Friday night, three lit candles flickered in the window of the Indian Oven downtown.
It was the first sign that we had found the semi-secret bar affiliated with the restaurant.
A young man in snug pants and suspenders looked our way and asked, “You looking for the Speak?”
That was our confirmation We were in the right place and this mythical bar was real.
He directed us inside and down the stairs to a small room with a smaller bar and a lone bartender.
We were at the I.O. Speak, short for the Indian Oven Speakeasy, a bar in the restaurant's basement. It's open most Thursdays and Fridays from 9:30 p.m. to close, and Saturdays from 10:30 p.m. to close. If the candles are lit, it's open. If not, then Binoy Fernandez, the bartender who is also one of the partners at the Indian Oven, had an extra busy day or otherwise needed a night off.
Friday was my first attempt to stop at the bar and my first success. Friends have been telling me I needed to go since I started working in Omaha nearly two months ago.
And for good reason.
Fernandez makes drinks from the pre-Prohibition and Prohibition eras. He has a menu (which changes frequently) that lists 18 or 19 drinks. But he prefers that patrons not use it.
Instead, he likes to talk to them a bit first. He asks what they're in the mood for, what they like and don't like. He might make a suggestion or two, and then he mixes something up.
When I stopped by on Friday, I waited a bit — a big group had arrived just before my friends and I did, and the I.O. Speak is a one-man show. It was a beautiful warm night, and when it was my turn to order, I told Fernandez I was in the mood for something summery and lemony that didn't taste strongly of booze. He thought for a moment and then set to work mixing a Tom Collins — gin, lemon juice, syrup, ice and soda water — which dates to the late 1800s. It was indeed summery and lemony, and it was delicious.
Fernandez characterizes the Tom Collins, like all the drinks he mixes, as a classic cocktail. He developed a personal affinity for such drinks a few years ago as he moved out of the phase of life when Saturday nights meant dance clubs and beer, and into the phase that meant sipping more sophisticated drinks while catching up with friends.
Fernandez started serving drinks at I.O. Speak last August, in part to indulge his penchant for classic cocktails and in part because he thought Omaha needed a dedicated craft cocktail bar. There are several places in town where you can get a good Old Fashioned or Manhattan, he said, but many are restaurants that aren't open past 10.
But as a busy restaurateur, he also didn't want to commit to regular hours. Hence the candles, which had the added bonus of fitting with the secretive Prohibition theme.
The bar itself feels more like a basement at someone's home that happens to have a bar than it does a commercial bar in a basement. The I.O. Speak seats perhaps 20. The lighting comes in part from a polka-dot floor lamp and the art on the walls is bright and geometric (my friend and I agreed that it reminded us of the opening of “Saved by the Bell.”)
But it also seemed to fit.
“It's a little private spot,” Fernandez said. “It's a secret.”
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