CIRCA 33 advertises itself as a bar, a kind of tribute to the year Prohibition was repealed. And at first glance, that's how it appears. Dim lighting, dark finishes, and all attention directed to the wall of bottles reaching up toward the 20-foot ceilings. A chalkboard tap list announces the dozen quality beers you can choose from, and a library ladder slides back and forth behind a long wooden bar to help the bartender fetch your preference from 100 whiskeys. So far, so good.
But it's hard not to get the feeling that Circa 33 the bar is playing second fiddle to Circa 33 the restaurant. And it's too bad, because the bar is much more promising.
(The music, I should mention, is a bit confounding... they're attempting a Prohibition-era ambiance, but every song I've heard is circa the Garden State soundtrack. I'm not suggesting they stick dogmatically to Cole Porter, but the Feist Pandora station—or whatever they've been playing every time I've been in—isn't working.)
The impetus behind Circa 33 seems to have been its cocktail list. The drinks are arranged according to the year of their creation or popularization. Cocktails are broken down into two categories: c. 1900 and c. 2000. I've had a hard time breaking away from the former, but I'd be pleased to drink their Bloody Mary with pickled vegetables and smoked bacon (c. 2008) every morning of 2011.
Like Beaker & Flask and Central, Circa 33 does a nice job of using less common bottles to flavor their libations. I had the La Louisiane (c. 1937), made with rye, Bénédictine, sweet vermouth, Peychaud's bitters, and an absinthe rinse. The sweetness of the Bénédictine is a nice touch to the more dominant bitterness. My date ordered the Corpse Reviver #2 (c. 1895)—a drink I've seen butchered elsewhere—but it was a nicely balanced mix of gin, Lillet Blanc, Cointreau, and lemon juice, cut with just a little bit of absinthe to tone down the sweetness. My favorite so far, however, is the Boston Sour (c. 1898). I've never much been one for sours; they typically make me pucker and wish I'd just ordered the bourbon straight—that is, until I tried it with frothed egg white, which makes the citrus and sugar a little more subtle and palatable.
The beer list is inspired—a good mix of local craft breweries and interesting imports—and the happy hour (daily 4-6 pm and all night Monday) is solid: $2 spiced chickpeas, $5 mac 'n' cheese, a $6 cheeseburger, and a $6 plate of mini corndogs(!). All of this is enough to make Circa 33 a reliable and welcome addition to the Belmont neighborhood. Its downfall, however, comes in an overpriced and overcomplicated dinner menu.
We started with a small, underwhelming roasted beet salad ($7.50). The bed of frisee seemed far from fresh, and the lemon thyme vinaigrette didn't do it any favors. The beets themselves were dull in flavor and stale in texture. Next we tried the steamed mussels ($10, with pommes frites for $12), which I've heard is a staple at Circa's sister bar, North 45. They were sinewy and tough, and for maybe the first time in my life I left a pile of occupied shells sitting on my plate.
The halibut special ($19) tempted me, but after the mussels I decided not to test my luck with seafood, and opted for the roasted chicken instead ($15). It came with a half-dozen spears of asparagus and a pile of roasted potatoes that, by the time they arrived at the table, were soggy from the jus. The chicken, though far from unflavorful, was overly greasy, and again much of it went untouched.
The smoked burger is decadent in all the right ways (read: a massive slab of pork belly). It comes with a pile of caramelized onions, gouda cheese, aioli, and house-made catsup. It's tasty, don't get me wrong, but for $12 I could go to Little Bird for a transcendent burger. And I don't mind messy, but my Kaiser bun was soaked to a degree that I didn't know how to eat it. I sort of scraped the wet bread to the side of my plate and approached my burger like someone on the Atkins diet.
A weekend breakfast, on the other hand, was totally enjoyable (and can be made more so with $2 mimosas). I had hanger steak and eggs ($10), potatoes (this time unsullied by chicken jus), and a fresh biscuit with raspberry jam. No wait. Great service. Decent coffee. Fair prices.
I see no reason why they couldn't be successful serving great drinks, quality pub grub, and a weekend brunch, but Circa 33 can't seem to choose the direction they want to go... or if they have, I'm not sure it's the right one. I'd happily come in for happy hour in their alleyway, a nightcap at the bar, or a late-night bite to eat, but if I'm going to spend that kind of money on dinner and drinks for two, there are dozens of places I'd choose first.