Art Of The Meal: Social Skills
Tybee Island Social Club
1311 Butler Ave.
It’s still cold outside, but I’ve already detected Emily Dickinson’s winter afternoon “certain slant of light” – that earliest harbinger of the earth’s revolution, the one you can almost feel immediately after New Year’s. It forecasts warmth, sandals, a charmingly renovated 1950s beach cottage and pink Georgia shrimp. And there, dear reader, in the sunny spring, is an early getaway to Tybee Island and the handy new spot some friends and I discovered late last fall.
Tybee has never succumbed to the onslaught of tastefulness and overbuilding of neighbors like Hilton Head, instead maintaining its own quirky charm amid tacky souvenir shops and low-rise residences on its shores.
The economy decimated the island’s restaurants, taking two of the few fine-dining establishments – The Hunter House, and the late, lamented Georges’. (However, another sign of hope has re-emerged – see bullet, on page 95.)
The Tybee Island Social Club (only the word “Social” appears, with a floral flourish, on the sign and menu) fits perfectly with Tybee’s fierce, eccentric independence. Last known as Cousin Vinny’s Pizza, the storefront has been re-imagined as a charming whitewashed, sun-bleached outpost. Walk past the large, shady patio inside, where ceiling fans lazily revolve amid chandeliers made with recycled, colored glass insulators. Hung on the painted white beadboard, you’ll find almost as much ephemera as on a long walk on the shore – old surfboards, island art and photos, and (um, why?) even mounted heads of deer and caribou. Over in the bar area, where it’s less likely to annoy, you’ll find a wide-screen TV set to sports, and a vintage Ms. Pac-Man table console. Order at the counter, take a marker to your table and wait for your eats.
The Tybee Island Social Club describes itself as a “taqueria,” but purists will scoff at that description. These little – sandwiches? bites? wraps? – arrive in griddled pita, using, whenever possible, local and/or organic ingredients. Any taco can be made as a salad, increasing your choices without carbo-loading. The menu is long, with imaginative flavor groupings like chicken with butternut squash, chili paste, toasted walnuts and organic spring greens. (Each taco also comes with a suggested wine or beer pairing!) With most per-taco prices hovering around $4.50 and topping out at $5 or $6.50 for dearer fillings like braised short ribs and lamb, Tybee Island Social Club allows you to feel you’ve dined on a dime. Even better, this is the kind of yummy, fun grown-up place kids will love as much as you do.
If you’re after more grown-up choices, be sure to try the cocktails. One brunch offered a special Bloody Mary, complete with a crisp-fried bacon slice. On another fall visit, we tasted the seasonal Manhattan, with local honey, sweet vermouth and organic apple liqueur. Social’s house-made white and red sangria, with fresh fruit, are lighter choices.
On two visits, we gave the menu a thorough going over, and not one taco disappointed, though some were clear standouts: The fried fish (fried tilapia, on our visit) taco, with bacon, pear puree, chorizo and cilantro had us swooning, as did the tender duck with sliced local radish, jalapeno and allspice apples. (Yes, it sounds strange, but it worked.) If you’re not ready for such eye-openers, opt for the plate of steak frites, the peel-and-eat local shrimp or the chorizo burger. Among the always-changing sides, we gobbled up the butter beans with spicy sausage and the sweet potato fries, as well as the deliciously light and creamy crab soup.
Don’t skip dessert either – not if they’re offering bread pudding with bourbon sauce or a crumbly ricotta cheesecake. Just remember to wait two hours before you go in the water.