Fun summer-camp décor aside, this under-realized novelty restaurant on Seventh Street is mostly bunk.
Theme restaurants never really went away – look no further than Hard Rock Café, or the lingering vestiges of Planet Hollywood for proof – but they definitely fell out of favor after their Bobby McGee’s-era heyday in the early 1980s, particularly for food-focused diners who found the shtick a bit distracting.
But like The Byrds and the Bible say: “To everything turn, turn, turn.” From New York City’s live-streaming Live on Air to subterranean tiki-riffic Phoenix watering hole Undertow, themed dining and drinking appears to be making a comeback. My theory? Diners aren’t taking themselves so seriously anymore, and don’t mind taking a little fantasy ride with their upscale meal. Consider Camp Social, situated on the arguably overcrowded Seventh Street dining drag north of Bethany Home Road. Brought to us by Chicago-based Glass Half Full – the company that snapped up and rebranded Dos Gringos in Old Town Scottsdale – it’s a theme restaurant inspired by family camp-outs and summer camps, with a hefty dollop of sports bar thrown in for good measure.
Given my usual loathing for this sort of thing, I’m surprised to find myself charmed by the tiny pink camper-turned-hostess station at the front door and the nearby carved wooden bear, one woolly paw raised in ursine greeting. It’s kitsch, but smart kitsch. The A-frame structure – built over a huge rectangular bar, which boasts four highly coveted tire-swing seats – has the beckoning look of a camp dining hall, while the covered patio, furnished with red lantern-topped picnic tables and brightly upholstered chairs, promises to be a great place to camp out in cooler weather. For active campers, there’s a game room in the back, outfitted with a pingpong table, table shuffleboard and vintage arcade machines – indoor activities for cocktail-swigging customers.
The place brims with fun, but for whom? As kid-friendly as Camp Social claims to be, it’s really a barn-size bar offering boozy distraction for adults, not a wholesome hangout for families. Friendly servers, reminiscent of cheery camp counselors, wear green T-shirts sporting images of a campfire and skewered marshmallows with the message: “Let’s get toasted.” So that’s the real intent here, not shared nostalgia for sack races and kumbaya singalongs. That said, I could like this place – do like this place – in the daytime, when the mood is laid-back and the noise level doesn’t cause permanent hearing loss. At night, however, it’s nothing more than an elaborately decorated, unpleasantly loud bar with a dozen TVs tuned to sports.
The camping theme plays out just as loosely in the kitchen, where thematically on-point camp dishes are overshadowed by self-consciously “elevated” bar bites. It’s basically a Disney-fied gastropub, with a motley, mediocre menu featuring hummus, avocado toast, jazzed-up trail mix, pork rinds, Asian-inspired pork shanks, lobster-topped pizza, poke, ravioli, prime rib and, yes, the obligatory charcuterie board. Admittedly, a few dishes kinda-sorta work, but not well enough to lure me or any of my companions back for a meal on our own dime.
Trail Snacks – aka small-plate appetizers – compose the lengthiest section of the menu and probably the most worthwhile. I don’t know anyone who eats steak tartare on a campout, but maybe I’m taking this theme thing too literally. Coarsely chopped, lightly smoked and studded with capers, it’s salty-smoky “man food,” served with potato chips (a fun twist) for scooping. Poutine, a specialty of Quebec composed of french fries and cheese curds drenched in gravy, is an equally unlikely preparation for campfire or cook-stove, but there’s no denying it would taste great on a cold night in the woods. Camp Social’s version arrives in a small cast iron pot smothered in elk meat gravy and studded with fried pickles for tangy crunch. It’s decent – I’d eat it again, just as I would hobo stew, served in tinfoil with a side of “wood-fired” toast. Made with little more than ground beef, stew veggies, brown gravy and gobs of melted white cheddar, it’s college-kid food, hearty and uncomplicated.
Lamb scrumpets – thick planks of shredded lamb, deep-fried until they’re browned and crunchy – are bar food, British-style. Served with stone-ground mustard, they’re greasy and heavy, decent-tasting but not something I’d order again, which is the same way I feel about Camp Social’s pork shanks, here expressed as morsels of ham on a tiny bone. Glossed with a Korean savory-spicy-sweet chile paste called gochujang, they lend our mouths a pleasant glow, but the meat’s a bit tough, the dish vaguely disappointing in light of the sexy sauce.
We’re back on track, thematically speaking, with crisp-fried walleye, the Midwest’s claim to fish fame. Oddly enough, it’s tucked into a sandwich here, while ocean cod is used for the fried fish entrée. For an extra two bucks, I switch out the cod for the walleye, receiving three generous pieces of crispy golden-brown fish, the mild white meat unappetizingly dry and overcooked. The dill-jacked, house-made tartar sauce is great, but dry fish is dry fish.
The menu also contains a slew of pizzas, named for national parks and given unusual toppings like smoked clams or lobster. Would that I had ordered either of those! Upon the recommendation of two servers, we try the Everglade, topped with alligator sausage, hot peppers, tomato sauce, garlic, parsley and Parmesan. It’s a dud. The crust is rock-hard, while the top is all sauce and spice.
Side dishes hit the theme, but miss the mark. Baked beans with bacon, brown sugar and sambal (another chile-based condiment, this one from Indonesia) sound heavenly, but they’re undercooked and strangely bland. Tasteless, lukewarm mashed potatoes and whole baby potatoes, roasted in tinfoil with an entire rosemary bush, don’t really work, either. Under-salted, under-realized.
Usually my mood improves over dessert, but not this time. I’m impressed that the s’mores are made with house-made graham crackers and marshmallows, but the marshmallows taste store-bought anyway, and can’t touch Helen Yung’s scratch-cooked mallows at Sweet Republic.
In the end, my attitude about theme restaurants is the same as it was 20 years ago: The best part of the experience is the décor, but you can’t eat furniture – a scenario that rarely makes me a happy camper.
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