Food & Drink

Review: OctoBar Offers an Elevated Experience in Federal Hill

The worldly tapas spot exudes a more sophisticated, upscale vibe than many of its bar brethren.
The “Octofashion,” with aged dark rum and house-made bitters. —Photography by Justin Tsucalas

April Fools’ Day marked the one-year anniversary of OctoBar, the Federal Hill bar and restaurant that’s deadly serious in its mission to bring elevated food and drink to the neighborhood. Owner Octavio Vazquez, a veteran of the city’s culinary scene, wanted to add something different to the area’s mix of beer and burger joints, and he’s succeeded.

Housed in a rowhouse formerly occupied by the Rowhouse Grille, OctoBar exudes a more sophisticated, upscale vibe than many of its bar brethren. While the bones of OctoBar’s space are familiar—the front room features a long wooden bar and a few tables, while a smallish dining room is in the back—Vazquez’s choice of darker wooden tones and a lacquered bar top stand out.

“I paid attention to a lot of bars in Europe,” says Vazquez. “One bar in Dublin caught my attention. It has the same colors, the same look. That was an inspiration. I also Googled the name OctoBar and a beautiful establishment in Belgium came up. So OctoBar has a little bit of European flair.”

Vazquez cut his teeth working at the late great Kali’s Court in Fells Point and was part of the team that opened Ouzo Bay and Azumi for the Atlas Restaurant Group. Aside from the places he worked, his favorite restaurant in the city is Fells Point’s Mezze, so he was intent on bringing tapas to Federal Hill.

“I always liked the fact that people can share food family style,” he says. “We have small plates from Spain and Italy. It started evolving and we have Mexican tapas as well.”

Like all continental meals, lunch (available on the weekends) or dinner should start with a cocktail, and there are plenty of great ones here. The Oktini is the bestseller. Made with vodka or gin, it includes cucumber water, Giffard elderflower, lime, and mint syrup. An Octofashion is made with aged dark rum, house-made orange bitters, pineapple juice, and vanilla syrup. It has a more tropical taste than a traditional Old Fashioned. Our favorite drink was the Wicked Pulpo, a combination of blanco tequila, jalapeño-infused syrup, lime juice, and ginger beer. It was tangy and left a spicy impression in our mouth.

Despite the last three letters of its name, OctoBar takes its food as seriously as its drinks. Chef Gerardo Gonzalez’s attention to detail is admirable. His crab eggrolls are lightly fried and feature filling more akin to crab dip than a crab cake. But perhaps the best part of the dish is the pineapple corn salsa—not a kernel was left on our plate.

Moroccan lamb skewers, frittata Espanola, octopus ceviche, and ostrich tartare show the diversity of the offerings. There are a few sandwiches and entrees as well, the star among them being the paella. Packed with mussels, clams, bay scallops, chicken, and sausage, it has a more liquidy base than other varieties we’ve tried, but it’s excellent, nonetheless.

Our evening ended with a slice of tres leches cake and an espresso martini. It was one of the best nights out we’ve had in a while—no joke.