Changes for the crew behind St. Pete's Social

Social spent a year growing a following, only to close suddenly this week.

click to enlarge HERE’S JOHNNY: Social’s Johnny Ciani pictured here for CL’s 2013 Best of the Bay issue. - TODD BATES
HERE’S JOHNNY: Social’s Johnny Ciani pictured here for CL’s 2013 Best of the Bay issue.

So long and thanks for all the flatbreads and Moscow Mules. Social, St. Petersburg’s Best of the Bay-winning restau-bar, closed Monday.

Owners and business partners Jason Rappaport and Philippe Theodore opened the area’s first World of Beer inside the 5226 Fourth St. space in 2009. Soon, they’d open several more franchises locally, as well as across the country. In 2011, they opened another St. Petersburg location, this time in the heart of downtown on the corner of Fourth Street and First Avenue South.

“It’s a great block and we had to make the move,” Theodore told CL. After that, the original store “just didn’t make sense anymore,” with the pull toward downtown growing stronger.

So they decided to try a new concept there under the name Social, and brought Johnny Ciani aboard to take over operations. He already had connections to local producers through his father, John Ciani, who owns and operates the Odessa Farmers Market.

“We knew Johnny,” said Theodore. “We knew he was a foodie and he had an in with local farms. We wanted to explore using a smaller kitchen and local ingredients — good pairings for craft beer and craft cocktails.”

Food started six months later, featuring items like flatbreads with locally grown sunflower sprouts and still-warm-from-Mazzaro’s mozzarella cheese.

“The focus was going to be on local ingredients and local beers,” Ciani said. “Once we started the food, it just took off.”

The craft cocktail community took to Social enthusiastically, with bartenders like Mandarin Hide’s Tony Finotti, Edison’s Ryan Pinés, and Czar’s Kamran Mir concocting incredible Old Fashioned cocktails for a competition there. Things were going well. In September, Creative Loafing awarded Social a Best of the Bay for “Best upscale fare in a down-home bar.” On Nov. 21, the bar celebrated its first year in business.

So why close?

“We negotiated the lease early on and could not renew it,” Theodore said. “We couldn’t make that space economically viable.”

Theodore contends that the location has always been difficult but contends that the staff there “took a difficult location and made it theirs. That’s a testament to what Johnny started.”

For now, the parties are moving on to new projects, all rather hush-hush. Theodore is focusing his attention on World of Beer’s downtown location.

“Downtown St. Petersburg is dear to me,” he said. “There’s no other World of Beer in that kind of spot.”

He’s developing new concepts that will focus on the local craft beer movement.

“It’s important to build a presence with all the local breweries,” he said. “I’m focused on that, on helping craft beer continue to grow. Really, I’m focused on the roots of the craft industry in general and that’s what I’m hoping to participate in.”

Neither Theodore nor Ciani can divulge too many details just yet, but they’re both optimistic about the future.

“I want people to know that the culture we created at Social won’t die,” Theodore said.

Meanwhile, Ciani has irons in the fire to build on what he and his crew accomplished.

“The decision to close was out of my control,” Ciani said. “But the silver lining is that I’m working on something now and I get to bring the whole staff. I’m taking them with me and creating something great with them.”

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