Speaks Clam Bar's Prohibition-themed bar

Image: Jennifer Soos

Years in the making, Speaks Clam Bar opened on St. Armands Circle, just a short walk from the sands of Lido Beach, right in the middle of summer’s dreadful red tide bloom. That put a halt to the tourist foot traffic that every shop and restaurant on the Circle needs.

“Everybody felt the effects of red tide,” says Natalia Levey, who co-owns the restaurant with her brother-in-law, Jeff Levey. August and September are slow months for local restaurants anyway; the smell of dead fish wafting from the beaches made a bad situation worse. Levey looks on the bright side. She says her staff spent the slow weeks familiarizing themselves with their equipment and the menu, so that once red tide lifted and season started, they would be ready.

Speaks' superb twist on the traditional Manhattan.

Image: Jennifer Soos 

Speaks used to house the restaurants Cork and later, Tokyo. The Leveys purchased the property five years ago, with what Natalia calls “grandiose plans” to upgrade the space. It ended up taking them years to remodel. While waiting, the owners found another property in Lakewood Ranch and jumped on it. They opened the first Speaks there in July 2017.

Walking into the St. Armands location, you understand why design and construction took so long. The space has been thoroughly overhauled, with a snazzy, speakeasy-themed bar up front. (Hence the name Speaks.) Silver, black and white booths and high-tops are spread around the first floor. The upper story contains a second bar, a sprawling kitchen and a patio where you can sit and watch the evening storm clouds roll in.

Both Speaks locations are an homage to Italian-American clam bars that specialize in raw and steamed shellfish and straightforward seafood pastas dressed with umami-rich tomato sauces. Levey, who was born in Moscow, says she was exposed to the tradition through her husband’s family, which lives on Long Island. “As kids, they would always go to Italian clam bars,” Levey says. “It has such a special appeal.”

Steamed Ipswich clams

Image: Jennifer Soos

The Speaks menu sticks close to clam bar customs. The first item listed: a dozen raw clams ($9), followed by a variety of other appetizers heavy on oysters, shrimp and crab. A plate of steamed Ipswich clams ($14) comes in a small foil package, with small bowls of broth and melted butter on the side. You can skip the butter. It’s the broth that enlivens the flavor of the soft-shell clams, which, unfortunately, still had grit in them when they arrived at the table.

Speaks' cioppino

Image: Jennifer Soos 

The restaurant’s cioppino ($22) is a solid take on the San Francisco classic, with a filling selection of mussels, clams, shrimp and cod in a rust-red tomato broth that’s perfect for sopping up with Speaks’ toasty-warm bread. A plate of grilled shrimp ($18), drizzled with a basic pesto and balsamic vinegar, is unimaginative.

Overall, the food is good, although probably not enough to impress fans of O.G. Brooklyn Italian clam bars. What will bring you back is the bar, the best on St. Armands Circle right now. With its Prohibition-era theme, the drink menu is a Murderer’s Row of well-executed booze-forward throwbacks. The Penicillin ($11) includes two types of Scotch, lemon juice, a ginger and honey syrup and a nugget of spicy candied ginger. It’s delicious. The Manhattan Beach ($11), meanwhile, is thick and syrupy—a subtle twist on a classic Manhattan thanks to the addition of Grand Marnier and Combier. The bar is a great place to escape to, whether or not red tide is still raging outside.

Speaks Clam Bar | 29 N. Boulevard of Presidents, Sarasota | (941) 232-7633

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