Social OTR Creates an Excellent Dining Experience with a Mission in Findlay Market

Community, connection and cuisine

click to enlarge Exterior of Social OTR - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Exterior of Social OTR

Every time we host out-of-town visitors, they insist on including Findlay Market on our agenda. I’ve lived in Cincinnati since 1995 and have delighted in the continuous growth of the market and, more recently, its neighboring streets. We are truly blessed to have this gem in our midst, honored just this month by Newsweek magazine as one of the 10 best markets in the world.

As much as I’ve appreciated the butchers, bakers, chocolate makers, artisans and eateries in the market itself, Findlay just keeps getting better as new commercial and residential developments pop up on Race and Elm streets. While the bars and restaurants in the south-of-Liberty section of OTR have gotten the most buzz over the past few years, the Findlay Market area north of Liberty is fast becoming the next “it” inner city neighborhood.

New and interesting restaurants have led the way in this renaissance, with more to come. French Crust, Harvest Pizzeria and (especially) Sartre put this section of Elm Street on the foodie map, and now Social OTR has added another wonderful dimension to the neighborhood’s dining options.  

A nonprofit venture owned by the Corporation for Findlay Market, Social OTR not only nails its ambitious New American menu but also aims to fill a multitude of societal and business needs in our community. I’ll get back to that part of this restaurant/bar with a mission, but as CityBeat’s dining critic, I feel it’s my mission to tell you first about the dining experience at Social OTR.

click to enlarge The main dining room - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The main dining room

In a word: terrific. The restaurant actually is a two-in-one, with front and back rooms featuring different décor and service styles but the same menu. They’ve been doing dinner since opening in February and added weekend brunch in mid-May.  

At the Elm Street entrance, you’ll find a couple of sidewalk patio tables and a sunny front room with a mirrored bar. Social OTR emphasizes connection: most seating is at communal tables that encourage diners to sit with strangers and perhaps make new friends. (They do have several smaller tables on side walls if that suits you better.) The back room, with an entrance from the alley, has a darker, cozier feel where the bartenders double as servers for the communal and individual tables. In my experience, that seems to be the most popular of the two rooms and it’s where I’ve hung out. 

But the Elm Street side feels perfect for starting your weekend morning with one of the brunch entrées, such as the scrumptious-sounding pork belly and Brussels sprout hash or duck confit eggs benedict. 

I first went for dinner on a Wednesday, which happens to be burger night. Each week, the staff comes up with a different burger prep, and this time it included not only duck-fat fries but also a bottle of beer and a shot of whiskey, all for $16. The same night happened to feature $1 oysters, a treat one of my companions couldn’t resist.

click to enlarge The pappardelle - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The pappardelle

Otherwise, the menu includes about eight “Snacks,” 10 to 11 “Small Plates” and just two “Large Plates” — a steak dish and chicken roulade. We focused on the snacks and small plates and never made it to the steak or chicken.

Safe to say that our consensus favorite was the piping-hot, generous portion of pappardelle pasta. Its mushroom herb sauce became extra delicious with butter-poached wild mushrooms and ramps. A special of diver scallops was cooked just right, tender and succulent. Another winner was charred pulpo — aka octopus, although the kitchen overcooked it on the first attempt. The bartender/server replaced it with a flawless redo and was generous enough to take it off our tab. (To me, that’s a sign of great service and a genuine customer orientation.)

They didn’t have a lot to choose from at dessert, but cocktails and other libations shone brightly. Whether you prefer tequila, rye, gin or any other spirit, the house cocktail list has you covered. And our bartender/server recommended an Austrian red wine called Zweigelt that paired beautifully with the pappardelle.   

Our dinner, and another quick visit for drinks, made everyone happy. But there’s a whole back story to what Social OTR is up to.

Because of the growth in dining options all over the Tri-State, restaurants have a hard time finding and keeping reliable staff. And plenty of potential employees can’t afford to train in the industry and/or have other obstacles that diminish their work options. Social OTR “teaches people looking for employment the necessary skills to get restaurant jobs,” according to the Findlay Market website.

click to enlarge The back bar - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The back bar

In partnership with CityLink, a faith-based nonprofit organization that works on multiple fronts to combat poverty, Social OTR participates in a workforce development program that starts with training students for four weeks at the CityLink facility. The next step is for students to learn on the job in a casual/upscale environment, and that’s where Social OTR comes in. Students work in the basement prep area and then in the kitchen for 24 to 30 hours per week. After 12 weeks, graduates get placed in kitchens around the area.

Chef/instructor Eli Stull told me that their goal is to fulfill staff needs especially at the fine-dining level restaurants. To that end, he said Social OTR intentionally creates menus designed “to give students a balanced skill set when they get placed in higher-end restaurants.” His team teaches everything from knife skills, molecular gastronomy and baking to butchery, pasta making and just about every cooking technique — braising, sautéing, roasting and so on.

Anthony Berin, general manager at Social OTR, said he has been working on this project for over two years has had the concept and design in mind for most of that time. As a nonprofit, revenue-generating model that’s self-sustaining, it’s the very definition of a social enterprise. Combine that with the emphasis on communal tables and shared plates and the name “Social” is just right. 

Social OTR, 1819 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine,

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