Read as many press releases for nightclub openings as I do and a certain tone emerges. You start to picture Orlando's downtown scene as a hyperactive teenager. More important, you start to ask what that teenager wants to be when they grow up. And the answer, apparently, is "Miami."
Downtown nightclubs love to compare themselves to Miami and I can understand the attraction for some. For many clubgoers, "South Beach style" is shorthand for a certain VIP image, a place where soft neon glows over sparkling dresses. For others, it's mere justification for overpriced drinks and a dress code.
A little dash of the cosmopolitan is not, in itself, a bad thing. But in a downtown that borrows this much style, you have to wonder: What does "Orlando style" look like? Is there even such a thing?
Native Social Bar takes aim at an answer. The nightspot's local flavor goes deeper than the name, with a theme meant to evoke the "rich culture and history of Orlando." Ironically enough, the concept is the brainchild of brothers Keith and Romi Mawardi, whose Miami upbringing is no secret to any patron of their posh downtown club Tier.
Native, which opened last month, takes over the space previously occupied by the loud and lewd Mako's, and I'm glad to see that not a trace of that bar's overactive hormones remains. The vibe at Native is cozy and classy, with equal accommodation for those who want to dance or hang back at the side tables. My favorite bit of decor: The distinctive bird-cage lights hanging near the entrance.
And then, of course, there's that "Orlando style." Where Native is concerned, that style is represented by black-and-white photos from Orlando's past and present adorning the brick walls. Some are obvious (a shot of the Lake Eola fountain), others less so (a close-up of the distinctive latticework on the "Round Building" at 455 S. Orange Ave.). There are also conversation-starting factoids printed on coasters: "Semoran Boulevard was named as such because it runs between SEMinole and ORANge county." Touristy? Hey, I'm a local and I didn't know that one.
The draft selection is pretty standard but reasonably priced at $4-$5. Happy-hour specials are mighty tempting from 6-9 p.m. daily, featuring $2 tallboys and $3 well drinks. Be sure to check out the specialty drink menu, too, with potent entries such as the Peace Offering ($7), a crowded but surprisingly smooth combo that includes Amaretto, Southern Comfort and 44 North Huckleberry Vodka, along with the kitchen sink. All are served up in Mason jars for an extra touch of homespun flair. You won't have to wait long for them: Bartenders behind all four bar stations were friendly and quick on my visits.
With no cover and a welcoming patio, here's hoping Native can find the regulars to match its theme. It'll face some stiff competition between the cheap-drinks crowd at Chillers and its more upscale neighbors at 23 and Oakroom. The latter clubs also are owned by the Mawardi brothers' Team Market Group, which expects to give 23 its own patio sometime this summer.
Theme aside, Native may not be my first option when out-of-towners ask for a "local bar" but it's certainly my new favorite place on Church Street. My only quibble? The presence of bathroom attendants, who don't really jive with the rest of the laid-back picture. Maybe they don't know how to dry their own hands in Miami, but around here, we do just fine.
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Native Social Bar
Where: 27 W. Church St., Orlando
Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday-Thursday