The Place: Fig, 101 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica; (310) 319-3111
The Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 5-6 p.m.
The Deals: Half off everything on the menu, including drinks
What did we think? Turn the page to find out...
The Digs: A swanky hotel bistro really shouldn't be as interesting as Fig. After all, there is a concierge stand just around the corner. And a mod zinc bar counter that itself looks entirely too expensive to ever bother with holding up anything as plebeian as a Happy Hour menu item. The "casual" cabana-like half of the restaurant doesn't help, either -- it overlooks a pool that tends to have more than a few Real Housewives types lingering about on chaise lounge chairs with their $13 martinis.
But it turns out that formager lurking behind the semi-circular bar is not half as intimidating as his carefully tended cheeses appear, and the steakhouse-worthy leather bar stools are actually pretty comfortable. On our numerous bar-hops here, the bartenders have always been happy to see us. The reason, we imagine, is because one, maybe two other people are their Happy Hour entertainment. Most of the hotel guests seem to have no idea what awaits them between 5 and 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, and those locals in the know can likely hardly justify the 4:30 log-off time required to find parking in time for those $5 Kurobuta pork and cavalo nero meatballs (normally $10) and beet risotto with asparagus, crème fraîche and dill for just under $12.
The Verdict: As with the regular dinner menu, it isn't so much the of-the-moment Farmers' Market offerings that are most compelling here, but the seemingly contradictory cooking style of chef Ray Garcia, who is as content to serve up a humble braised beef tongue inspired by his grandmother's recipe as he is to invent a delicate fennel and Clementine salad with caraway dressing. That's because the Happy Hour menu is Garcia's entire ever-changing dinner menu, all at half price. Yes, everything.
Which means one night you can go crazy on cheeses -- maybe a plum and brandy-washed Tomme Dolce goat cheese from Andante in Santa Rosa and a bandage-wrapped cheddar from Fiscalini in Modesto ($3 each at Happy Hour). And how about a flight of cheeses chosen by the formager? At the current $9 price for a "domestic" flight, $10 for that "challenging" flight, and $12.50 for "Eric's Stash," you've got plenty of Happy Hour cheese mileage options. It's also the sort of menu that invites ordering things you might not like. Not a fan of charcuterie? Order the sampler, now $12.50, anyway. Maybe you'll find one you like, maybe not. There's surely a prissy dog somewhere in the hotel who will be happy to finish it off.
On another visit, you could simply stick to Garcia's bar snacks, as we have. Chicken and prosciutto corquettes are now $7.50, a few bites of stuffed honey dates are $4.50. Appetizers on a recent visit included an oddly enchanting tart filled with béchamel sauce, sliced avocados and Parmesan (now $7.50), salads like that fennel-Clementine and a tuna nicoise ($11.50) that passes as a light meal itself. Even that meatloaf sounds like a bargain for $13 -- especially when you read the fine print and discover that's one pricey short rib and pancetta number during the dinner hour.
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Drinks are also half off, and not just a chosen few as during The Yard's Happy Hour a few blocks down. That means you can take in a 750 ml bottle of The Bruery's Orchard White, normally already around $11, only a dollar or two more than we've seen it two miles down the road at Wine Expo - for what amounts to essentially the wholesale price. Other rotating craft beers, like Firestone's oatmeal stout and Brouwerij West's Belgian-style blond, normally $5 or $7 depending on the size, are also great bargains at half off. Or hell, if you're really on a tight budget, you can order a Miller High Life for $1.50 during Happy Hour (we're not sure whether the price or the beer itself is more shocking at an expensive hotel's bar). Cocktails and wine are half-off as well, a good thing as this is where you typically plunk down the most cash during dinner. Most cocktails are around $13 full price here, wines by the glass around $10 to $15. But when Happy Hour descends, the entire wine-by-the-glass menu is half-off, from a bargain but hard-to-find Croatian Peljesac we tasted on a recent visit to wines that only those Real Housewives can afford on a Tuesday night.
Why would a restaurant that always seems to be full with hotel guests and locals do something so thoroughly stupid with their price-slashing? We'd still show up if only a handful of the carefully edited wines and Garcia's dishes were half off. "We wanted a place where those of us who work in restaurants would want to go ourselves - and a place we could actually afford to go," says manager/wine director Matthew Lehman. "I'm pretty sure we lose money most nights."
We're pretty sure, too. But hopefully they're keeping their accountant in the dark on Happy Hour, as we have a few more cheese flights to taste through before the comté dries up.
Overall Grade: A+