Restaurant Profile: Meet a familiar local chef whose new venture in downtown Rockford, Ill., is all about local foods and unique drinks.
he night scene in Rockford, Ill. isn’t exactly known for the kind of speakeasies and urban hangouts that anchor restaurant districts in big cities like Chicago or New York. But Paul Sletten brings a welcome addition to that night scene with Social, 509 E. State St.
“We want to bring really simple, good quality food to a cool setting with a cool atmosphere and some unique drinks,” says Sletten. “It’s a culmination of my and my wife’s experiences dining in this city, Chicago, Madison and around the world, and putting together all the things we really loved into one unique package.”
Launched this May, Social combines locally-produced foods with custom-blended cocktails in a trendy, urban environment. As owner and head chef, Sletten brings the same handcrafted food and atmosphere that’s already familiar at his other restaurant, Brio, just down the street, which he has owned since 2005. His new venture focuses on locally-grown produce and meats. He first caught onto the local food movement a few years ago, and he’s been hooked ever since.
“We met with some local farmers and got to taste what they’re producing and what they’re growing,” says Sletten. “We just tasted the difference. As we dined out and explored local farming, we found other places that were doing local food and cuisine and we were really intrigued by it.”
The local-only theme carries through the entire menu, and into the drinks list, where possible. The extensive bar menu offers high-quality spirits and custom-blended cocktails. Those mixes incorporate various bitters, home-squeezed juices and herbs grown on-site. Choices of organic spirits, handcrafted spirits and older spirits like Chartreuse and absinth round out the selection.
True to its name, Social is a place to interact with others. Inspired by tapas bars and other gathering places, the group setting encourages sharing and mingling while dining.
“Our tables are communal,” says Sletten. “We have four tables that serve up to eight each, and the bar seats 10. We don’t take reservations – just walk in.”
The Social experience sets a hip, lively mood. Exposed-brick walls are at home with original tin ceilings and wood doors and floors. Several light fixtures came from an old factory, and wood for the tables and bar shelving was salvaged from a 19th-century barn in Rockton, Ill.
“Social is a totally different experience from what you get at Brio; it’s almost a reversal,” says Sletten. “At Brio, the menu is more composed, with more components and techniques, lots more sauces, spices, cooking techniques. Here at Social, the food is much more simple, more grassroots, almost farm cuisine, with fewer sauces, and our focus is really on the cocktails.”
Sletten’s already dreaming of his next downtown venture. Meanwhile, he’s developing a winter menu at Social that stars fresh, locally-produced foods – no easy feat when you rely on what’s in season locally.
“There’s nowhere else where you’re going to see people making drinks with liquid nitrogen,” says Sletten, “or where you can go to the farm and actually see the product that you’re cooking and eating. There’s nowhere else that’s made out of 150-year-old barn wood. It’s basically everything I’ve ever wanted to see in a restaurant.”
Social is open for dinner and drinks every night except Monday, starting at 4 p.m. ❚