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The downtown Social scene 

When Top Flr opened last year, it signaled a generational shift in our city's dining. A few friends put together some money, found a space, and opened a restaurant that felt like a bite of fresh air -- quirky, personal, genuine. It was a step up from our younger generation of restaurateurs' past endeavors. Top Flr placed an emphasis on quality usually reserved for fancier, stuffier restaurants. The food was exciting and the wine list was one of the best in town for its price range.

Since then, a whole host of restaurants that share this pioneer spirit have opened. The gastropub phenomenon is well documented. But not since Top Flr has a restaurant felt so geared toward the European tradition of casual, affordable eating in an unpretentious environment. Until last month, that is, when Social opened quietly on an out-of-the-way street downtown.

Owned by the Chikhaoui brothers, who've been operating Fina in College Park for the past four years, Social is a return to the Mediterranean flavors of the brothers' childhoods along the French/Italian border. The split-level space is modern and attractive, with wooden communal tables and a long bar downstairs, and a slightly more formal dining room upstairs. Social's glass storefront is easy to miss for a number of reasons, but primarily because West Peachtree Place is an out-of-the-way one-way street. (The location has been useful to me for years because it's often home to that rare creature, the elusive downtown parking spot.) Plus, the restaurant blends so well into the row of businesses, you have to be right up on it before you realize there's anything there. It's a pity there's not more of a residential neighborhood in this part of town, because Social's the restaurant I'd like to have right up the block from my house.

If it were, I'd go there most often for a carafe of wine. Social has a short list but a high wine IQ. Most of the wines are available by the glass, carafe or bottle, and the selection of both reds and whites is thoughtful and eclectic, with an emphasis on French wines that don't subscribe to common flavor profiles. The owners and servers are eager to discuss, and they encourage tasting.

Social's menu excels at Mediterranean small plates that place just enough emphasis on American trends to appeal to the crowds. Beet napoleon stacks beets with creamy goat cheese, dressed with a lick of honey and a smattering of pistachios. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but everything works just right for maximum munching satisfaction. Chicken livers on toast play against the richness of brandy and the sweetness of golden raisins for a dusky, gratifying snack.

Eggplant caviar, smooth and rife with garlic, sneaks up as one of the menu's best dishes. It seems so simple, but quickly becomes addictive with its assertive precision.

There are a couple of places where some boldness in spicing could help. Beef meatballs swim in a gratifying sherry sauce, but are somehow internally lacking in flavor. Seared scallops over orzo would benefit from a ramping up of tarragon in the beurre blanc. I get the feeling someone in the kitchen is holding back, but even so, there's so much balance to what's being served, it seems foolish to complain.

On a cold winter afternoon, the simplicity of a roasted veggie sandwich – a curiously satisfying stack of monochromatic zucchini and eggplant with a smear of olive tapenade – makes Social's fresh, uncomplicated approach to Mediterranean cooking seem spot on. A dish as straightforward as vegetable lasagna manages to surprise with its faultless, hearty execution – the pasta gently yielding, the veggies cooked to a perfect al dente, the seasoning exactly right.

Downtown is still a gamble for restaurateurs, especially in the current economic maelstrom, and particularly on a lesser-known street with no foot traffic. The irony is that Social's a perfect neighborhood restaurant in a non-neighborhood. But it's also the exact type of establishment this economy calls for: a place where you can have a sophisticated meal and a fantastic glass of wine for far less money than you'd pay for a more formal experience. It's a lot more inviting, too. These folks are thrilled to let people in on their little culinary club. I hope they weather the storm, because it's a club I'm excited to belong to.

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