Source: Union Square Hospitality Group
Food & Drinks

Can Happy Hour Save America's Top Tier Restaurants?

At a time when restaurant traffic is slowing down, bargain drinks and snacks are providing powerful support.

Way back when, the phrase "happy hour" was a guaranteed way to get my attention. Two-for-one drinks! Snacks! Party! Countless unfortunate cocktails and lame chicken wings later, and that phrase lost its power to draw me to a seat at the bar.

The Cannibal LA leads a new trend in high-class happy hours.

The Cannibal in L.A. leads the pack of top happy hours around the country.

Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

Or so I thought. Recently, there’s been a happy hour renaissance with several leading restaurants across the country serving a terrific array of discounted cocktails and small, and not so small, plates.

Digging down a little bit, I discovered a good reason for this. Growth in restaurant traffic has been slowing down to a standstill at both sit down and fast food places for a confluence reasons ranging from uncertainty over the upcoming presidential election to Brexit to Chipotle’s health department issues. (As an added incentive to not leave your home and not exert too much effort over dinner: the ever-expanding range of delivery food services from sources like Amazon and UberEats .)

But most restaurateurs are in the business of seeing a glass half full and figuring out a hospitable, and profitable, way to fill it up. Restaurants have started serving breakfast (one bright spot in that sluggish dining out study noted that breakfast sandwiches topped the growth foods list), and they’re staying open all day. And most appealing to me: They’re ramping up happy hour menus.

Fra Diavolo Fried Chicken Sandwiches at Maialino in NYC.

Fra Diavolo Fried Chicken Sandwiches are available only at Maialino's bar during happy hour.

Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

No less an expert than Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, has been installing happy hour menus at his spots around Manhattan.

Take, for instance, the Italian-American trattoria Maialino, where chef Jason Pfeifer is serving Roman-style snacks like an enticing wedge of ricotta and roasted tomato torta and a not-as-traditionally Italian but superb fried chicken sandwich with Calabrian chile aioli, available only at the bar until 7 p.m. With a Peroni, it’s a $20 meal.

For various reasons that invariably come back to excessive drinking, happy hour is banned in eight states.  Last year, Illinois eliminated that prohibition, with a catch: Places can offer happy hour menus for no more than 15 hours per week. Now one of the cities’ most popular spots, Dove’s Luncheonette, chef Paul Kahan and One Off Hospitality Group's platonic ideal of a Mex-American counter (think exceptional chicken-fried chicken and shredded dried beef breakfast tacos). Kahan is celebrating happy hour with Sip or Shoot shots of mescal or tequila for $5, plus there’s an option of a $2 beer shorty.

At one of the country’s best new restaurants in San Francisco, a city recently called out for its relentlessly high-priced dining scene, uber-sustainable the Perennial features 50 percent off their cocktail of the day. They also serve discounted draft beer and bar bites like pork popcorn and a corned beef hamburger.

Pimento cheese and shaved country ham at Willa Jean in New Orleans.
Pimento cheese and shaved country ham at Willa Jean in New Orleans.
Photographer: Rush Jagoe

Down in New Orleans, where happy hour seems like it’s a way of life, John Besh's bakery-restaurant Willa Jean also recently instituted a compelling menu to bring in in more traffic in the late afternoon. Snacks like marinated crab claws and Willa Jean cornbread with Poirier's cane syrup is half price, and so are desserts. My pick would be Cookies + Milk served with a beater of raw cookie dough and a Tahitian vanilla bean milk. I’d have it with an unlikely pairing: Willa Jean’s Frosé Y’all—their addictive rose wine slushie, which screams "happy hour!" at me.

Willa Jean’s Frosé Y’all.

Willa Jean’s Frosé Y’all.

Photographer: Randy Schmidt

Los Angeles has even more compelling options. At the new West Coast offshoot of the New York-based, meat-centric the Cannibal, there’s a complementary charcuterie station with a spread that includes salumi, cacao e pepe chips, pork rinds—plus chicharron nachos and $5 old fashioneds on tap. It brings to mind Italy's excellent aperitivi hour except that the spread is stocked with items from the Cannibal's butcher shop. 

Cory Lane, a partner at the Cannibal, describes their happy hour mentality in a way I very much admire: “Yes, it’s driving a full room in early evening. But with the thinking, ‘Hi, we’re your new neighbors, let’s have some fun and make this a proper party every day.” 

Cannibal Los Angeles
The charcuterie spread at the Cannibal, Los Angeles
Source: The Cannibal LA

The renovated Nick & Stef’s steakhouse has expanded the whole concept of happy hour: it’s five hours long, starting at 2 p.m. (!) with $12 Champagne punch bowls for two, plus crab cake sliders and dry aged meatballs with grilled bread and spicy tomato jam.

Nick & Stef's might now offer five-hour affairs, but back in New York, Meyer’s USHG team has created a way to evolve the tradition in an even more dynamic way. At their year-old restaurant Untitled at the Whitney Museum, their take on happy hour is Neighbors Night, which takes place Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings. From 5:30 p.m. until closing, the restaurant offers a menu designed for people in the 'hood. There’s a juicy Wagyu pastrami sandwich with mustard, as well as fried chicken with honey mustard ($13 and $12, respectively). The cocktail and wine specials highlight local products, like Not Long Island [but still alcohol spiked] Ice Tea, Long Island wines and Brooklyn beers.

Chicharron nachos, a popular happy dish at the Cannibal in L.A.
Chicharron nachos, a popular happy dish at the Cannibal in L.A.
Photographer: Kyle Devin

“Everyone has fun with it,” says Sabato Sagaria, USHG’s Chief Restaurant Officer. “Customers don’t have to commit to a $30 entrée, and for the team it’s fun to design simpler dishes, and figure out what we can serve that’s local.” Neighborhood Nights sound so fun to me, but I don’t live in the Highline hood, where Untitled is located. That’s okay, said Sagaro. “Anyone can come. We’re not checking ids.”

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