Brighter Nights 

Food Review: A Fan favorite morphs into something familiar at Social 52.

click to enlarge The hanger kebab and firecracker shrimp at Social52 indicate the comfort food menu’s strengths in the former Avalon in the Fan. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The hanger kebab and firecracker shrimp at Social52 indicate the comfort food menu’s strengths in the former Avalon in the Fan.

When Avalon announced it was closing, a shock wave went through its devoted crew of post-work regulars, many of whom were in the habit of stopping by daily, weekends included. The bar, a popular restaurant-industry destination and always a reliable place for late-night drinking, benefited from a menu of pizzas and assorted fries served almost till last call.

With a proven track record of early and late business, you wouldn’t expect the new owners of its replacement, Social 52, to stray too far from the formula. And they haven’t.

But physical changes abound. Remodeling has extended the bar to seat 20 and opened up the wall that used to separate the bar from the dining area. Even on the gloomiest of days, there’s more light than ever made its way into the dark recesses of Avalon. Taps finally have been installed, all the drafts are from Virginia, and the beer list numbers more than 60.

The one screen over the kitchen entrance has given way to four big screens. Large chalkboards tout the late-night menu, the draft offerings and that you can watch football on Sundays with sound. Instead of bartenders choosing their favorite CDs and inevitable periods of silence when they got busy, like before, an upbeat, current indie mix blasts steadily, fighting with the hard surfaces to be heard. Pretty much all vestiges of Avalon have been exorcised.

Social 52’s pub menu offers starters, soups, greens, sandwiches, flatbreads, entrees and sweets. Ghost pepper Buffalo chicken wings ($7) aren’t meaty but the heat’s impressive. A grilled hanger kebab ($10) over chilled spicy peanut noodles is medium-rare and gloriously chewy. A sriracha honey glaze makes firecracker shrimp ($11) pop. But unless dipped in one of the two sauces, crispy duck spring rolls ($9) are tasteless. Petite salmon cakes ($11) are bland, and the crispy fried leeks on top of them taste stale.

Under the heading flatbreads are five pizzas including vegetarian and duck confit, a holdover perhaps from Avalon’s popular duck pizza. But I’m intrigued by the redneck flatbread ($8) of bacon, caramelized onions, pickled jalapeños, mozzarella and Parmesan, mainly because of the name. Why redneck? According to my server, it’s because all the ingredients could be found at a gas station market. It’s perfectly adequate at dinner but probably would hit the spot come late night.

A beet salad ($8) has more spicy walnuts than beet pieces over an appealing mix of fresh greens and goat cheese. Beer-simmered grilled bratwurst ($8) is a solid sandwich joined by a mound of crisp shoestring fries. As a fan of sloppy joes, I want to like the social joe ($10), but the mixture of ground turkey and pulled beef brisket smothered in beer barbecue sauce doesn’t quite work, the turkey tasting like unwanted filler.

An entree of lamb meatballs ($19) simmered in rosemary dijon demiglace with roasted shallots, red potatoes, carrots and green beans, a riff on beef stew, is beautifully executed. Rosemary delicately infuses every bite, and while the potatoes, shallots and carrots are long-cooked, the beans clearly have been cooked separately and added in, so their crisp tenderness provides a pleasing textural counterpoint.

Pubs aren’t known for their desserts ($6) and they’re pretty basic here, but the confectioner’s sugar-dusted chocolate crème brûlée is dense and satisfying. And there’s a charm to seeing a root beer float as an option.

On all three of my visits, service is friendly, if sometimes scattered. The young staff is numerous, food runners facilitate and there always seem to be servers nearby, whether or not they’re yours, to address any needs. Social 52 is a work in progress and needs more time to fine-tune the food. It’s trying in a lot of ways, offering the full menu until 11 p.m. and the late-night menu till 1 a.m. It’ll even help you score points with Mom — bring her in for Sunday brunch and her food is on the house, as long as it doesn’t cost more than yours. If that isn’t enough to sweeten the pot, they have 66 beers and turn on the sound for Sunday football.

Social 52
Monday 5 p.m.-midnight
Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.-midnight
2619 W. Main St.
353-9709
social52rva.com

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