OpenTable.com has a list of the Top 10 Booked Restaurants in New York. For a long time, the Stanton Social was on that list. It isn’t any longer, but I’m sure it’s not far off the pace. I almost pinched myself a few weeks ago, when I saw a 7:00 p.m. two-top on a Friday evening, and grabbed it.
If there’s a popularity checklist in the restaurant industry, the Stanton Social ticks all of the boxes. Its inexpensive tapas-style menu covers all the popular cuisines. Check. Kobe beef and foie gras are on hand to contribute an haute cuisine flourish or two. Check. Lower East Side vibe. Check. Eye-popping AvroKO décor. Check. An ear-thumping sound track. Check.
I arrived early, so I headed upstairs to try a few of the house cocktails. Black Magic ($10), a simple mixture of Guinness and Brut Champagne, was a complete failure. The bartender later admitted he hates it too: “Guinness and champagne can be good friends outside of work, but they don’t belong together at work.”
The Social Tea ($12), with Stoli Citros, green tea and orange-honey marmelade was appealing in a generically sweet way. But the best of the three I tried was the bartender’s recommendation, the Blood Orange Jalapeño Margarita ($12), with a house tequila that marinates in jalapeño peppers for about two weeks.
The menu, as noted, is entirely tapas-style: “Rather than offering individual starters and main courses, The Stanton Social serves dishes that are designed for sharing and are brought to the table steadily and continuously throughout the meal.”
Awarding one star in the Times, Frank Bruni commended chef Chris Santos’s “determination to find readily divisible finger food where no chef has found it before.”
Our server advised 5–6 dishes as being about right for two people. That was pretty reasonable advice. We chose five (out of a menu offering nearly fifty), including all three that she recommended. While we waited for our food, the kitchen brought out crisp bread with chipotle garlic butter (above right). We would easily have eaten more than one slice apiece, had there been more.
Duck Confit Empanadas and Potato & Goat Cheese Pierogies (left); French Onion Soup Dumplings (right)
It’s safe to assume that the kitchen’s greatest hits are mostly pre-assembled, as our first two plates came out after only five minutes or so. We loved Duck Confit Empanadas ($9), which had a nice tang, the blood orange dipping sauce offering a sweet-sour contrast. Potato and Goat Cheese Pierogies ($8) were less interesting, and my girlfriend (who’s half-Polish) felt that these deep-fried dumpling-like creatures weren’t pierogies at all. [Sorry about the washed-out photo.]
We also wondered why, on a menu designed for sharing, the kitchen would send out three empanadas and three pierogies. Most of the parties at the Stanton Social are even numbers of people. Would it have been that hard to create dishes in twos or fours, rather than threes?
French Onion Soup Dumplings ($11) admirably show off the chef’s talent for going where sharable plates have never gone before. Served in an escargot dish, there are six dumplings, each on a skewer with its own crouton, a hot onion soup center, and Gruyère slathered on top. Even more admirably, there are six of them.
Kobe Beef Sliders and Fries (left); Braised Short Rib Soft Tacos (right)
Kobe Beef Sliders are one of the few dishes not designed for sharing: they’re $7 apiece, and a wonderful tender gooey mess. The server recommended a bowl of fries ($6) to go with them. They were hot and not greasy, but over-salted. Beef Short Rib Soft Tacos ($19) weren’t very flavorful, and seemed somewhat “flat” compared to everything else we tasted. Once again, there were three of them—an odd design in more ways than one.
Tapas-style restaurants usually send out plates when the kitchen is ready, no matter what the customer may want. I don’t know if we got lucky, or if the Stanton Social is more enlightened, but the pace of our meal was just about right. Plates were delivered, cleared, and delivered anew on schedule, without us having to deal with mountains of food we weren’t ready to eat.
Of course, that “schedule” needs to be construed in the terms of a restaurant designed to turn over the tables quickly, and where no food item is meant to be lingered over: we were in and out in under 75 minutes. Given the din of the sound system, we weren’t eager to spend any more time there than necessary.
Although we snagged a 7:00 p.m. table, no one should conclude that the Stanton Social is losing its popularity: the place was packed. The small-plates format is still a winning one, and there are many clever choices to tempt you. If one or two are less successful, you’ll still have several others to enjoy. A larger group could very well try most of the menu.
We weren’t quite impressed enough, however, to endure again the crowds, the noise, and the difficulty of getting a reservation.
The Stanton Social (90 Stanton Street between Orchard & Ludlow Streets, Lower East Side)