, milk, Coco Lopez, lime cordial, lime juice, cardamom bitters and slow-toasted coconut. This could take the place of every umbrella-festooned drink at every tiki bar I’ve ever been to.
The GTL is a twist on a summertime classic, the gin and tonic. It includes lavender-infused Fords gin, apricot liqueur, blackberry/blueberry syrup, lime, a dash or two of lemon bitters and orange bitters, and a few drops of absinthe, along with a splash of tonic. Perfect for a hot afternoon.
The consensus among the cocktail media (yes, there’s a group of us now in O.C.) was generally very positive. And judging by the bar action, the drinks are popular with the locals, too.
I’d recommend visiting toward the end of a warm afternoon. The sun is low enough to afford some shade on the patio, the air is sultry, and the drinks complete the equation. Half the fun is perusing the lengthy cocktail list, designed to look hand-scrawled and presented in a small binder. Even if you’re a teetotaler, it’s a great read.
IF YOU GO
What: SOCIAL Huntington Beach
Where: 21212 Beach Blvd, Huntington Beach
When: 4 to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, 4 to 11 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4 p.m. to midnight Fridays, 10 a.m. to midnight Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Information: (714) 374-7715; socialrg.com