When I first moved here and discovered Seattle’s obsession with happy hour, I immediately got worried. “What do you people do with the rest of your evenings if you’re starting them out with a couple of pints?” I asked one of my new coworkers after my first trip out for $2 beers and $5 sliders. Hey, a good deal is a good deal, he shrugged–so what if it leads into dinner drinks and the end of another night’s projects?
Seattle’s happy hour seems to be the intersection point of our effervescent food culture and innate thrift. We’re willing to trade fully conceived entrées, multiple courses, and good wines in order to sit in a real restaurant with real service, smug in the thought that we’re smarter than those elitist full-price customers. Where other cities’ diners prize the deals they get from all-you-can-eat buffets, oversized portions, or coupon books, here we’ll gladly give up the idea of eating at a reasonable hour in order to save a few bucks.
Not surprisingly, the recession has launched dozens of happy hours in places that had been averse to the taint of bargain dining: Bastille, Monsoon East, and the Dahlia Lounge recently announced they were starting happy hours, for example, and every week Seattle Weekly receives press releases about some new early-evening promotion.
Weekly drinks maven Maggie Savarino has surmised on Voracious, our food blog, that restaurants use happy hour to fill up the restaurant early, encourage people to splurge on booze (which generally is how restaurants compensate for high food costs), and, more important, keep customers coming back regularly, even if they’re not always dropping $50–$100.
But what about those restaurants whose happy hours are so famous that they seem to dominate the restaurant’s traffic—or reputation? Belltown and downtown are full of them. Take Morton’s Steak House, for instance: No one has ever given me a report of a dinner they’ve eaten there, but dozens have raved about Morton’s free steak sandwiches. Same with the free risotto balls and pizza wedges at Il Fornaio. Certain happy-hour items—the now-defunct Cascadia’s sliders, the Metropolitan Grill’s hamburgers, Flying Fish’s 25-cent oysters—are signature dishes as legendary as anything these well-respected kitchens have put out at full price.
Over the past few weeks, I went to a few downtown restaurants whose happy hours seem to have eclipsed the restaurant, with two simple questions: How did they do it? And why?
The sporadic popularity of the happy hour at Dragonfish (3–6 p.m. and 9 p.m.–1 a.m. daily) was the easiest to explain. Not only is this pan-Asian restaurant the Paramount Hotel’s house restaurant, its location sells itself—when the Paramount Theatre across the street has a show, you can bet Dragonfish is SRO beforehand. So with the hotel’s support easing the financial ebb and flow of the restaurant’s erratic, event-oriented clientele, Dragonfish can afford to pimp its specials hard.
It also doesn’t look like the happy hour is much of a loss leader: Draft beers cost $2.95, the standard price of a microbrew not that long ago. The $3.95 house wines are nameless vintages. And house cocktails like the lemongrass lime rickey taste as though they contain a single shot of vodka (supposedly, though not perceptibly, infused with kaffir lime leaves) and a cup of sour mix. The $2.95 sushi plates consist of a half roll—there’s a tablespoon, maximum, of tuna in the center of the spicy tuna maki, for instance—and even the $3.95 fried squid plate is a quarter the size of a normal bar order.
The bar food, at less than $5 a plate during happy hour, is certainly serviceable. The maki are tightly rolled, if a little refrigerated. The house salad was perfectly dressed. The sesame-soy marinade on the ahi tartare had been applied sensibly enough to let the piscine flavor come through. While the caramel-ginger chicken was coated in enough syrup to make my lips smack together, the calamari had shriveled in the fryer to tough nubs and the deep-fried tofu had all the flavor of a dog cushion. A friend and I spent $40, ate more than our fair share of bar snacks, and made it to Pacific Place in time for our movie, leaving an empty dining room in our wake.
Brasa, Tamara Murphy’s 10-year-old dining palace, is a restaurant that, these days, Seattleites seem to love best at a discount. On a normal weekday evening, the cavernous, theatrical dining room can be disappointingly empty, while during the “Urban Eats” promotions, it’s back to a reservations-only crowd. The one constant seems to be the bar tables, well-populated no matter the night. Murphy’s happy hour has been one of the city’s best for years—not just in terms of price, but quality. Recently she’s switched up the format, acknowledging that many customers go there for light meals and not an early-evening prefunk. The gigantic menu of appetizers, formerly sold at half-price with the purchase of a full-price drink, has changed to a 15-item happy-hour menu (available 5–7 p.m.) with prices 20–40 percent off. Brasa wine guy Bryan Hill has simply picked a couple of solid, inexpensive wines (right now two Austrian wines, a grüner veltliner and a zweigelt) to sell for $4 a glass.
The new menu has been streamlined to focus on classics like Brasa’s lamb burgers, all juice and smoke; Murphy’s opulently fragrant curried mussels; and her custardy-centered churros with melted dark chocolate. It’s rich food—even her escalivada, or grilled vegetables with garlicky skordalia, are bathed in olive oil—all the better to keep you ordering Manhattans. And Murphy seems to have taken her bar menu’s popularity to heart, co-opting happy-hour dishes like the Moroccan-spiced steak sandwich for her café under Elliott Bay Book Company, a breakfast–lunch venture where nothing costs more than $11. And all talk of Terra Plata, the new restaurant at the western base of Capitol Hill she’s currently building out, centers around its more casual, higher-volume tone. Happy hour has taken over the kitchen.
When Barolo opened a few years ago in Belltown, I gave the Varchetta brothers’ high-end Italian food a middling-to-poor review. Within a few months, though, reports came filtering back that the real reasons to go there were the half-price apps and $14 bottles of wine during happy hour. Sure enough, I’ve been back for glasses of rosé and plates of veal carpaccio and arugula salad, and wouldn’t hesitate to return. Six months ago, the brothers opened List nearby in the former Apartment Bistro space. This time they’re making no attempt at full dinner service, instead providing an all-night menu, halving the prices from 4 to 6:30 every night and again from 10 to midnight Sunday through Thursday.
The place looks even more Miami than Barolo, if such a thing is possible: slipperier surfaces, shinier mirrors, bouncier technopop, and salmon-red lighting, which gives the place a perennial coke-den air. Enter at 7:30 and the place has its fair share of people drinking at the bar; enter at 6 and there’s a cluster of people at the door and a bottle or two at every table.
Like Dragonfish, the owners have jiggered their menu of (not-so-) small plates so that they’re probably not making huge amounts of money but not losing any either: a few pastas, a few salads, a burger, and Italian-American tapas like spicy meatballs and clams in white wine.
For about $15 a person (splitting a bottle of wine and three or four plates), the quality of the food surprised me. The gnocchi with truffled-cream sauce are light and potato-scented, not the dense prepackaged nuggets you’d expect from a $5.50 dish, and the $3.50 green salad with goat cheese and pear is pretty much a twin of the $8 salads 70 percent of Seattle bistros currently serve. On both my trips, all the waiters confessed to being in love with the grilled-octopus salad—truthfully, I thought it a little mushy, but the smoky-sweet flesh connects with the caper-charged vinaigrette. The $6 pounded chicken breast with mushrooms and a simple pan sauce is the kind of food millions of French mothers serve their kids on nights when they want to rush them to bed. Sure, the $14 bottle of wine tasted like Two-Buck Chuck and the dressing on the grilled caesar was wretched, but I walked into List with Belltown singles-bar expectations and walked out thinking of a completely different kind of restaurant.
Red chandeliers aside, List reminded me most of the millions of working-man’s bistros in Europe where you expect a bottle of wine to cost $14, where all you demand of the food is that it’s decently prepared and cheap. The main difference is that in Seattle such a dinner ends at 7 instead of beginning at 8. And some nights, getting home before 30 Rock is all a man wants of a meal out.