First Look: Bellwoods Social House

OTP comes ITP at the Westside watering hole, but feels a bit lost in the crowd

Have you noticed that the Westside is hopping? New apartment buildings are popping up left and right. The stretch from Star Provisions to the new Delia's Chicken Sausage Stand continues to gain momentum as one of the city's top food and drink destinations. Bartaco is drawing crazy crowds, the Optimist still packs them in like fishes, and the upcoming Le Fat hopes to be a big hit in the former Yum Bunz space. It's easy to see how an ambitious restaurateur might see opportunity in the Westside crowds, even where others have failed before.

Such is the case with Bellwoods Social House, which opened in late August next to 5 Seasons Westside, taking over the spot formerly occupied by West & Mill and Swit Bakery before that. The main man behind Bellwoods is chef/owner Leif Johnson, who also runs Bite Bistro & Bar in Alpharetta. Conceptually, Bellwoods seems to borrow a lot from its older brother, striking a similar contemporary-bar-with-gussied-up-ingredients pose. The look of Bellwoods fits this intown neighborhood — lofty ceilings, lots of natural light, walls of stacked firewood as a decorative element, bar as centerpiece. It manages to feel both cozy and cool and casual, and the plentiful patio space just outside ties the restaurant nicely to the bustling neighborhood.

Bellwoods' menu is surprisingly expansive, starting off with a Bites section of fancified bar snacks (potato skins with chipotle tzatziki), a short selection of wings, then a few small sandwiches (like mini lobster rolls with lime aioli and pickled onion) dubbed Buns. There are more substantial plates (shrimp and grits with smoked chicken) labeled as Bowls, followed by salads, and a section called Two Hands — sandwiches and a burger that emulates In-N-Out. On top of all that are various tacos to choose from, and a bunch of pizzas, too. It's enough to make your head spin, especially when you actually start to try to make sense of what exactly they're describing and why exactly so many different ingredients are being put in proximity of each other.

For example, you quickly hit Seahive boxty rolls listed under Bites. Do you know what Seahive is? Do you know what boxty is? The list of ingredients that follows gives hints at what's to come: potato and Seahive cheese crepes, house-brined brisket, jalapeño slaw, krussian remoulade. So it's a Jewish Irish deli meets Tex-Mex with some other stuff thrown in kinda thing? Turns out, yes, that's about right. And as one might guess from the description, the dish feels like it has a really good formula at its roots — a Reuben — but piles on a few last second ingredients to add an extra layer of flavor or two.

Extra layers of flavor turn out to be a running theme at Bellwoods, in case the chipotle tzatziki on the potato skins didn't tip you off. Even the simplest items on the menu try to turn the flavor dial up to eleven. The caprese pizza? It's got walnut pesto. And baby spinach. And pomegranate syrup. I'm all for piling on flavor, especially in a bar-centric setting like Bellwoods, as long as the flavors work together. But, as with the boxty rolls, that's not always the case.

Take the Southern fried chicken wings. You could argue that these are actually just fried chicken and don't deserve being lumped in with the rest of the wings. The drummies and flats carried an extra crunchy and thick skin, with just a light honey chipotle drizzle. And they make a fine little plate of fried chicken, but why oh why serve it up with a spicy mélange of pickled vegetables (starting with the typical carrots and celery, but then piling on broccoli, jalapeño, bell pepper, and onion) all doused in an oily vinaigrette?

The wild mushroom pizza I shared with a friend was surprisingly lacking in mushrooms, but arrived with an abundance of Sweet Grass Asher blue cheese and preserved lemon. The personal size pizzas have a relatively thin and nicely crisp crust, but without enough mushrooms to set the tone, the overload of rich blue cheese and sharp bits of lemon just pulled the pie in opposite directions.

Surely the big flavors are built to go with frosty beverages. After all, the bar should be the main draw at any place dubbed a Social House. But the bar menu at Bellwoods feels lackluster, especially given the competition in the area. There are some signature cocktails (I went with a Falling Leaves that was made with rye, Dolin blanc, and Berentzen apple liqueur, but tasted mainly of dusty spices), but nothing that would draw folks away from 5 Seasons, Bocado, Bartaco, or even Octane nearby. Ditto with the short list of familiar wines by the glass, the fairly typical selection of spirits with a slight tilt to whiskey, or the brief list of six beers on tap — with names like Sweetwater 420 and Monday Night Fu Manbrew.

Maybe the Westside is clamoring for boxty rolls and mini lobsta rolls and an extra layer of flavor (or two) to go with a 420. But me? I haven't figured out how Bellwoods is going to battle all the big hitters lining Howell Mill and Marietta these days. Back at Bellwoods' big brother Bite in Alpharetta, if you look out the door, the only other restaurant you'll see is a Bagel Boys Café. If Bellwoods is going to be an OTP to ITP success, it may need to think some more about how to stand out in a crowd without just turning that dial up to 11.

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