I was thinking a bit about the ubiquitous speakeasy trend and it occurred to me that the nucleus of the thing isnít flapper dresses, moustaches or suspenders, but rather the suggestion of exclusivity ó of being cool, in-the-know and invited to the secret party. (Remember when the neo-speakeasies required passwords?)
Youíve seen the beer commercials, where a set of nondescript doors opens into an improbably wild party draped in opulent decor and populated with beautiful people having more fun than youíve ever had at a party in your entire life. Pal, youíve gotta get that beer.
My point is that exclusivity is appealing, and why not? Everyone wants to be in on it, no matter what it is. I once saw a crowd forming and decided to join it just to see what would happen, rather than simply ask someone and reveal my outsider status. I more recently waited in a line for nearly 30 minutes to get into a bar, as if it were this weekís hot Manhattan nightclub.
That bar is CWís Gin Joint, which, despite being in business for approximately 10 minutes, has already established itself as the place to be in downtown Tampa (with capacity crowds to prove it).
Iíll admit to being a hype contrarian at times, but Iím not immune to this sort of thing, so I put in my party-of-two claim and we waited patiently as well-dressed couples ó at least I wore my clean sneakers ó trickled out of the double doors, laughing and smiling, accompanied by a burst of crowd noise from the party inside. Eventually, the tuxedoed doorman informed us that it was our turn, and we stepped inside.
This gin joint is no ordinary effort. The place is massive and impressively swank, filled with countless sofas and chandeliers, accompanied by a long marble bar that faces an entire wall of bottles. Thereís a baby grand piano in the back next to a wall adorned with photos from the Jazz Age, like Josephine Baker posing with her leopard.
The only available space was a small loveseat in a back corner, notable for being the primary pathway for an army of servers in suspenders to travel to and from the kitchen, forcing me to move my feet every few seconds to avoid tripping anyone carrying $100 worth of entrťes. Hey, itís a price Iím willing to pay to hang with the cool kids.
CWís Gin Joint, if you havenít guessed, is a cocktail bar. The beer list is quite good (shout out to Sam Smithís Nut Brown Ale), and the wine list can go toe-to-toe with a few of the better ones in town, but this is about cocktails, baby. So much so that the cocktail menu folds out into a large proprietary "Gin Matrix," helping guests to isolate their gin preference based on where they want it to taste on a spectrum of floral, citrus, savory and juniper. There are about 50 listed, so youíve got some choices.
The cocktail program is courtesy of Dean Hurst, who you may know from his outstanding work at Bernís and Haven. The cocktails at CWís Gin Joint are the real deal. I could go on about the quality and creativity of the individual drinks, or the fact that the menu actually includes a sherry cobbler (bonus point awarded), but just believe me when I say that this program is as solid as the giant blocks of ice that the bartenders chisel into for ice cubes (seriously).
I will add, however, that I was especially impressed by how effective a simple cocktail is when some thought is put into it. For example, the Grocery Getter is simply, "Titoís vodka /seasonal fruit." In this case, thatís a mix of lemon, plum and lavender. A martini takes a slight citrusy twist with a dash of orange bitters. A piŮa colada gets some extra spice, by way of housemade chai coconut cream. The gin matrix makes a simple G&T order much more intriguing.
Itís nice to be hip to the cool new spot in town, but itís even nicer when thereís a solid payoff. CWís Gin Joint has the advantage of being cool and new, but itís got more than enough chops to make a lasting name for itself in a cocktail landscape now dominated by attractive but ultimately superficial nods to the speakeasy era. The subtle missing ingredient of exclusivity may wear off down the road ó soon, even ó but Iíd say this oneís worth a visit even if you donít have to wait in line.
Contact Justin Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @WordsWithJG.
CWís Gin Joint
633 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 816-1446; cwginjoint.com
The vibe: A ritzy restaurant and cocktail bar that hits the speakeasy theme on multiple levels.
Food: Sides, starters and shared plates, $5 to $85; entrees, $22 to $44; desserts, $8 to $11.
Booze: Beer, wine and liquor. Beer, $5 to $17; wine, $4 to $25 by the glass and $30 to $150 by the bottle; liquor, $8 to $195.
Specialty: Head straight to the cocktail list and check out the Gin Matrix, a proprietary flavor chart that helps you identify what kind of gin you may be in the mood for. I wanted to go in the citrus + savory direction, so I went with the Panda, made with Opihr Oriental spiced gin, Dolin Blanc vermouth, sherry and bitters. The possibilities with gin drinks alone should keep you busy, but rest assured that the cocktail list of spruced-up classics and compelling originals is varied enough to please any cocktail fiend.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.