These days, one of the hardest reservations to make in Baltimore is a table at Ouzo Bay, the eye-catching Greek restaurant that opened in Harbor East in September.
Boosted by reviews from critics and devoted Yelpers, Ouzo Bay has quickly become a new favorite among Baltimore foodies.
Talk to people who've dined at Ouzo Bay and they'll quickly list their favorite aspects — the South Beach-like decor, the attractive outdoor patio, the attentive servers, the wild-caught fish. Even the intricate work of pastry chef Akis Anagnostou rightfully earns raves.
What's not discussed is the bar, and on a recent Friday night trip, we found out why: It's a well-manicured, perfectly serviceable afterthought — but an afterthought nonetheless — compared to the overall experience. It was neither disappointing nor life-affirming. It simply existed, like a single ornament on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
Packed with people waiting for dining tables and some already sharing appetizers, the bar felt like a narrow hallway. My group of four was stuck in a gray area between the long bar and the tables next to it. It's already a small space, and a crowded night like this one only heightened the cramped feeling. As anonymous dance music blared, we shuffled left and right, trying without much luck to find space to stand.
To make matters worse, a man in a suit played the role of usher, politely but firmly asking us to keep a clear path for servers. He was only doing his job, but it also made an awkward situation more uncomfortable.
After exchanging defeated blank stares, we eventually muscled our way to the bar, squeezing between conversing patrons. Ouzo Bay offers only five beers on tap (all $8 each), including local favorites Resurrection by Brewer's Art and Flying Dog's In Heat Wheat. Magic Hat No. 9, Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA and Brooklyn Lager round out the other choices. There are also eight beers by the bottle, including the obligatory National Bohemian (a reasonable $3) and appropriate Greek options such as Aris ($7) and Mythos ($6) lagers.
But really, beer is a formality here. (And there are much better beer options within walking distance, including new neighbor Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant and Townhouse Kitchen and Bar.) While we could have ordered mixed drinks or Scotch (there were five blended malts and nine single malts), it would have felt wrong to come without ordering ouzo, the anise-flavored liquor traditionally served before meals.
As ouzo amateurs, we settled on the Loukatos brand on the rocks ($7.50), which wasn't the cheapest (that was the $6 Boutari) but wasn't top-shelf (Barbayanni Ouzo Blue Label and Arvanitis Ouzo of Plomari were both $11). Our attentive bartender topped the drink with a splash of water, slightly dulling the strong licorice flavor. Sambuca sippers will find plenty to enjoy about the ultra-sweet ouzo, while the rest of us will hurriedly consume it to move on to a different drink.
When discussing Harbor East, it's tempting to call everything "swanky," but Ouzo Bay has established the new standard. Looking around the room, it was easy to be impressed by the posh furniture, immaculate glass surfaces and the is-this-really-Baltimore atmosphere Ouzo Bay clearly aims for. The clientele was well-dressed, too, because this is a place to be seen.
Combine all of these factors with executive chef Rey Eugenio's thoughtful menu, and it's clear why Ouzo Bay has become Baltimore's hot spot in recent months. But its noisy, claustrophobic bar is its most forgettable component.
Back story: The team behind Ouzo Bay is responsible for other, much less formal restaurants including Broadway Diner, Harbor East Delicatessen and Pizzeria, and the Manchurian Rice Co. The restaurant has been a big hit because of its fish and seafood menu. It has a bar like a house has an attic. In other words, it's there.
Signature drink: When in Greece (or in a Greek restaurant), you might as well order a glass of ouzo on the rocks, preferably before your meal. The Ouzo Loukatos ($7.50), topped with water, was served like a mixed drink.
Parking: Metered on the street. Lots available. Valet parking is $8.