Harbor Social, Punta Gorda’s hip new pavilion on W. Marion Avenue, has already taken the town by surprise a few times in its young life.
In spring 2020, its skeleton seemed to rise overnight from a vacant lot at Sullivan Street, its chain-link fence postered with the tickly tease “Coming Soon: Harbor Social — Spirits, Unique Dining, Nightlife.”
Rumors swirled about what the barnlike structure would turn out to be. Turns out that its four-word formula hinted at its future pretty accurately.
According to then-Vice Mayor Lynne Matthews, “The intent is to have ... food trucks on the perimeter, with a permanent bar and bathroom structure in the interior. ...”
But, oh, it’s so much more now.
AN EVOLVING VISION
Harbor Social’s partners at first rolled out a vision of “fine dining meets New Age food truck.”
In a way, all that’s still true. It’s fine dining. Out of a kitchen on wheels. But it’s gone way beyond New Age and food truck now.
Think L.A. foodie vibe, renegade cuisine, unique live-band karaoke with enough backup singers to make anybody sound good.
Punta Gorda’s never quite seen this before.
It soon became clear that guest food trucks were no longer part of the plan.
Harbor Social serves affordable, chef-driven dining of its own. And executive chef/GM Jimmy Salemi insists that their monster mobile kitchen is SO “not a food truck” that he might paint that reminder in big, bold print on its side.
Instead, gourmet chefs, each manning his or her own station in their 46-foot permanent mobile kitchen — more than double the length of a large food truck — do the cooking.
Four of the chefs have worked at Punta Gorda’s Perfect Caper and, said co-owner Jimmy Paquette, “all of them are very talented.”
According to Paquette, “Our vision is ever evolving. But the idea is to have this curbside appeal that draws people in, with live music as often as we can, open until late, and exceptional food. That said, we’re also selling an awful lot of beer, liquor and wine.”
The focus for the 3,520-square-foot interior has become a lively daily happy hour, at a 30-seat full-liquor bar basking in the glow of a mammoth flat screen plus 15 more. A fire pit and heaters keep gatherings toasty.
The place’s logo changed from a beachy martini icon, like every other local restaurant has, to a mildly racy 1940s pinup kicking back in a martini glass.
“We’re trying to be that place where Punta Gorda has fun,” said Paquette.
The target market?
You might think it’s Punta Gorda’s increasingly visible 20-to-40-something crowd, but look around and you’ll see every age group there.
Punta Gorda just wants to have fun.
CHEF-DRIVEN, BY A DRIVEN CHEF
Chef/GM Jimmy Salemi was on overdrive even on his day off.
Working the tight kitchen, consulting with bar manager Mike Matthews, entertaining his four-year-old son, changing the piped-in music from hip-hop to smooth jazz, greeting guests.
Salemi had arrived in Punta Gorda just before Christmas. Within less than a week, he’d written an edgy East Coast menu that started raising Punta Gorda eyebrows almost at once.
“This is the first time I’ve gotten pushback to wording in a menu meant for adults,” he said. “I may change some of it, but this is renegade style.”
The Johnson & Wales-trained chef had worked with James Beard-nominated Rising Star Chef of the Year Michael Saperstein, one of the brains behind Boca Raton’s Rebel House gastropub.
Rebel House was home to renegade cuisine — an in-your-face style characterized by wild eclecticism, unexpected spices, small plates and brash flavors that make taste buds do the fandango.
A former punk rocker, Salemi’s grownup passions are food and drink. And he isn’t shy about fusing “a bit of this, a bit of that” in astonishing ways.
HOW TO WRITE RENEGADE
The trim Harbor Social menu is designed for imbibing, ingesting and sharing, at a venue already known for its happy hour and jazzy new cocktails.
It now offers only eight tapas plates, two salads, five entrees, and such cheeky, in-joke descriptions that diners might scratch their heads and ask for a glossary.
What are AF, OG and LTO? “All-fired,” “oh, gosh,” and “limited time offer”?
“I like to have fun,” Salemi said, straight-faced.
The chef even understands kids, of whom he has two.
So, his “Little Harbor Social Menu” caters to “children who don’t like our other food” and lists everything from PB&J to chicken tenders under kid-savvy headings well known to all parents: “I don’t know,” “I don’t care,” “I don’t want that,” “I’m not hungry” and “I don’t like it here.”
“We’re going to expand the menu,” Paquette said, “but we wanted to start small and simple, master a handful of things and grow from there.”
Harbor Social won’t give you any gluey complimentary bread basket. It opts for Rebel House’s signature freebie: popcorn-of-the-day, seasoned with sweet cereal or cinnamon-toast flavors for brunch, savory stuff for dinner.
And who knew that polenta, for one, could be so versatile?
Not just your mama’s, papa’s or nana’s grits, these parade their NOLA side in Shrimp & Grits, a crispy polenta cake with Cajun-trinity grilled shrimp and andouille. They also pivot smoothly into Spoonbread — polenta fingers and shrimp smothered in a blanket of French-style heavy cream, corn and jalapeño.
Brussels sprouts tossed in hoisin, soy and crispy Chinese sausage, sprinkled with cashew dust, are unlike any we’ve seen locally. Rebel House reviewers called them “nothing short of brilliant.” We do, too.
Too punk for Punta Gorda?
Perhaps, but our taste buds are in love.
Harbor Social ($$, O, M), 212 W. Marion Avenue, Punta Gorda (across from Leroy’s), is open Sunday to Wednesday 3 p.m. to midnight, Thursday to Saturday to 2 a.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Live entertainment often.