Presenting itself as an old-fashioned American bar and grill does Darien Social an injustice.
Strategically located across the street from the northbound (and homebound) train tracks, and with ample parking in back, the place is a sleek, contemporary uptake on a small town gathering place.
The worn barn-wood siding, floors and beams contrast with the sophisticated marble top on the long bar with three television screens. Old-time barn lighting and historical framed Darien photos contrast with cushy upholstered booths and high-topped tables and chairs.
Expansive windows in both the front and back dining rooms give a sunny, airy lunchtime experience and bring the neighborhood to life at night. The outdoor dining space is like a private backyard in the center of the village.
The designers here got it just right -- this is a very "social" atmosphere for today's upscale tastes. Service, however, is often slow and uneven, though usually upbeat and positive.
And in the end, it is always the taste and service that matters.
In the liquid tasting arena, the bar features no less than 31 perfectly poured brews on tap and there is an array of contemporary cocktails, from a bourbon-laced "Kentucky cousin" iced tea or a completely odd (but tasty) old fashioned, with maple syrup and a candied bacon rim.
The menu is equally lighthearted with lots of bar snacks and the currently fashionable small plates. Gruyere cheese and macaroni is nicely enlivened with peas and toasty bread crumbs, and shrimp and grits features two giant grilled shrimp atop crisp polenta cakes in a creamy sausage-flecked gravy.
Both are satisfying, but could be memorable with a bit more herbed or peppered zip. On the other hand, onion soup is lovely as presented with its heady sherry-infused broth and melted bambino cheese croute.
Swedish meatballs are comfortably homespun and nicely updated with dabs of cranberry jam, toast points and a rich foie gras gravy -- all prettily presented on a long wooden board.
Other classic small plate options with contemporary twists are spareribs with a chipotle glaze, artichoke gratin with excellent crisp flatbreads and grilled scallops with tomato, bacon, and a celery salad.
Also offered are a selection of good quality farmstead cheeses, including Camembert with spiced sour cherries and kumquat jam.
Burgers can be terrific here, especially when the kitchen is not stressed with an overflow crowd. They range from the chef's special Social Burger with caramelized onion and black pepper truffle mayo to the mushroom bacon cheeseburger with Shelburne cheddar.
But our favorite is the BBQ Burger that features ultra-juicy short ribs, fried onions, Camembert cheese and zippy barbecue sauce. Non-meat eaters might try a salad that include classics, such as Cobb or Caesar, or beets and goat cheese.
Pizzas are usually non-events at non-pizza joints, but here they are treated (and baked) with respect to produce lightly charred, yeasty thin crusts. Interesting toppings include heaps of wild mushrooms, grilled artichokes or sauteed garlicky shrimp, though we'd have liked just a tad more cheese and herbs.
Main courses are few and include simple and appealing roasted chicken or tender beef short ribs. Fish and chips are not quite as crisp as we'd like, but the flavor is right on target.
Desserts are whimsical, simple and delightful, especially creamy pot de crème, with, crunchy sugar cookies, or rich chocolate mousse cake, with heaps of thick whipped cream.
The apple turnover, really a deep- dish pie, would be terrific with its fragrant apple filling and buttery puff pastry crust if not so quickly heated to cause the crust to become soggy.
Darien Social, especially when the service matures a bit, is sure to be a true "social" experience, with its inviting atmosphere, great selection of beers and appealing small plate and burger menu.
10 Center St., Darien, 203-614-8183, www.dariensocialct.com
HOURS: Sunday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
RESERVATIONS: Accepted for parties of 6 or more
CREDIT CARDS: AE,V, MC
PRICES: Appetizers, small plates $15-$6; sandwiches, salads, pizza $14-$9; main courses $32-$18; desserts approximately $8