You wouldn't expect a trendy New Haven establishment to have something in common with "Sesame Street." But once you see the miniature toy ducks floating in coupe glasses at Elm City Social, you might find Ernie's favorite bath-time tune playing in your head.
The Rubber Ducky has quickly become a signature sipper at the College Street bar and restaurant, its name and adornment a play on the term "bathtub gin." Bartenders infuse New Amsterdam gin with fresh Citra hops, then construct the drink with grapefruit, lemon, basil and sparkling water.
"I think it depicts our cocktail program completely," says owner and executive chef John Brennan. "Bitter, refreshing, balanced, and we don't take ourselves very seriously … so we're going to garnish it with a floating rubber duck."
Brennan's Elm City Social is the latest venue to take up residence in the unique three-story space at 266 College St., which has a lengthy history as a restaurant property and has been home to Bespoke, Gilt and, most recently, Briq in the past decade.
"I really love the outline of the building; it's obviously very historical," he says. "A lot of things have happened in this area, let alone this building. So I was really excited by it; we just sort of went out to figure out what would be a good concept to put in here."
The restaurant and craft cocktail bar made its debut in early August after two months of renovation, opening its third-floor rooftop for drinks and light bites to maximize the final weeks of pleasant weather. The distinctive building has a fashionable dining room and a first-floor bar that opens to a street-level patio; a second-floor lounge is used frequently for trivia nights and games of Cards Against Humanity. Though the décor is contemporary, historical photos on the walls illustrate past decades of life on College Street, including the building's time as Kasey's Restaurant in the early 1900s.
"We took a little bit of old New Haven, a little bit of the modern aspects of New Haven, tried to merge them together and pay homage to the great history of the city," Brennan says.
A longtime chef, Brennan previously worked for Plan B Burger Bar and helped open its Milford location. While he strives to present a high-quality menu (local, seasonal ingredients and free-range, antibiotic-free meats,) he also keeps it fun, focusing on bar snacks like pickles, jerky and nuts ($4 to $7); more than a dozen "social plates" of shareable appetizer portions ($6 to $15) and cheese and charcuterie platters. Guests enjoy duck confit sliders, raw tuna tacos, sweet potato pancakes with cranberry horseradish jam, baked brie, "farm bird lollipops" of marinated chicken in a variety of flavors and a take on chicken and waffles, with blueberry jam, fresh basil, whipped whiskey butter and peppercorn maple syrup.
"I think people are intrigued by the wording on the food menu, and they're certainly pleased when they come and try everything," he says.
Entrees ($19 to $27) are "for the famished," with carnivorous favorites like pan-roasted chicken, a signature burger and a fall dish of Cabernet-braised venison osso buco joining creative vegetarian alternatives like a cauliflower "steak" with red pepper and walnut romesco, coconut curry, whipped white beans and mustard greens. Brennan also plans a dish centered on roasted butternut squash, with Thanksgiving-esque additions of candied pecans, cornbread stuffing, cranberry jam and sauteed Brussels sprouts.
Sunday brunch is becoming popular, with indulgent plates like red velvet waffles, crab cake and duck confit Benedict, chicken and waffle sandwich, lobster grilled cheese and a dish of hanger steak with sunny-side-up egg, avocado, ranchero sauce, house hot sauce and garlicky black beans, otherwise known as "a cow with a chicken somewhere on its back somewhere in Mexico." Brunch entrees are $12 to $21; add an Elm City mimosa or a Bloody Mary with deviled egg and bacon stirrer for $10.
Elm City Social's cocktail menu is expansive, too, separated by category: boozy classics, sweet dessert drinks with cream and bourbon; "garden to glass" with fresh seasonal juices, "experimentals" where bartenders showcase their creative ideas and "Dark Ages Enlightened," freshened-up versions of 1980s-era drinks like rum and Coke and the cosmopolitan. "History in a glass" features a mint julep and a Ramos gin fizz, made to order with cream and egg whites and hand-shaken for a full five minutes to achieve its recognizable frothy white cap.
Brennan says he envisions the area near the intersection of Chapel and College streets as "New Haven's cocktail corner," encompassing his spot, its neighbors, Owl Shop, the soon-to-reopen Anchor Bar, and Ordinary, nearby on Chapel.
"We want to make that a destination in the area," he says. "I always loved New Haven. I love the Owl Shop; I've been going there forever. I love going to Ordinary. New Haven is one of the few cities, I think … that has a real lot of character to it. I almost see it as a small mix between Boston and Manhattan. It's very eclectic."
Brennan's goal was to open a space with "the warm cozy atmosphere of your local pub. We try to be a little edgy, but not too much; really accepting, social. There's a little bit of something for everybody. It's your choice what you want to do today. … There's always something going on. We're really focused on everyone's experience when they come in here."
>>Elm City Social, 266 College St., New Haven, is open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. 475-441-7436, elmcitysocial.com.