It took us a while to discover the downtown restaurants of Vero Beach, Florida. When we first started coming to the Treasure Coast, we headed straight for Vero’s beach resorts. We wanted to see the ocean and hear the surf hitting the sand in the background while we dined. Once the allure of the sea wore off, we wised up and realized that some of the most interesting restaurants and bars are to be found in the historic downtown. When we found Southern Social, we were hooked.
Southern Social is located in the heart of the historic Arts District on 14th Avenue, a street lined with restaurants, shops, and galleries. The Arts District has a very retro, old school Florida feel. Many of the buildings were constructed during the 1920’s Florida Land Boom, including the historic Theatre Plaza (1924) and the Pocahontas Building (1923-1926), which was built in the Mediterranean Revival style that was popular in Florida during the 20’s.
The Main Street Vero Beach program has been working since 1998 to revive the historic downtown, organizing monthly gallery strolls, food tours, and Downtown Friday celebrations on the last Friday of each month. As in many cities, this kind of urban revitalization brings with it new restaurants.
The three owners of Southern Social are Vero Beach locals. Angela and Nick Novak have owned the craft cocktail bar Filthy’s Fine Cocktails and Beer just a few blocks away since 2008. In 2016 they joined with longtime friend John Scharr to open Southern Social.
My first thought walking into Southern Social was that this is not a typical beach restaurant. The atmosphere is rustic and cozy, casual and trendy, decorated with reclaimed wood and black chalkboard walls that are filled with words of wisdom like “Eat More Bacon” to get your appetite going. The cuisine is Southern comfort with creative touches. The owners have their own interpretation of Southern food and we have to say that we approve of their version.
We get there early to snag seats at the small but swanky bar. Happy hour goes from the time that they open at 5:00 until 6:30pm. It is a rare happy hour that doesn’t compromise quality for cheap drinks. The house wines, which include a Chardonnay and Cabernet from BV Coastal, are perfectly nice wines and a bargain at half price. We like to start with one of the $5 cocktail specials—either a Moscow Mule or Gin Tonic—to sip while we check out the menu. (These were the happy hour specials during our recent visits. Ask the bartender about the current specials, since these tend to change.)
But the bar here is not just about happy hour. Bar manager Jacob Turner and bartender Charlie craft the best cocktails we’ve seen in the area. I usually choose from their imaginative list of House Cocktails. My husband likes to go off menu and let the bartender craft a personal cocktail from the extensive selection of whiskeys. Somehow his cocktails always seem to involve smoke.
While the cocktails are great, it’s the food that brings us back again and again. The food is hearty and the flavors are bold. The dishes are not overly pretentious or so pretty that you don’t want to touch them. Instead, the arrangement of colors and textures invite you to dig in. Just take a look…
The Short Rib Poutine is a substantial appetizer that is big enough to share, but also could be a meal. Fat, crunchy fries and cheese curds are topped with plenty of melt-in-your-mouth beef short rib meat, all covered in brown gravy. The acidic zing of pickled jalapeños, sweet peppers and green tomato chow-chow cuts through the fat, brightening up what might otherwise have been a heavy dish. Okay…it’s still heavy but awfully delicious.
The Brisket Fried Rice is the dish that we keep going back for. It’s a crazy combination of an Asian fried rice strewn with chunks of rich, tender smoked brisket. Everything about it was good—fat, salt, acid, sweet—it hits all the right spots. It is topped off with a soft fried egg. When the liquid yolk runs down and mixes into the rice, it pulls the whole dish together. In fact, you can add a fried egg onto just about anything on the menu for two dollars.
The Braised Short Rib Pot Roast is another bowl full of big flavors. They have combined pretty much everything I would want in a Southern meal into this dish. A generous portion of fall-apart tender beef short ribs is served over creamy cheese grits, salty pork belly collard greens, and crisp sweet carrots.
We asked for the Roasted Rack of Lamb cooked medium-rare and they nailed it! The chops were bright pink in the center with a nice sear on the outside. Of course you can’t go wrong matching lamb with mashed potatoes and bourbon-glazed brussels sprouts.
We go for the Seared Scallops when we’re in the mood for seafood. The scallops are perfectly seared and cooked. The nutty sweet meat of the scallops is complemented by a glaze of bacon jam on top and thick creamed corn underneath. Crispy fried leeks finish off a well designed dish.
A Southern meal isn’t really complete without a sweet ending, however we’ve yet to save room to try one of their desserts. But you should! There is Banana Pudding, Fried Oreos, Hummingbird Cake, Brownie S’Mores…maybe the next time I should start with dessert and work backwards!
1932 14th Ave Vero Beach, FL 32960