The Duck Island Club

Located smack dab in the middle of Cleveland’s Duck Island—that muddled land mass between Tremont and Ohio City—the aptly named Duck Island Club has largely strayed under the radar. For one thing, just finding the place can be a challenge. Located on Freeman Ave. around the corner from Velvet Tango Room, the bar blends inconspicuously into the row of old Victorians that surround it. But perhaps more importantly, its low-key clientele doesn’t seem keen to broadcast its existence. Think of it as a great band before it gets famous; there’s something special about being one of the “insiders” who first discovers it. Unfortunately for them, this hip little hot spot is too different and desirable to remain a secret forever. Décor: First, let’s get one thing straight: Despite its name, the Duck Island Club isn’t decked out like an upscale hunting lodge. You won’t find game displayed like trophies on the wall or a color palette of rich burgundies and hunter greens. Quite the opposite, really. This particular club is awash in vibrantly complementary reds, blacks and silvers. The first tiny room features a small bar along the left wall, some euro-style silver stools and a raised sitting area behind a black railing. Two huge silver mirrors hang along the walls, making the cozy space feel much bigger than it actually is. Walk through a small hallway, and you’ll find yourself in a somewhat cramped sitting room with slipshod booths resting in the glow of edgy red lighting. The space also has a door to the back patio area, where you can sip on an IPA under the shade of some low-hanging branches or bum a cigarette from the ever-present throng of smokers. No matter where you are in this little corner of Duck Island, you can’t help but notice the place once was a house. Brick archways, low ceilings, decorative molding—it all makes for a wonderfully intimate affair. Sure, the red walls and lighting are dynamic choices that might turn some off, but the rest who drink here will invariably come away feeling like they’re part of a special group—or club. Libations: What the Duck Island Club lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. The barback isn’t overrun with flavored vodkas and colorful confections. It does, however, feature a thoughtfully selected combination of spirits that can yield most anything. What’s disappointing is the lack of expertise with which the bartenders handle these tools. Looking at this selection, you’d expect an equally mindful cocktail menu or even one or two specialties. Instead, you typically have to guide the bartender through the drink-making process or dumb down your order to something foolproof. Granted, this might simply be a momentary hiccup in operations. The place is going through a transition of sorts, and the staff is promising to ramp up its mixologist muscles in the coming weeks and months. If executed properly, the Duck Island Club could become the hipster’s answer to the exceptional Velvet Tango Room right around the corner. For now, the safest bet is to order a bottle from the fine selection of craft beer. The Two Hearted Ale—a biting IPA with a strong hop presence—is a good choice, as is the always-reliable Magic Hat No. 9. Food: None to speak of at the moment. But then again, why eat when you can consume all your calories in liquid form? Service: Friendly, gregarious and eager to please, this bunch is a perfect complement to the welcoming setting of this cozy club. It helps that the place is so small; one or two bartenders can easily manage a crowd, giving each customer the action and attention he or she deserves. If only they could manage the cocktail creation with similar precision. Again, their expertise is noticeably limited on this front, so you’re better off keeping your orders simple and straightforward. Entertainment: What’s a trendy little club without some kick-ass music? The Duck Island Club outsources the job to a talented team of local DJs who get the place bumping on weekend nights. There are also fun specials and promotions throughout the week, such as various happy hour specials and viewing parties for Cleveland sports teams. Crowd: The Duck Island Club typically attracts a lively bunch of local hipsters—the kind that come wafting over from either Tremont to the southeast or Ohio city from the northwest. This is especially true when the place gets jolted with the buzz and energy from one of its rotating team of DJs, who play the type of music you’d expect to find at a trendy urban cocktail lounge. Bottom line: Duck Island Club is a hipster’s answer to VTR. Although the place is working through some speed bumps in a transition phase, it still remains one of the CLE’s best-kept secrets.