It is, however, a gorgeous space where you can dress to the nines without feeling self-conscious, and where, thanks to chef Daniel Kelly, the take-no-chances menu is executed skillfully. Even the dishes that don't quite dazzle don't really disappoint either.
Set in the middle of Old Town, a neighborhood chock-full of respectable to very good restaurants, 33 Club is a jewel, at least visually. It's meant to evoke a post-Prohibition dining parlor, a speakeasy gone legit, and the old Kleiner design magic is very much in evidence here. Some touches are ones we've seen at his other restaurants, such as the tufted red-fabric banquettes, the geometric light boxes and those comfortable, flocked-fabric chairs that Kleiner must import by the ton. But Kleiner isn't just decorating by the numbers here.
The street-side entry is a brick archway leading into a tiled foyer, conveying an alley-entrance ambience. Revolving doors lead into the dark, paneled-ceiling and noisy bar area, through which one progresses to the considerably quieter dining room beyond. Here, the ceilings really soar, accommodating acres of hand-cut mahogany paneling, a towering wall of glass shelves and a Tara-esque grand staircase, which connects to an open upper level holding a few more linen-clad tables. Food runners probably mutter darkly every time they mount those 16 steps, but it's certainly got eye appeal.
Kleiner provides the style; Kelly delivers the substance. The menu couldn't be more straightforward, loaded with classics such as shrimp cocktail, oysters Rockefeller, Caesar salad and the like, with a few surprises worth investigating. Foremost among appetizers is the salmon ceviche, executed as three pristine slices draped over discrete piles of jicama relish -- a bright and crunchy contrast to the silky, unctuous fish -- and a vivid avocado puree. A quartet of New Zealand lamb chops -- half a rack for $14, which ain't bad -- are delicious, seasoned with mustard and herbed and coated sparingly with a rich demiglace. Munched lollipop-style, the lamb makes a great shared starter.
Kelly manages to make the mundane interesting. Three properly seared scallops are placed in a summer context by some bacon creamed leeks and a coarse sweet-corn puree. The crabcake, which looks to be the same version I sampled five years ago at DKelly, the chef's one-time solo venture, was simple and approachable, served with a chunky avocado relish and a classic remoulade sauce. Lightly fried calamari with marinara sauce is in the same vein, but this dish needs brighter flavors.
33 Club posits itself as an affordable restaurant (very few restaurants do otherwise these days), with no entree listed higher than $33. But steakhouse-size steaks cost a good deal more than that, so the menu makes reference to a "Reserve Meats" list, where lurk the hefty prime cuts priced at $40 and beyond.
I dutifully ordered the "reserve" NY strip, an 18-ounce, $46 beauty; the meat's quality easily matched the price, and the accompanying sauteed mushrooms were a happy bonus. More prudent appetites can opt for a smaller, Black Angus strip at $30, or the 6-ounce filet for $24. Either way, steak lovers will be happy here.
I'd go in another direction. The Chilean sea bass is a superior effort, a texturally flawless fish atop five-grain rice and baby bok choy, the fish's natural sweetness enhanced by a light miso glaze. And the braised veal is a bit of comfort food that should find fans well into the winter, the tender pieces of meat part of a ragout with veal stock, cream and walnut-size, wine-reconstituted morels, served over egg noodles.
There are enough goodies on Kelly's plates that side dishes are easily skipped. I only tried the mac and cheese, and my sample was doomed by limp, overcooked noodles.
Desserts are simple, traditional and, at $7, budget friendly. A buttery red-velvet layer cake with cream-cheese frosting should take care of any caloric deficits you may be running; I'd choose that over the Boston cream pie, the other sweet I sampled, which was surprisingly dry.
33 Club angles for a booming bar business -- and it seems to be working so far -- with a spacious bar area, a dozen or so specialty cocktails and a reasonably priced wine list that includes 20 by-the-glass pours.
A separate menu of bar snacks (deviled eggs, grilled shrimp, citrus-cured olives) promotes the idea of the lounge as a separate universe. Dark and sultry, big and brassy -- Kleiner's got something for you either way.
33 Club1419 N. Wells St., 312-664-1419
Open: Dinner and lunch Mon.-Sun.
Entree prices: $18-$33
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking