Sunday, March 28, 2010

Welcome back, happy hour

Gather ‘round, youngsters, and hear of a day when casual restaurants were known as “fern bars,” and loaded potato skins were about the coolest thing you’d find on a restaurant menu. Heck, you could even drink legally at age 18 back then, provided mom or dad would loan you the Nova or Maverick.

In the keen competition for young imbibers, places would offer a passel of attractions under the common slug of Happy Hour. A typical element was offering two drinks for the price of one, though the deals could range to such drool-inducers as getting your second and third drinks for a penny, or women drinking for free all night. We’d shop the various offers to determine who had the best giveaway. Life was sweet.

Then came the crackdown on drunken driving, a worthy cause that tarred happy hours as a major threat to innocent lives. They had to go, insisted groups like MADD. Restaurants tried to save the draws with adjustments like free food or bans of two-for-one, but the breed was clearly doomed.

Now come ample indications that happy hours are making a comeback, this time with the focus on food and quality drinks, not cheap intoxication. P.F. Chang’s, for instance, is offering sake for $4 (for a “large jar”), high balls for the same price, and decent wines for $5. For $6, you can get spare ribs, shrimp or seared ahi tuna. This is not your old uncle’s happy hour.

Then again, there are some familiarities. The Z’Tejas casual chain, for instance, offers a bunch of items at half price, or two-for-one if you prefer that frame of reference. But these are appetizers, not Mellon Balls.

Cheesecake Factory is doing the same thing, at least in some markets. Sure, you can get a Cosmo and similar specialty drinks for $5. But the spotlight is on 15 appetizers available for half price from late afternoon to early evening.

The Happy Hour is clearly back, this time as a way to enjoy foods at a steal. I’ll still miss my Alabama Slammers for 50 cents, but four mini spring rolls for $2, or free sliders, isn’t a bad draw. Especially if you can get a Pabst Blue Ribbon for $2, or not much more than we’d spend back in the day.

It’s enough to knock you off your platform shoes.

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