One of the most difficult maneuvers for a neighborhood restaurant to execute is “the turnaround.” After investing heavily in startup costs, a restaurant gets off on the wrong foot and despite repeated attempts just can’t seem to get its footing, year after year. The people in the neighborhood eventually lose patience and the restaurant just sort of sits there, mostly empty.
Such is the case with the brewpub that a couple of years ago was re-christened Social Kitchen, on 9th and Irving in the Inner Sunset. Bringing in talented brewmaster and cicerone Rich Higgins seemed to signal brighter days ahead. But even though Higgins made some very good beer, the kitchen still seemed out of step, stuck in the fried bar food formula that’s almost become a parody of itself. Despite promises of cuisine a la biere, the stereotypical pub grub from a revolving door of chefs never lived up to Higgins’ L’Enfant Terrible and Rapscallion Belgian-inspired ales and his German-style Social Kolsch and Old Time Alt.
That may be changing with the arrival of chef Chris Wong, who left Luella in an attempt to resuscitate the dining experience at Social Kitchen. Even though Higgins moved on earlier this year, he left the brewing in the very capable hands of Kim Sturdavant. Over the past several months, Sturdavant, who had previously made beer at Marin Brewing, has put his own stamp on the brewery. Whereas Higgins worked mostly in the German and Belgian traditions, with a nod to English-style ales, Strudavant brews unapologetically in the tradition of English session beers, like bitters, milds, pale ales and porters. Sturdavant, who honed his craft brewing beer in England, is a big fan of British malt and hops like East Golding, which are more subtle and less assertive than the West Coast varieties that have risen to prominence over the past few years. And he’s even importing English ingredients to make his tasty brews.
Most importantly, chef Wong and brewmaster Sturdavant are on the same culinary wavelength. Recently, Social Kitchen introduced a Sunday brunch menu that reflects Wong’s culinary ambitions for comfort food paired with Sturdavant’s delicious interpretations of British-style ales. Together, they are inventing a New World twist on British pub food, pairing dishes like Wong’s beer-braised short rib hash or pork belly fried rice with Sturdavant’s food-friendly Ramsgate Rye PA pale ale. American pale ales, and especially IPAs, are frequently too bitter to pair well with many dishes, but the Ramsgate Rye tastes like it might complement just about anything on the menu. And typical of English session beers, it is relatively low in alcohol while still being full of flavor.
In the short time that Wong and Sturdavant have been collaborating, they’ve managed to finally accomplish the cuisine a la biere that Social Kitchen aspired to but never quite attained. They’ve got a huge challenge ahead of them in changing the perception of a much maligned neighborhood restaurant and in finding their audience. In the past, Social Kitchen tried to be everything to everyone and ended up being unsatisfying.
But if management sticks with their talented chef and brewmaster and lets them evolve together, they might establish Social Kitchen as a beer/food destination along the lines of Belgian gastropub Monk’s Kettle or brewpub Magnolia, which is heady praise indeed. Social Kitchen definitely deserves another look from beer and food lovers, and not just those residing in the Inner Sunset.