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The kind of weather we're having, this shady western side of The Street - Fifth Avenue downtown - is definitely it. Setting sun is baking the other side.

It's that time of the afternoon, before the mad rush starts, when the Gaslamp's hostess girls chat with each other from sidewalk pulpit to sidewalk pulpit. Then interrupt each other to pitch the latest passersby.

"Hi! Happy Hour Special tonight. Have a nice night...Hello, how are you doing? Would like to join us for dinner?"

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Me, I'm looking for a happy hour I can afford among all the Convention traps here. Just happen to be standing outside the USA hostel at 726 Fifth...

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...I know this building. Started out as a shoe store in 1887, was a house of joy in the Stingaree for most of the rest of its life. Restored (but not to a house of joy) in 1981.

Then in 1994, one of the early Italian restaurants in the Gaslamp, Asti, moved in and opened up, right beside the hostel entrance.

And here it is still, Asti Ristorante, at 728 Fifth Avenue (619-232-8844).

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Huh. And the hostess Jessica says yes, they have a happy hour. Three to six, seven days a week.

I want it to work because I like the look of this place, that they have this low awning reaching out over the patio area. Makes it look cozy, cool, like a real European café straight from the tourist pics.

You feel like a real gent when Jessica the hostess seats you out here in the patio area. Nice wicker chairs, tables with fresh flowers, candles, kinda cheek by jowl with people talking about the best way to get to Shanghai without jet-lag.

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And here's the thing: happy hour is about as cheap as, say, downtown Chula Vista. Except you get all the glam of the Gaslamp thrown in for free.

The HH menu is pretty simple. Fried calamari and veggies, $8.50, bruschetta (tomatoes, basil, feta cheese, toast, $4.50, Caprese (pretty-much the same thing, minus the toast), $7, and antipasto misto (mix of cold meats, like salami, ham, Bolognese, with roasted bell peppers, marinated eggplant, roasted artichoke and provolone, all for $6:50.

That's the one. I order it and the house white, $6, even though I could have gotten a Bud for $3.50 or a Ballast Point for $5. Wine just feels more antipasto, and okay, more Asti-ish. I know...Turning into a pretentious city slicker here. That's what these places do to you.

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The wine is a chardonnay from Napa Valley. Sycamore Lane. Restaurants-only brand, someone says. Whatever, kinda nice. Perfect with the cheese/meat/veggie combination of the antipasto misto. They ask if you want bread, and they bring a bottle of olive oil that you can use instead of butter. It has garlic and other stuff in the bottom to add to its flavor. Cool. Beautiful crunchy bread too. Bet it's from Bread and Cie.

So I have spent $12.42 and pretty-much filled up, and had just enough vino to last through the meal. Here's the thing: the antipasto misto is a collection of pretty strong, sharp-tasting stuff. The salami, the olives, the roasted peppers, the big stalk of artichoke, the provolone...so you need that bread and oil to gentle down the flavors. So you end up eating a lot of it. Which ends up turning your happy hour snack into a meal.

Hey hey! When you look at the regular menu, you're seeing prices of between $18 and $42 per plate. You've just walked away from financial Armageddon, buddy. Feel good. Feel very good.

The most delicious part of the meal? No doubt: that sweet, savory pile of marinated eggplant. Dang, but it's lush and addictive.

Kevin the manager comes by asking how everybody's doing. Says "Asti" is the name of an ancient walled village in northern Italy where the original executive chef's wife unexpectedly went into labor 21 years ago and gave birth to their first child.

"It was like a good omen," Kevin says.

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