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Happy Hour

How to Get the Most Out of Happy Hour

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Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 9:00 AM
click to enlarge Old Fashioned at Cole's - ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Anne Fishbein
  • Old Fashioned at Cole's
In the 1920s, American sailors termed their daily respite from the stresses of life at sea "happy hour," with on-deck entertainment frequently taking the form of wrestling and fistfights. Back on land, the spirits well had dried up with Prohibition, so eager imbibers would sneak into clandestine speakeasies to grab a tipple before dinner - birthing the idea of happy hour even if the term didn't officially enter the lexicon until 1959, when a Saturday Evening Post article on life in the military gave a name to the practice.

In the 1960s and '70s, happy hour was the domain of overindulgence (hard to imagine Don Draper heading right home without a drink, or four). The 1980s responded with a noticeable tightening of regulations, with Massachusetts the first state to ban the concept. In Ireland, happy hour has been illegal since 2003 in hopes of curbing what the government calls "binge drinking."

Today, despite many laws to the contrary, the practice of happy hour is alive and well around the world, especially in Los Angeles, where drinks can be had at a comfortable cost and nibbles ease the effects of alcohol. So why dwell on the negative? As the name implies, happy hour is meant to be a convivial time, and responsibility can still be part of the fun. Here are six suggestions to make your early evening reboot both efficient and enjoyable.

6. Find a friend.
It's called "happy" hour for a reason. After a long day at the office, you don't really need an excuse to kick back, but it's nice to be able to do so without the pressure of pulling out a bankroll. With friends, you can split the cost of appetizers, cutting down on expenses, while catching up in a festive setting.

5. Take advantage of specials.
What's so special about the special? Well, most bars and restaurants in L.A. offer cheaper (sometimes smaller) versions of their most popular drinks and food items. It's a great way to try out a restaurant's offerings without breaking the bank. For instance, at Culver City's Muddy Leek, chef Whitney Flood offers a grass-fed slider for $5 - a wonderful taste of the chef's creative cooking and perfect as a small meal. At 643 North in Chinatown, the ever-popular craft beers are on special during happy hour for an incredibly reasonable $3 for a 12-ounce pour. Trying out the food and drink offerings might convince you to come back for a full meal - which, of course, is part of what motivates restaurants to offer happy hour in the first place. (By the way, those hard-boiled eggs at Sassafras in Hollywood? They're free for the asking.)

4. Think "uptown."
If there's a cocktail that you've been dying to try but can't quite afford at a fancy-shmancy spot, happy hour is your answer. Special pricing makes the offerings at these places very attractive - they'll deploy the same high-end ingredients as usual, but at a lower price. That gin and tonic you plan on sipping most likely will be made with Tanqueray or Bombay, at the very least, not the unrecognizably named well spirit on special at lesser bars. Happy hour is an ideal way to sample a swanky spot that's usually beyond your means.

3. Unwind.
Use happy hour as a wind-down from the day - and a way to avoid traffic by killing time during rush hour. Whether you've been stuck in a cubicle or rushing from appointment to appointment, your work life is stressful. Take a cue from those 1920s sailors and chill out before you hit the road. As James C. Burton, general manager of Sassafras in Hollywood, succinctly notes, "Our happy hour is from 5 to 8 p.m., and given the choice of sitting in traffic on the 101 or enjoying a bourbon buck (bourbon, fresh lemon juice, house-made ginger beer) and a bowl of jambalaya, I think the choice is easy." Indeed.

2. Talk to people.
Happy hour is naturally a social time, with lots of energy and little pressure: The night is still young, and if your barmate is boring, there's plenty of time to go elsewhere. Plus happy hour itself is a built-in conversation starter - "What are you drinking?" "Wow, that looks tasty!" - without making you seem like you are trying to hook up (even if you are.)

1. Drink. And drink some more.
This is not encouragement to get drunk, but it is a suggestion that you take advantage of the lower prices to sample the bar's drinks menu. With cocktails often starting at $12 to $15 a pop during normal hours, you don't always want to spring for more than two (let alone drink them). Yet during happy hour, many house cocktails can be had for the price of a well drink. Some bars offer scaled-back drinks: Dominick's and Little Dom's, for example, offer mini cocktails for their modified happy hours, allowing you to try something new without getting (a) annoyed if you dislike your drink, or (b) irresponsibly drunk if you do like it. Even better, you won't feel compelled to finish every drop.

There's no question that bars make money during happy hour; otherwise, they wouldn't offer it. But there is often a bit of altruism as well, especially from chefs and bartenders eager to show off their stuff. As Muddy Leek bar manager Sara Kay Godot notes, "It is important to be happy, and we find happiness in great food and tasty beverages, so it would be a shame not to give an offering people can afford to enjoy every day." We can all raise a glass to that.

Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at ljsolmonson@gmail.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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