First came the hurried e-mails. Then phone calls to confirm. Finally, with “secret” pass code in hand, we drove up and down Laurens Street in downtown Aiken searching for the one door where we could punch in that code to enter a glittering world of cocktails, fine dining, and well-heeled gents and dames.
It’s all part of the tongue-in-cheek homage to speakeasies of the ’20s by Aiken Speakeasy and Eats, a bar/restaurant near New Moon Café on the north side of Laurens Street. After all, the pass code is prominently posted on a chalkboard right next to the door.
We were meeting friends from Aiken that night: Mary Frances and Andrew, and Dustin and Jamie, and since we were the first to arrive, I was the lucky one who got to punch in 6126 and open the door. Inside, the restaurant is expansive: several rooms (the front room was showcasing a Charlie Chaplin film that night but offers live music Friday to Sunday), with glass chandeliers, moody blue walls patterned in silver, and framed covers of old song books.
Waiters and waitresses dressed in black moved quietly among white-covered tables, softly offering tap or sparkling water and presenting the drinks list. The speakeasy offers an array of classic cocktails including a Manhattan, sloe gin fizz, even moonshine drinks (but there’s plenty of draft or bottled beer, whiskey, scotch and wine, too).
My choice? The vodka and ginger beer Moscow mule. Meanwhile, my husband, Sean, was scanning the appetizer list. We’d fallen in love with broiled oysters while we were in New Orleans a couple of years ago, so there was no question what our choice would be. I also loved the menu’s clever design, like a newspaper, with “articles” on 1920s slang, Prohibition and moonshine; vintage ads (celery cola, anyone?); and the menu items running down the center of the page.
After our friends arrived, they dived right in to ordering drinks and apps: choosing the stuffed mushrooms and housemade chips with gorgonzola cheese and bacon. It was well-timed: As soon as they ordered, our oysters were served.
If I hadn’t had the New Orleans version first, I probably would have appreciated the broiled oysters a little more. These were a pale imitation: not quite as broiling hot, not as richly savory (but with large pieces of garlic), and I also found a couple of pieces of gritty shell in two of mine.
The stuffed mushroom caps seemed familiar, but not necessarily in a good way. I was trying to figure out what the stuffing reminded me of, when it came to me: the sausage from the frozen pizzas my mom used to buy us when I was a child.
But the chips! The chips made up for all that – and then some. They smelled and looked amazing: perfectly cooked, thin, golden brown not at all greasy and infused with a light bacon flavor. They were great on their own, but we all wished there was more gorgonzola to go around. It’s a strong cheese so you don’t need much, but one extra small handful would have ensured every chip could have enjoyed its savory flavor.
The Moscow mule, though, paired well with it all – being both bracing and light with a hint of sourness from the lime juice.
Entree-wise, there’s an impressive variety: from a French dip sandwich to a French lamb rack, with plenty of seafood, chicken, beef and pork, too. Each is served with a salad (or choose a soup), a starch (buttery pappardelle noodles, mashed potatoes or rice) and vegetable (because they’d sold out of the zucchini, the night’s sole vegetable was Brussels sprouts).
I couldn’t decide among the crab cakes, scallops in hickory bacon, beef short ribs or wild boar goulash, so I appealed to the waitress. She mentioned her favorites, and with Sean whispering “Goulash!” into my ear, I ordered the wild boar.
The salads were basic lettuce, tomato, carrot and onion, but good all the same, with a respectable ginger dressing (my choice), served with a crusty ham and cheese biscuit. Mary Frances had ordered the watermelon soup instead, a pretty pink thing. She tasted it, and her face had a look of pondering on it. “Is it good?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “I’m glad I tried it because I was curious.”
Sean also ordered it, so I tasted his. As Mary Frances explained, it was thin and minty and pulpy. There was a raspiness from the yogurt. It was well made for what it was, we agreed, but we just didn’t enjoy the flavors together.
I’m a sucker for food with rich brown gravy, and that’s what my entree was: buttery rice, tender boar and glazed Brussels sprouts surrounded by a beautiful gravy. I could have eaten just the creamy rice and gravy and been happy. It was so complex: Was there wine in it? Herbs? Carrots? Pork juices? I couldn’t quite tell, which made it all the more magnificent.
Sean was jealous, and rightly so. His lobster tail special tasted of the sea, but it couldn’t compare (I did love his mashed potatoes though, which had a lightly baked crust on top).
I’m not a Brussels sprout person, but I would have ordered these again. They were especially tender and didn’t have the funky flavor you sometimes get with these sprouts, and like everything on my plate, were seasoned perfectly.
A couple in our group also ordered the dinner salads, any of which you can top with lobster salad, chicken salad or steak filet tips. They looked incredibly fresh, and as our happy friends reported, were also delicious.
Jamie and Sean both ordered desserts, too, and were nice enough to share. I liked Sean’s pineapple upside down cake, although it was a little too wet for my taste. Jamie’s face said it all as she pushed her plate toward me to taste. Her strawberry, mango and pineapple cheesecake was like eating butter with a great cookie crust, and the sweetness of the three fruits just married really well together, leveling out the pineapple’s tang.
It was a long, delicious night – with heady cocktails, rich food, laughter and great conversation. As we walked out, I noticed a new code had been posted: 7126. I love the speakeasy’s homage to the past – but I love even more that this “secret” place isn’t so secret.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Aiken Speakeasy and Eats, 126 Laurens St. NW
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
COST: $15 to $32
SECOND HELPING: (803) 226-0260 or find them on Facebook