It is not immediately clear whether Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club wants you to know it is there.
Without really knowing if there is any potential of personal harm involved with this revelation, I will divulge that it has been open since May on the first floor of a building at Howard and Bayshore. Don't look for a sign. There isn't one.
There is a small sign at the valet stand, and if you don't have a reservation, that might be as far as you get.
"Is there anything you want to tell me?" asks the attendant at the stand.
That was a cue to offer the secret password we got in a phone call confirming our reservation about an hour before we arrived. After we passed that test, we were directed past the pool to a plain brown door. There was no special knock, which was almost disappointing, but there was a doorbell. A small door within the door opened, with another request for the password. Upon entry, there was a list of rules to be read and agreed to — no hooting or hollering; gentlemen are not to initiate conversation with unescorted ladies. Seriously.
The staff is dressed like Prohibition-era revelers, and for the most part they stay in character. They are clearly serious about the speakeasy conceit.
This is a lot of effort, and will require the food and drink to be pretty sensational to prove worthwhile.
It is. And the constant crowd, built on little more than word of mouth, would seem to back that up.
To say that the drink menu is special is to completely undersell it. The small novel of a menu is filled with a couple of classics, but mostly original riffs by the staff barkeeps. Each of the drinks we tried seemed special; two standouts were the Georgia Julep ($11) and the Corn-Fed Peach Sour ($10). Our waiter expounded on the procedures used to create each drink from scratch, from custom booze to house purees. Even the ice had a backstory. It was an impressive amount of information, but the thing we retained was that the drinks tasted great. The peach sour dangerously so.
The dinner menu stands up to the originality of the drinks, and for the most part, the dishes tend to appeal to adventurous appetites. Sure, there is a steak ($24). It is tenderloin that is easily taken apart with the side of a fork and grilled "Pittsburgh" style, the outside blackened but the inside kept a cool medium-rare. The beef sits on a mushroom sauce and comes with an impressive heap of duck-fat fries. When the steak is gone and the fries are alone with the gravy, you have reached the best part of the dish.
Otherwise, the entrees lean to interesting fish and fowl. We tried the Greek-style calamari and octopus ($12), a small cast-iron pan full of the star ingredients, which are first grilled, then tossed with olive oil, olives, tomatoes, capers and feta before getting a quick blast in the oven. Cheese with seafood is often a controversial call, but the only quibble here is that some of the octopus was a bit tough. Duck confit ($13) was perfectly tender and paired with a rich potato gratin and blackberry-cardamom jus. Just like grandma used to make.
There are three seating areas. High-top tables in the bar area are the least interesting but probably the most pragmatic. Flip those descriptors for the booths. They are curtained-off lounge areas with nesting cocktail tables, L-shaped benches and a lot of pillows. Quite cozy, depending on the volume of the party next to you, but the set-up made eating a challenge, because it was nearly impossible to get the tables close enough to avoid shuttling food precariously through the air. A third area is a more communal lounge with the small tables. The thing they all have in common is low lighting. So low that the menus light up when they are opened, sort of like a refrigerator.
The snacks on the menu are a little easier to negotiate in the booth dynamic. Pizzas come atop focaccia. The house-cured pork belly pizza ($12) was memorable. The big chunks of bacon worked perfectly with sweet caramelized onion jam, barbecue sauce and thyme. This isn't takeout.
But the popcorn ($4), we were told, is. The bucket is seasoned with black pepper and truffle salt, and our server said that they'll make it to go if you are on your way to a movie. Pick the movie wisely, though. Very few deserve truffled popcorn. The housemade stuffed pretzels ($6) were perfectly suited to the booth experience and tasted like a super-savory Danish, stuffed with chorizo sausage and manchego cheese. Meanwhile the cheese fondue ($12), an excellent blend of cheese and wine, was one of the more difficult things to eat in the booth setting. At a high-top, it would have been ideal. In the booth, it was hard to avoid considering the potential dry-cleaning bill.
Dessert options were slim, but the clear winner was the waffle with Newcastle ice cream. The beer adds a malty flavor to the ice cream, and, yes, that is bacon on the waffle under the chocolate sauce.
The location is the original site of the first Cevíche, and Gordon Davis, one of Cevíche's founders, is a player at Ciro's.
The buzz around Ciro's has centered around the difficulty of getting in, so I made a reservation for a weekend visit and showed up without one on a weeknight. A week ahead, time slots were limited for a Saturday night visit, but available. On our weeknight visit, we showed up early, got a little bit of a sideways look when we said we didn't have a reservation, but were seated immediately. By the time we left, though, the place was full. Reports are that Friday nights are perpetually packed.
Even as word has trickled out about Ciro's, not everyone has heard about the need for reservations. As we were leaving after our weekend visit, two couples were at the valet stand pleading to get in: one man in a tux, the other in a fine suit, both women in little black dresses, one with a black feather boa. "Tell them we look good," the feather boa lady told the attendant to relay to the host. They were cleared to proceed to the door.
It was the right night to break out the feathers.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.