Wine and Oysters, Perfect Together: By the Seaside, or at Mar’s in the Heart of Astoria

Upon hearing the mention of Astoria, “America’s version of Greece” often comes to mind. But three Greek-American restaurateurs have created an entirely new image – one evoking a Venetian/Parisian feel that one expects to find in Manhattan, and taste – with the opening of Mar’s, on 34th Avenue and 35th Street, in the heart of Astoria. Longtime Astoria denizens will remember that spot was the location of the Greek Restaurant S’agapo.

A close look at the establishment’s name – Mar’s – reveals an apostrophe between the “r” and the “s.” It has nothing to do with the planet or the candy bar. Rather, it means the restaurant of Mar, more specifically, M.A.R., the initials of owner Evangelos Roumeliotis’ three year-old daughter: Maria Amelie Roumeliotis.

The inspiration for Mar’s, Roumeliotis explains, was to create a fine dining experience in a casual setting. “It is a refined version of the Sparrow Tavern,” he said, referring to a bar that he owns, also in Astoria, on the corner of 24th Avenue and 29th Street. “Sparrow was a dive bar with a kitchen in disrepair,” he said, “and then we fixed it and started serving food. First [in 2007] my friends and I ran the kitchen, and then we expanded our offerings.” Since then, Sparrow has been featured on the Food Network, described as a “dive bar with great food,” and according to the Village Voice, has the best French Fries in New York and made the Village Voice’s 2011 Best 11 Burgers List, Roumeliotis said.

But Mar’s, though too elegant to ever be mistaken for a dive bar, retains a casual setting nonetheless. Customers can be dressed in virtually any style – whether sporting a suit or jeans and a t-shirt, “no one sticks out like a sore thumb here” said George Samios, Mar’s manager and co-owner. The other owner, Nick Kapetanios, is Roumeliotis’ cousin and Samios’ close friend since childhood. In fact, Kapetanios is the common link that brought the three Greek-Americans together. Roumeliotis and Kapetanios co-own Sparrow as well; Samios is the manager there, too.

“We seek to buy the best products here: wild-caught fish, antibiotic and hormone-free meats, produce from local farmers, the best of everything,” Roumeliotis said. Why such an emphasis on good quality food? “Because I eat here, my daughter eats here, George eats here, his daughter [Anna, five years old] eats here, and we want the best quality food for our customers just as much as for ourselves. Food should always be fresh, and treated with love.”

Born in Athens, raised in Queens, and an Astorian for 17 years and counting, Roumeliotis developed a taste for oysters over the years, but had to travel to Manhattan to buy them. “We needed a good oyster bar in Astoria,” he said, and Mar’s offers an array of seasonal oysters, all from the East Coast, usually five to as many as ten different types at a time. Kapetanios and Samios are both lifelong Queens residents, the former living in Whitestone, the latter an Astorian for almost 20 years now.

“The food here is not precooked,” Roumeliotis said. “The paella is cooked to order. The lobster rolls start with live lobsters, cooked to order.” But food by itself does not make for a complete meal, and when it comes to drinks, Roumeliotis has nothing but good things to say about his bartenders. “It’s all about them. They love what they do. They don’t even like being called mixologists. They make anything from classic cocktails to their own creations. It’s all them, not me at all.” The wines are handpicked by Roumeliotis’ friend Mike Foulk, who imports from small producers, natural, organic, and biodynamic wines from France, Italy, and Spain, and some American wines as well. Many are organic and from very small producers.

Then, there is the ambiance. Roumeliotis has put just as much care into designing Mar’s interior as he does in the food and drinks. “I have always tried to create an authentic look in all the places that I’ve owned,” he said – his first place was Tupelo, which is now Bravo Supermarket, across the street from Mar’s. Mar’s has a speakeasy feel about it, probably a good thing considering that one of contemporary television’s most successful shows, Boardwalk Empire, is set in the Roaring Twenties. “I traveled all over the tristate area collecting furniture and other architectural artifacts, which I take apart and reassemble. It is more of a sculpture or an art installation rather than a layout of a room. I call it ‘design by execution.’”

More information can be found on Mar’s website, www.lifeatmars.com.

What’s next for Roumeliotis? “I’m opening another place in Astoria. Restaurant bar. Details coming soon.”