O-Ku Martini // Photo: courtesy of O-Ku

Behind the Bar: Inside Union Market’s Thriving Cocktail Scene

Neighborhoods grow, dynamics shift, and restaurants and bars find their groove among these transitions. For Union Market, a neighborhood that’s recently seen dramatic change, there’s plenty of room for everyone to enjoy a drink. Whether a dive bar or a sophisticated sushi spot, the message is clear: all guests are welcome to take part in the conviviality that only comes from a shared drinking experience.

Last Call

Gina Chersevani’s Union Market footprint continues to grow this fall with her love letter to dive bars, Last Call, which opened in late October. The proprietor of bagel, soda shop classics, and cocktail-themed Buffalo & Bergen and nostalgic, cocktail-slinging airstream Suburbia is setting up shop just steps from Union Market.

This new spot pays homage to watering holes from a bygone era when quality drinks and affordable price tags were the standard.

Amid the new high-rises and shiny eateries, Chersevani identifies a missing Union Market element: a corner bar, a neighborhood pub, a local gathering spot – all things that once dominated the scene. Chersevani’s vision for bringing back that culture and creating a space where “you can be in and out of there for $15 bucks” comes to life at Last Call.

“I want to refresh what your vision of your local watering hole is,” she says. “I want to refresh what a dive really is. A dive is a place to hang out, have great conversation [and] chill with your friends.”

Photo: Rey Lopez

Upon entry, guests are greeted by a long bar. The bones of the space haven’t seen much change from the building’s past life as a retro cafeteria, other than the removal of decades worth of grime and buildup. Blue, green and white-colored facades were revealed after weeks of scrubbing the walls, and the team decided to keep them as a nod to the past.
Another design quirk is the alley door painted green – perhaps a vestige from the days of Prohibition marking the spot as a booze-friendly locale, with stories from neighbors strengthening the myth. From the history to the innate charm, everything about the space seemed to be the “right fit for me,” according to Chersevani.

“It spoke to my soul,” she says of the space.

Cocktails are inspired by old-school favorites, travels and drinks from past haunts. A frozen Irish coffee comes by way of Chersevani’s penchant for the version served up at New Orleans’ bar Erin Rose, a must-stop for her when visiting the Big Easy. Another drink dubbed the 169 Bar, a carbonated old fashioned, gives a nod to the historic New York City bar of the same name. And there’s even a divey take on the Aperol spritz: an Aperol Schlitz.

The food menu is influenced by staff favorites, featuring “a rotation of sandwiches inspired by dive bars we love from across the country.”

Whether you’re a local or someone stopping in for the first time, Chersevani wants all guests to feel at home. A visit to Last Call “should be fun, and you should want to be a little dancy.”

When Queen comes on and the familiar sounds of “Another One Bites the Dust” signal the end of the night at Last Call, what will you find Chersevani drinking? Miller High Life.

“Ice-cold beer [and the] ‘dun dun dun’ of Queen always remind me of pure fun.”

1301-A Fourth St. NE, DC

Photo: Rey Lopez

Last Call’s Aperol Schlitz
1.5 oz. Aperol
5 oz. Schlitz beer
Orange slice to garnish

O-Ku

As one of the first standalone restaurants to open outside of Union Market, this DC offshoot of the Southern-based Japanese eatery focuses heavily on fresh ingredients and elevating customer experiences.

O-Ku Beverage Director Alvaro Umaña weaves seasonal flavors into his cocktail menu, playing off of what the kitchen works on to “enhance the experience and the food.” For example, a carpaccio dish featuring green apples is hitting the menu soon, an apt pairing for a highball Umaña is finalizing that will include a green apple shrub.

“We switch the menu at the same time the kitchen does,” he says. “I want to put items on the menu that really go with the food we’re serving and really enhance it.”

What makes the Union Market locale stand out from other O-Ku locations? With the exception of a few staples on the menu that remain constant across all locations, the spot offers a larger variety of products.

Photo: courtesy of O-Ku

“Other than [a] couple of items, we really run free,” Umaña continues. “We’re empowered to do what we feel is best, and I think that’s really been one of the keys to [our] success.”

The O-Ku team has seen their fair share of locals come through the doors, in addition to out-of-towners who recognize the brand from its Southern counterparts. With an eclectic customer base, it can be challenging to curate a drink list that appeals to regulars and newcomers alike.

“One thing we like to do is change our menu regularly,” Umaña notes. “But if there are select seasonal items, let’s not shy away from them because they’re not on the menu. The flexibility to add and build [upon] the menu is what helps keep everyone excited.”

Boasting a lineup of stellar whisky and gin, O-Ku’s cocktail offerings are also impressive.

“We have a lot of great cocktails,” the beverage director adds. “The one that O-Ku is known the most for is the Sugar and Spice.”

The mix of habanero-infused vodka with passion fruit is “wildly popular” among guests, but the most impactful drink on the menu for Umaña is a simple martini. Guests choose a base of Japanese rice vodka or Japanese botanical gin, which gets mixed with one part sake for an effervescent take on the classic cocktail. As a gateway sake drink for a lot of his guests, he notes that the soft introduction to the spirit is appealing to those who may have preconceived notions about it.

It’s rewarding for Umaña to see the genuine experience when guests opt in for trying something out of their comfort zone and are pleasantly surprised.

“It’s nice to see someone veer away from what they traditionally have. It changes their perspective when people are willing to give it a chance.”

Umaña’s martini is the embodiment of the restaurant’s aesthetic: “simple yet flavorful, which is what we strive to do at O-Ku.”

1274 5th St. NE, DC; www.sushirestaurantwashington.com

O-Ku Martini (pictured above)
1 1/2 oz. Roku Gin or Haku Vodka
3/4 oz. Spring Snow Sake
Stir cocktail + garnish with lemon twist