When I arrive at Port Hope’s The Social Bar and Table, head chef Eric Dreher is halfway through preparing the dishes for their spring menu. Each new item is being prepped for photographing for use on their website, which gives me a chance to see several of the Social’s offerings lined up along the bar. They look so good it’s hard to take my eyes off them as I sit down.
“Everybody gets to demonstrate their creativity, everybody gets to have a say in things,” Eric tells me, when I ask him how the staff settled on the new dishes. “We’ll all kind of work together, we’ll try and come up with the best menu items that we can that would suit this environment and the theme that we go with here.”
A big part of that theme is eclecticism: past menus have drawn influence from French, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, and North African cuisine. The unifying element is a cozy, casually chic ambiance and a commitment to local food sourcing wherever possible. The Social is Feast On-certified, which guarantees a high proportion of Ontario products on the menu and on tap. Hence the spring menu update, and Eric tells me they switch out dishes based on availability three to four times a year. Nearby Burnham Family Farm Market provides much of the produce, with proteins like fish and beef coming from slightly further afield, including farms in Wellington County and Kingston.
The beer list is as local and varied as the menu. “We don’t have any Molson or Labbatt’s, we don’t do any big names. For Port Hope I believe that we are known as the Ontario craft beer bar,” manager Jason Fuller chimes in. “we’ll get a case or two from different breweries and as it runs out we jump to another brewery. It’s a constant flow.” Prominent among the taps during my visit is the Social’s house lager, brewed under the auspices of Muskoka Brewery.
Adding to the appeal is the Social’s location right beside the Ganaraska River in downtown Port Hope. When the patio is open, it more than doubles the size of the restaurant. Situated in a handsome heritage building, the restaurant manages to stand out in a city with no shortage of impressive historic architecture.
While Jason and I chat, Eric prepares a tandoori chicken salad with avocados, green grapes, arugula, toasted almond slivers, cilantro and lime. The recipe is based on one Eric’s mother’s signature dishes, and its taste is both fresh and filling. It promises to be a hit, especially in warmer weather.
I try the red curry cod and am impressed to find such a nuanced flavour outside of a dedicated Thai restaurant. On next visit I may sample one of the more traditional Ontario favourites like the prime rib beef burger, buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, or braised brisket. Or if the season’s changed, I may just see what the crew at the Social have come up with since. Eric tells me that would definitely be in the spirit of the place: “It’s a lot of hard work but it pays off because you get to be creative and it keeps your mind active. You never stop learning and there’s always room to grow and move forward.”