Ouzeri: Best Greek Thing Since Democracy


nicole SCHLAEPPI • The Spectator

I did some hard-hitting research before I went to Capitol Hill’s new ouzo bar—which is to say, I watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for, oh, the fiftieth time or so.

In the film, protagonist Toula Portokalos’ father (played by an affably gruff Michael Constantine) insists that he can find a Greek root in any word. (Kimono? That comes from the Greek word cheimónas, or winter. Obviously.)

Well, to take a page out of Gus Portokalos’s book, Omega Ouzeri’s name derives from the last letter of the Greek alphabet. In the book of Revelation, Christ refers to himself as the alpha and the omega—the first and the last.

nicole SCHLAEPPI  •  The Spectator

Let it be known that the name is appropriate. Tasting ouzo at Omega was pretty damn revelatory.

I’d never tried the anise-flavored spirit before, but I have to admit that I went in with some trepidation. Not only does ouzo pack a punch booze-wise, it also tastes strongly of licorice, which is a flavor profile that hasn’t exactly taken off in the U.S. Heck, one of the best-known scenes in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is when Toula’s WASP-y future in-laws get blackout drunk on the stuff. I ordered a glass of Plomari ouzo off the happy hour menu and waited, wondering if the same fate awaited me.

nicole SCHLAEPPI  •  The Spectator
nicole SCHLAEPPI • The Spectator

On the bright side, I could think of no nicer place to contemplate impending alcohol-induced doom than Omega. The lofty ceilings, playful Hellenic mural and pops of cheerful cobalt throughout were a breath of fresh air—especially considering the staid, dark-wooded hideaway bars that tend to pepper the hill these days.

Midway through my conversation with owner Thomas Soukakos, a glass of what looked like vodka arrived, alongside a tiny metal ice bucket and a petite set of tongs. Perhaps drinking ouzo was going to be a more complex operation than I had bargained for. Soukakos gave me a hand, instructing me to smell the ouzo as it was, then fill most of the glass with ice. I looked on in wonderment as the drink turned from transparent to cloudy white, a neat visual side-effect of insoluble anise oil mingling with water.

“Here goes nothing.” I gave it a sip.

Whoa. Turns out that ouzo is not only drinkable, it’s awesome. The mouth-tingling, almost minty anise flavor stood out first and foremost, but I was pleased to find a complex herbal backbone that reminded me of a good gin and kept the spirit from tasting too much like an alcoholic Good & Plenty. It was all shot through with a gentle sweetness, nothing like the throat-burning dark liquors we love so much in this town.

nicole SCHLAEPPI  •  The Spectator
nicole SCHLAEPPI • The Spectator

A disclaimer: if you don’t love licorice (by which I mean real black licorice, not that cherry Twizzler bullshit) you may not love ouzo. I do love licorice—and fennel, and anise, and all other things that sit right in the middle of that particular intersection of bitter and sweet—so right off the bat, ouzo was my jam.

Much as I enjoyed it, after reading the menu I knew I couldn’t stop at ouzo. Soukakos likely wouldn’t hear of it anyway.

“In Greece, culturally, when they drink they eat,” Soukakos told me. “You don’t drink with an empty stomach.” He should know—he was born in Piraeus, just outside of Athens, and has run the beloved Vios Café on 19th Avenue for over 10 years.

I didn’t have to be told twice. The happy hour menu includes a respectable lineup of mezes—think Greek tapas—priced from $4–$7. I opted for marinated olives, a whipped feta and red pepper dip called kopanisti, and an ouzo meze of smoked trout and lightly pickled vegetables (which came with more kopanisti on the side. Can’t complain, honestly). All proved a perfectly briny, salty foil to the ouzo I sipped, which grew more and more refreshing as ice melted and shadows lengthened. Turns out that Greek innovation didn’t stop at the whole democracy thing.

Aside from being the final letter of the alphabet, omega also tends to refer to finality in general. Though I took a moment to appreciate Omega Ouzeri’s fitting etymology as I happily drained my drink and ate my last olive, I hope that the life of this lovely eatery is only just beginning.