Darien Social was so busy on the day it officially opened to the public that the kitchen ran out of pizza dough.
Although he's confident in the success of the new bar and restaurant, General Manager Baird Van Beever still was a little stunned by the Feb. 1 response. By the following afternoon, Darien Social already had 100 reservations for dinner for that evening.
Darien Social is situated in the heart of the downtown area, on the corner of Post and Tokeneke roads. It's address and main entrance may be 10 Center St., but the bar overlooks the Darien Train Station. Commuters coming down the staircase from New York can make a short walk across the street to experience a gastro-pub type of atmosphere.
Darien Social has exposed brick and wood-paneled walls, dark wood furnishings, leather banquette seating and a large white granite top bar and is decorated throughout in earth tones. The renovation of the ground-level space took four to five months to complete, and there's a lot of attention to detail in many of the features - from the glass-enclosed, floor-to-ceiling wine case to the brick pizza oven. Vintage black-and-white photographs depicting the 1920s, including one of the original "Rat Pack" and another of New York City, grace the walls.
The eatery employs 60 people in the front and back of the house, and Van Beever will add staff when needed. The main dining room seats 120, the bar 30 and the seasonal patio another 50. The one-page menu is simple and offers basic fare with the Executive Chef Nick Bilello's special twists. Guests can choose from a selection of snacks and small plates, sandwiches, pizzas, entrees, salads and farmstead cheeses. Daily specials also are offered. Among the menu items are Swedish meatballs with foie gravy, shrimp and grits, wood-oven-roasted chicken, fish and chips, wild salmon and filet mignon. Diners can build their own pizzas or choose one of five off the menu; there's a Chef Pizza of the Day as well. Prices range from $8 to $15 for snacks, burgers $10 to $13, pizzas $11 to $14 and entrees $18 to $30.
"This concept allowed me and my crew as well as Nick and his crew to branch out and try a lot of different things we read about or heard about that we couldn't try anywhere else ... We are able to be very creative," said Van Beever.
Van Beever brings more than 20 years of experience to Darien Social and has managed Conte's, Barcelona and Red Lulu. Assistant General Manager Christian Orlando was a tapas chef for Spike Mendleson's Pepin in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a sommelier at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianch's Otto in New York. The beverage director, Mike Boughton, began his career at the Southport Brewing Company. He became a certified sommelier through the Sommelier Society of America.
Bilello carefully crafted the menu, which will change seasonally, and buys his produce, cheeses, meats and fish locally, within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant.
"We are right in tune with what's new and hot," he said.
Deliveries of fresh ingredients are made twice a day, he said. Some of the farms he works with have winter greenhouses so he ensures he gets the freshest lettuce and other vegetables. He is quick to point out that the only item in the freezer is ice cream.
He said, "I wanted to do something that was going to stand out in Fairfield County. We want to be that approachable farm-to-table style restaurant. We don't want people to feel like you have to go and spend $300 ... but you can splurge if you want to," which they saw opening night.
Bilello opened the original Burger Bar & Bistro in South Norwalk in 2006, which served a specialized menu of burgers and comfort foods. Previously, he owned and operated the same location as Tenero, an Italian Trattoria. He also had management and cooking positions at Mario Fontana's Habana and Ocean Drive.
At Darien Social, he seems to have found his niche. "It's fun to be busy especially when you're just starting off new. The town has been so accepting of us. There's such a big buzz and it makes us so happy that we did the right thing ... We are going to get where we want to be much faster than we anticipated," said Bilello.
The 31 draughts pour from an array of handles at the bar and are carefully cooled at the right temperatures in a cooler in the basement. In addition to the stouts, ales and lagers, the bar features "Skinny" cocktails, including a Flaca Margarita made with Don Julio, agave nectar, fresh lime and Combier. Van Beever explained that the bar also makes the "New Old Fashioned" with bacon-flavored bourbon.
Van Beever himself spent two months hand selecting the wines from the around the world to provide connoisseurs with the old and the new. "I wanted to bring in wines that you don't see every day on the display in a wine shop or retail store ... that it's hopefully something unique to this experience." The wines include those from Italy, France, Germany, South America, among other places.
He also is thinking about hosting a Kentucky Derby party on the patio with large-screen TVs so guests can watch the race and drink mint juleps, which are on the beverage menu. Live music also is in the offing. "We want it to be fun and comfortable but a little different," he said.
Darien Social is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, starting at 11:30 a.m. Reservations may be made for parties of six or more. Darien Social also uses a new technology called ResBook, which is an iPad app, that is drawing people to the restaurant. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are accepted. For more information, call 203-614-8183 or visit www.dariensocialct.com.