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article by: Mark Nardone
Crispy Parmesan Brussels at Torbert Street Social./Photo by Steve Legato
Though the hip new spot in downtown Wilmington is oriented toward drinking, the menu is worth exploring.
Torbert Street Social makes much of being a secret, but after opening this past September, the secret lasted about five seconds. That’s no surprise. It’s tucked behind two restaurants of enduring popularity—Mikimotos and the Washington Street Ale House—and it had the marketing might of its parent Big Fish Restaurant Group behind it.
Torbert Street was something new in the neighborhood, something hip in the way that so many people enjoy of late—rustic, with contemporary touches—and something somehow necessary, with its emphasis on craft cocktails and beer garden–like outdoor area, despite the proximity of Miki’s and the Ale House. Torbert was a home run, so even several months later, you’ll see exactly what you would hope to see at dinnertime on a Friday night: a large crowd making merry. That’s great. The city can always use more of that energy.
Guests enjoy drinks inside Torbert Street Social./Steve Legato
What you won’t find, if you go there intending mainly to eat, are readily available tables. The place is oriented toward drinking, especially the house cocktails, which is also great. There are plenty of people who could use more of that, too. But the dearth of easy seating for meals is also a shame because, although the food is of a kind that makes a great base for an evening of fun—heavy, hearty—it stands on its own.
So, first-timers, some strategy is helpful. Going in, you need to have a clear sense of purpose. Are you there to drink or to dine? It makes a difference.
The house saves a few tables by the front door for regular seating and service, where you’ll be slightly removed from the din that arises when 100 people are partying in close quarters. You will also find service at one of the few low, plush velvet chairs along the wall of the main bar area, and you’ll be right in the thick of the action if you like that sort of thing and don’t mind craning upward to check out the crowd. If you can’t wait out a table, or you just need a place to perch your Ketel One Botanical and tonic, you can seat yourself at one of two long communal tables between the row of chairs and the bar—social, indeed—or at a high-top cocktail table near the kitchen, then order from the bar.
Twice Cooked Duck Wings./Steve Legato
Kitchen Manager Josh Brenneman prepares a pizza./Steve Legato
Don’t worry. If you are at first as confused as we were, the staff will help you figure it out. My companion and I put our name on the list, threaded our way through the room until we found enough space to move a bit, then tried to find a gap in the bar so we could order a drink for the wait. Before that space opened, a server came to take an order, and almost as soon as she delivered one very cold beer and one very good Old Fashioned, we were offered a pair of chairs. With such a big crowd, I expected to be waiting a while.
The menu (food and drink) hits all the trends: pizzas, sliders, artisanal cheeses, charcuterie and more, all served in shareable portions. Here, a proper table would have helped. We ordered so many “shareables,” and they arrived in such rapid succession to our tiny cocktail space, we came dangerously close to having to balance plates on our knees. Not that it wasn’t fun.
Broccoli Rabe, Mushroom + Sausage Pizza./Steve Legato
It seemed that 30 seconds after a big plate of Brussels sprouts and an order of Twice-Cooked Duck Wings arrived, a pizza landed, too. This is not a comment on service or the kitchen’s timing. We ordered a pile of food, with the attitude that each plate would arrive in due course. We soon found ourselves divvying duck wings onto our individual plates, removing candles, sliding a dish of crab dip onto the pizza plate and rearranging drink placements to make way for more.
And if the portions hadn’t been so generous, more of almost everything would have been in order. The heaping pile of tiny, tender Brussels sprouts was rich in flavorful Parmesan and bacon bits. (What doesn’t benefit from frying in bacon grease?) The meat of the half-dozen duck wings fell off the bone, the chili glaze light and sweet in a way that countered the dark flesh. We agreed: The lobster deviled eggs weren’t the highlight of the meal—the filling was dry, the lobster barely detectable—but they were OK, the kind of picnic food that still goes great with a beer, and I appreciated the garnish of fried cheese.
Lobster Deviled Eggs garnished with chives and fried cheese./Steve Legato
The ample skillet of crab baked with cheese, with its trio of fontina, Gruyere and Manchego, was a fresh, exceedingly lush take on the cream cheese–based standard. The bread was perfectly toasted on all sides—a pretty good trick—but too thick and chunky to make easy dipping. The pizza was a treat: thin, crispy, redolent with sautéed rapini, savory sausage, fresh cremini mushrooms and roasted peppers. I prefer my pizza from pizzerias, but it seems that returning to Torbert to try the other styles is a worthy project.
As is exploring the cocktail menu, which tends toward the herbal and mildly fruit flavored. You won’t find entrées per se, but remember: The key word here is “social.” Sharing is key—sharing your personal space, too.
Torbert Street Social
305 Torbert St., Wilmington
Prices: Cocktails, $11–$15; bar snacks, $8–$11; shareables, $10–$19; sliders, $13-$15
Recommended: Twice-Cooked Duck Wings, Broccoli Rabe, Mushroom + Sausage Pizza