Getting a table at Cervo’s is a pain in the butt. The Lower East Side restaurant does not take reservations. On any given night, you’ll be told to come back in an hour, sometimes two, and on weekends, often three. While you wait and look out at the patio, you may spot the writer whose Substack you read twice a week or a furniture designer responsible for the chair you want but will never buy.
Don’t give up. If you can’t beat the micro-influencers, join them. Once you’re sitting with a martini and a plate of crunchy shrimp heads, you’ll be glad to be part of the scene. Your efforts will be rewarded with manila clams in vinho verde, a block party feel, and all the vermouth you can stomach.
When Cervo’s opened in 2017, it was relatively painless to get a table. Couples popped in for Boston mackerel before a 9pm showing at Metrograph while downtown people swirled cardamom-flavored vermouth and sodas at the bar. Want to know our theory as to why Cervo’s is near-impossible to get into these days?
The difference between Cervo’s now and Cervo’s in 2017 is that the restaurant doubles as a Canal Street gala. Everyone on the street who used to flock to Dimes can see exactly how much fun it is to eat here. During the pandemic, Cervo’s recreated their iconic yellow tile bar right smack in the middle of the now blocked-off street. Apparently, this area is affectionately known to the staff as “The Tub.” Sitting in The Tub is not unlike being cast as an extra in a movie about Dimes Square (gorgeous light bouncing off the yellow tiles, small sunglasses, martinis with twists, and all). We especially recommend sitting outside for fun group dinners - Cervo’s outdoor area bumps like a party even when the sun is still out.
Another reason? The Portuguese and Spanish food is still as exciting as it’s always been (at least to anyone who considers liking mollusks an inherent personality trait). Much of the menu remains unchanged from the early days - white Louisiana prawns kissed on the plancha, steamed-to-order clams in a lemony white wine bath, half of a smoky roast chicken that’s been flattened and smothered in piri-piri sauce, and a lamb burger blanketed by four optional (read: mandatory) marinated anchovies also served at their sister restaurant, Hart’s, in Bed-Stuy.
You’ll always encounter rotating specials, like a variation on a seasonal salad, fish cooked on a griddle and buttressed by nothing but good olive oil and salt, excellent spicy mussels escabeche, and some form of Spanish tortilla. Even still, we find ourselves finishing Cervo’s canonic dishes first. They remain the most consistent on the menu. Those, as well as several orders of sourdough bread baked across the street at Mel that are best used for sopping up the garlic-spiked seafood broth left on your plate.
Unless you show up before Cervo’s opens at 5:30pm, you’re going to have to wait at least an hour to sit down. (Our strategy for anyone beholden to a nine-to-five is to put your name down, and then head to Bar Belly for a drink - Clandestino will probably be busy, but that works too.) If you’re looking for a comparatively sexier or calmer night out than what’s happening in The Tub, eat inside the dining room where golden rays stream in at sunset on the swirly marble bar. Here you can bask in the shellfish steam wafting through the restaurant, and listen to neo-disco music that involuntarily forces many patrons to purse their lips and bob their heads like chickens.
You might be wondering whether all the backbending is worth a few plates of beautiful seafood you’ve seen on Instagram. Trust us, the steamed-to-order clams and perfectly-pink lamb burger warrant the fuss. Just resist the urge to resent that famous-looking couple seated before you. There’s a crispy shrimp head waiting for you on the other side.
There are few restaurant moments more arresting than realizing you have an entire organism’s head inside of your silly little mouth. These shrimp heads will blow anyone away who has ever proclaimed a love of shellfish (or a love of all things crispy-salty-snacky, for that matter). They taste like a shrimp chip with more texture: softness in the middle and genuine crunch on the outside thanks to a light, quick fry.
Cervo’s doesn’t grill. They cook their seafood a la plancha, a big metal heat source that looks somewhat like the flattop you’ve seen in bodegas and diners. So when we say these white prawns are just cooked long enough to be kissed by sizzling heat, we really mean long enough for a couple of pecks and not a sloppy kiss in the middle of the dance floor. They’re perfectly seared, soaked in a lemon-and-pepper olive oil bath, and proof that simple cooking will never not be in fashion.
Another essential seafood dish. These garlicky steamed-to-order clams don’t come off of the menu for a reason. Make sure to ask for an order of Mel sourdough so you can sop up all the briny clam juice on the plate.
No two dinners at Cervo’s will be the same, and that’s part of the reason we keep coming back. You might see a Spanish tortilla with asparagus, a little gem salad, or summer squash. Just know we’ve had the most hit-or-miss experiences in this genre. Go forth and explore, it’s part of the fun.
If you’re with one other person, we suggest primarily focusing on the smaller dishes at the top of the menu. We say this not because the mains are less exciting, but because they will seriously fill you up. But our favorite entree of the bunch is this juicy chicken that’s been flattened and slathered in a piri piri sauce that will leave a little tickle in your throat. It’s smoky as hell, and you’ll get to feast on dark and white meat. Plus the bird is accompanied by shoestring fries for dipping in chicken juice and pale yellow aioli.
This lamb burger has been on the menu at Hart’s in Bed-Stuy (their sister restaurant) for years. It’s piled high with crunchy slaw and a hunk of perfectly-pink ground lamb, all on top of a layer of thick, rich aioli. Consider it one of the great lamb dishes of New York City. Especially with the addition of marinated anchovies.
Our favorite way to drink here is to start with vermouth and soda or a martini. Cervo’s prioritizes vermouth in a way that many restaurants don’t - which you’ll notice as soon as you look at the drinks menu. Then we like to move onto wine. The Portuguese and Spanish wine selection highlights juicy light reds or whites that taste like the seashore. That’s on purpose, since the goal of dining here is to embody the energy of a trendy marine animal.