If Wall Street hadn’t collapsed, happy hour may never have exploded the way it has. All these bars and eateries wouldn’t have needed our business so bad.
As it is, suddenly I can afford to go to Mr. A’s. Suddenly, I’m getting a free buffet at the 94th Aero Squadron. At Candelas Coronado I can get a totally scrumptious four-cheese soup for $4.50.
Talk about silver linings!
Plus HH creates an atmosphere of generosity. Each side’s getting a deal. Good feelings all round.
What if happy hour brought world peace? Seriously, after a $1 Stone Pale Ale today at First Bar downtown, I felt pretty peaceful.
Here are some favorites.
2540 Congress Street, Old Town
(No longer in business.)
25Forty Bistro and Bakehouse
Happy hour: 3–6:30pm, daily
A chic black-and-white place that’s the opposite of all the florid Mexican places of Old Town, and being on Congress, not Tourist-Trap San Diego Avenue, you’ve got to want to come here. But there’s incentive in the banner slung right in front. “Happy Hour: Fifty percent off all drinks and listed food items.” You can eat outside by the fire pit or inside by the chalkboard map of the world.
And here’s where you know you’re dealing with an interesting guy. The map shows where all of the house wines come from. It has places like Mauritania, Morocco. The guy has African wines!
Things you can have on happy hour include items like kale (with sugar-coated cashews, raisins and soy) for $10. So that’d be $5. Bratwurst plate, $4; pissaladière, $2; and hey, bangers and mash with gravy and onions for $5. And a glass of house wine, $3.50. Wow. Such a deal. And all so beautifully presented. Black cloth napkins, heavy modern cutlery. I got in and out for $8.50 plus tax for an interesting bangers and mash plate plus a glass of wine. That’s insane. But beautiful. And interesting fusion stuff. The chef-owner, Mark Pelliccia lived in Italy, been through Europe, Japan, Mexico, so his concoctions are super-interesting. Even the $4 ones.
Happy hour: 4–6pm, daily
We’re talking one of those places you either know or you don’t. The Corner is upstairs in the old Carnation Milk Factory, down by the ballpark. Hip, dark, with lots of cozy corners, and a pretty cool bar scene. Two brothers, Davin and Cooper, used to live in the co-op here. Famous for their parties. After it sold, and Cooper had lived in Miami for a while, they started this up. Miami comes through in things like the pulled pork burger. Nights, it gets crazy with the condoïsta social-media crowd.
Deals are in the small bites. During happy hour they’re all $2 off. So, four mini corn dogs sell for $2.50. Eight chicken wings go for $5.95. Cheddar sliders with fries will be $8.50. It’s the same price for those Cuban-inspired pulled pork siders, three of them with fries.
So not the cheapest deal in town, but still cheap enough to keep you on your stool listening to the latest digital buzz. This is a yuppy hang-out so expect full prices for burgers and sandwiches up in the $10–$12 range.
But remember, even if you miss happy hour, and if all else fails, you can always get a half-order of mac and cheese for $4.75.
1041 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Happy hour: 3–6pm, Sunday–Thursday
Urban India is a big barn of a place near the U.S. Grant. Inside has Indian art, Buddha heads, modern Indian pop music, and big screen TVs showing sports. Mostly, uh, cricket. “We’re the next generation Indians,” says Jappreet Singh. He’s Sikh, wearing a black turban. He’s 30. “We’re more chill. I mean, come on: When have you seen an Indian sports bar before?”
Their motto? “Keep Calm and Curry On.”
So, to get customers in, they’ve got a pretty rad HH. Samosas (the 3-cornered stuffed fried pastries) are $2, tandoori chicken’s $5. Gobi Manchurian (cauliflower) runs to $5, veg pakora (“fried veggies”) is $3, and onion bhaji (also fried) is $3. With mint and tamarind chutneys.
Plus, draft beers are $2 for Bud and Stella. Pints of Stone IPA and Ballast Point Pale Ale are $3.50. Kingfisher lager, India’s most popular, is $3.
What food to ask for if you have a little more? No contest: the chicken tikka, worth it at $7.50. Surinder the chef (and Jappreet’s business partner) brings it spitting and hopping on a black iron platter. It’s red chunks of chicken, onions, cucumber slices, green peppers, and lemons, appearing through a herby-garlicky-smelling smoke.
1201 First Street #115, Coronado
Happy hour: 11am–11pm, daily
Most folks come here for the view. The harbor, the city, the ships sliding by. Me: for a pretty incredible happy hour. It’s not just the longest, it has some beautiful dishes for half the menu prices.
The price you pay for going happy hour is sitting in the back, not the front with the best harbor views.
Small price. The Mexico City–style tacos they’re famous for usually go $15 for two (ribeye.) HH price is $7.50. For the grilled shrimp tacos (usually $18), it’s $9. Swiss enchiladas, nachos, and quesadilla dishes each go for $7. Veracruz salad’s $5.25.
But for my money, ya gotta go for the Crema de Cuatro Quesos al Chile Pasilla. Four-cheese soup. HH price: $4.50. OMG — this is one of the most scrumbulicious soups I’ve ever had. Creamy orange color with a sautéed prawn rising out of an island of cheesy mash in the middle. Its head is covered in straws of shredded fried sweet potato.
It’s luscious and filling. And the good news is, with a happy hour this long, there’s no rush. Reckon on $4.50 for a glass of vino. Only thing: don’t go off HH menu. Front row customers pay big on the regular menu for their view.
9415 Avenida Paseo de Los Héroes, Zona Rio, Baja
Happy Hour: 5–7pm, daily
Sótano Suizo is hidden in a warren of ex-bars near the independence monument — Las Tijeras (“the scissors”). Most of them have moved to Calle Sexta, at Sixth and Revolución. But Sótano Suizo — “Swiss Cellar” — is always crowded, even after 25 years.
Pass through a kinda dark passage to the twinkling lights of the sheltered outside patio. Inside, head past the noisy bar, and through a stone-arched door into a cozy space with a dozen wooden plank tables under heavy rafters. Big brass Swiss cowbells hang from them. Ask Tío, the veteran waiter, to bring you two things: a Bösiger porter beer (brewed on the spot by the Swiss owner, Réné Bösiger), and a Sótano Dog.
Let me be blunt: these Sótano Dogs are the best goddam hot dogs in the galaxy. The Sótano Dog is a crunchy, way-long baguette loaded with Hungarian sausage, tomato, onion, chile guëro, and uncooked Swiss cheese hanging out over the top. It costs about $6.50 (depending on exchange rate). Or $12.50 for the Mamuth Dog, over twice the size. You’ll need someone to share this with. It’s ginormous.
Happy hour? Drinks only, buy one, get one free. But the food’s so cheap, it always feels like happy hour.
2310 30th Street, South Park
(No longer in business.)
Happy Hour: 4:30pm–6pm, Monday, Wednesday–Friday; Tuesday till close.
Cutest little eight-stool bar you ever saw. It’s in the Latin America section of this tour-of-the-world eatery. French part’s in the front, Asian’s in the middle, Morocco is in the back alcove. And strangest items appear on the happy-hour list, too. Like, fried Brussels sprouts in a brown clay bowl, with “apple wood smoked bacon, lemon, and pecorino Romano.” Normally $8, but $6 for happy hour.
Of course, you’ve got to make it to the bar stool to get the happy-hour deals. But they’re worth fighting for, even if you need a minute to get used to some of them. Seaweed salad ($4) turns out to be delicious and nutritious. The short rib beef street taco ($2) is great with its queso fresco, avocado, and BOMB sauce. And the mussels — the most expensive at $13 — look and smell great when they pass me by. But the sprouts, with bacon and cheese and lemon are incredible. Even more incredible: the fresh-baked hot bread. ‘Specially when you lay on the aioli butter with saffron. I also got a $6 glass of French wine. Next time: the mussels, or lamb sliders (2 for $10.)
Just make sure you nab the stool, or all HH bets are off.
1220 Third Avenue, Downtown San Diego
(No longer in business.)
Downtown Johnny Brown’s
Happy Hour: 3–7pm, Monday–Friday
It’s hard to beat free. And Friday evenings they often have complimentary tri-tip roasting away. This is the Irish green eatery and bar in the Civic Center Concourse, the one café that sprawls out towards where Cabrillo’s 1542 map of San Diego Bay is pictured in mosaic tiles, and the prow of a ship rushes through water to show we’re a city of immigrants.
So last time I came on a Friday, there was that luscious smell. I jes’ followed my nose to the chafing dish, and forked on two slabs of the meat to my plate, and headed for a table. Trying not to look smug. Tender, soo tasty, and filling. That and a $3 domestic bottle of cerveza makes for a pretty decent way to finish your week. Otherwise $1 fish tacos and 40 percent off appetizers. That’d mean a cheese quesadilla for $3.50, chili cheese fries for $4.50, potato skins for $4.50.
Plus, you’re in the bosom of government here on the best possible day. Folks are letting steam off over the week’s budget battles and pothole programs. And you get a chance to put your two cents in about people trying to have something for nothing
1912 Coronado Avenue #105, Nestor
Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar
Happy hour: 3–6pm, Monday–Thursday; $1.35 fish tacos, all day Monday–Thursday
This is down near Suzie’s Organic farm. Saturn and Coronado Avenue. Mostly housing, sloughs, a few franchises. But come here at sunset, because two things are happening: the sun shines horizontally on the Baja Oyster sign, and gives a magical light inside; and the place is rockin’. Like a Baja surfing cantina. Corrugated iron, thatch palapas, two bars and cooks’ stations, one at either end, and people, yakking, shouting, laughing, chowing.
Right next to you, Leo, Juan, and Nazareth, the cooks, are racing around, clanging pans onto flames, taking orders, barking orders. It’s quite a scene.
You get a heckuva deal on the HH special, the $1.35 fish taco, glugging the 2-fer-1 Buds ($3). I mean, these fish tacos are fine, but go off-HH menu too. Look for the smoked marlin taco ($3.50). It is out…of…this…woild. For starters, tortilla’s all black-striped and end-burned from cooking on the flame broiler. Then there’s the smoky fish and hot salsa and a way-big slab of avocado. I swear, you sit here chewing and shaking your head. It’s that good.
956 Broadway Circle, Downtown San Diego
Happy hour: 4pm–6pm drinks; 4pm–11pm for bar food.
You come here because this is where the power players gather after work. I come here because they have $3 beers in HH, and some incredibly sophisticated, but not that expensive bar food specials. Like their mussel bisque “en croute,” meaning in a puff pastry jacket. Yes, it’s $10, but for that you get the mussels, a winey sauce, beautiful puff pastry, and at the end the waiter punches a hole in the pastry center and sends a stream of sherry into it for added sexiness. Oh, man.
Or the chicken liver mousse ($9), a pâté where they lever the waxy top off it in its little ceramic pot, and bring fabulous baked-on-the-spot bread with butter.
Okay, I also come because of the awesome, golden mahogany bar they shipped out around the Horn from England back in 1913. People have been leaning on it telling the bartender “my wife doesn’t understand me” for 99 years.
4640 Mission Boulevard, Pacific Beach
Bare Back Grill
Happy hour: 3–6pm, Monday–Friday
This New Zealand–themed restaurant was one of the pre-Burger Lounge pioneers of free-range organic beef burgers. Theirs had less fat in their beef and lower cholesterol than even turkey, plus more omega-3 than salmon.
But what I liked about them was they didn’t make a big religious thing about it.
The burgers go from $9-$15. But the good news is The Munchies — kinda standard appetizer stuff actually, like chili, calamari, chicken tenders, fries, are all half off during HH. So a bowl of “Jus-Chilin’” chili, or “Kal Maori” (you can guess), and “Kiwi 3’Some” (fries, rings, calamari) are $4.50 each after the discount. Or if you’re really, well, bare-backed, a small fries is $1.75, and sweet potato fries are $2. Select craft beers and cocktails, $3. So a Lincoln could cover you. Almost.
455 Tenth Avenue, East Village
(No longer in business.)
Happy hour: 5–8pm daily
The food in this deal can be anything from French onion soup to lobster bisque to a cheese plate to “amuse-bouches” like tartines and bruschetta, to — what I really want, these cold nights — fondue and a nice solid glass of cab.
This just in: during Wednesday night happy hours, get five wines with a five-cheese plate for $25.
Loris is an interesting guy. He came out from Paris and started this from scratch. The idea was to recreate one of the Paris wine bars that he says are all the rage right now. East Villagers have been crowding it each time I’ve been by. Best dish so far: a $9 Niçoise salad. Nice to eat out in the sidewalk sun. Ask him about organic wines.
1165 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Sixth Avenue Bistro
Happy hour: 3–7pm, Monday–Friday; all day Saturday-Sunday
Come for the HH, stay for Jack’s Creole wonders: a cozy little corner place in the financial district with a fanatical band of followers: bankers, bums and music buffs (the symphony and opera perform nearby.) I fit in there somewhere.
Jack Gambrell has been cooking on this block since 1974. First at McDougall’s, now here, for the last 13 years. He’s known for clear happy-hour choices. They’re simple. For $5 you can get pot stickers, carne asada nachos, street tacos (2), sweet potato fries, quesadillas (carne asada or chicken), or buffalo wings.
Go for the nachos. They’re generous, crisp and luscious. Actually, no. Go off the HH menu, because (and you’d hardly know it from any signage), Jack is a New Orleans native who makes gumbos and jambalayas that have been winning him awards just about every year. His jamablaya (sort of like a paella) goes for $9.50, but a half-portion’s only $6.95. Gumbo (more liquidy like a stew) is $12.95, with Andouille sausage, shrimp and filé (sassafras). This comes in a half size too, for $7.95. Plentiful. Dee-licious. I had mine with a Stone IPA ($4.50).
You have to almost winkle these jewels out of Jack. He’s that kind of a guy. But it’s worth it.
1100 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Happy hour: 3pm till close, daily
“Oga-Wa-Shi” means “Fifth-And-C” in Korean. And it's Koreans who’ve set up this new place.
They opened in September, and it seems to be working. Partly because they get a great business lunch crowd with their $10 “lunch box” special. It includes things like chicken, steak, or salmon teriyaki, kalbi (short ribs), sashimi, and nigiri, plus miso soup, rice, salad, mixed tempura, and California roll.
But also they’ve gone all-out for the happy-hour business.
For starters, 20% off everything on the sushi roll menu, from opening until 7pm. Which means $3 handrolls, $3 for a nigiri sampler. Five bucks’ll buy a seafood spring roll, heart attack spicy bomb, or mixed or veggie tempura. For $7, happy ceviche. Plus sake bombs go for $2; all draft beers are $3. And they seem to have everything from Asahi to Ballast Point.
Don Kim, the top chef here, seems like a really serious guy. See him making a sashimi plate’s like watching a jeweler create a necklace. And he’s funny at the same time as he chats with customers.
Meantime, I ain’t ashamed to just start with a California roll ($5.20 after HH discount).
1526 India Street, Little Italy
Isola Pizza Bar
Happy hour: 3–6pm, daily
If ever you had a little chunk of modern Italy transported, this could be it. Massimo Tenino left his grandma Isolina, who taught him everything about cooking, and life, and he ended up here (by way of Tucson, where he has another place). What he does here is simple, good Italian food in a way-cool black and white and cinderblock space that still manages to be über classy.
Last time I was in, I found this HH checklist, and guess what? Everything was $4. Like, gamberetti alla ’nduja (shrimp and Andouille sausage), babarietole (roasted beets, gorgonzola cheese), cozze al forno (wood-fired mussels), formaggi (three cheeses), assorted olives with caramelized walnuts), salame misto (mixed salami, with homemade pickled vegetables). The only thing more expensive was the ten-inch Pizza Margherita (tomato, mozzarella, and basil). That was — wow — $5.
I got the salami and the pizza, and a glass of Rosso Piemonte ($5, HH price), which turns out to be from Massimo’s brother Paolo’s vineyard in Piemonte region. A bee-yootiful merlot. Specially with the sharpness of the salami and its terrific pickles, and the gentle bready thing of the pizza. I sit. I spin the empty glass by its stem. I want to come back before I’ve even left.
721 Ninth Avenue, East Village
(No longer in business.)
Happy hour: 3:30–5:30pm, Monday–Friday
Yes, it’s maybe too cute. Yes, it bills itself as “where East Village Meets Paris Chic.” But Café Chloë, dammit, has something that makes you want to sit down and pretend you’re on the Left Bank with a wine in your hand, a whine in your voice, and a beret on your head.
HH choices for food and drink fall into $4, $5, and $6 deals. Two good ones: “Charcuterie” plate for $6, and “tarte flambée — with bacon, caramelized onions and “crème fraîche” for $5.
The $4 choices are petite house salad, warm olive selection, cheese with walnut bread, or “pommes frîtes,” yes, real French french fries, with three dips. Go for the warm olives and cheese with walnut bread. Oh heck, and add the charcuterie and the tart if you can afford it.
About the wine? Ask Alex the bartender. He knows a decent $4 plonk from vinegar.
554 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Dublin Square Irish Pub & Grill
Happy hours: 4–7pm, Monday–Friday; 2–5pm, Saturday; 11am–7pm, Sunday
This pub takes its happy hours seriously. The pub itself is an exact copy of Tynan’s Pub in Kilkenny, Ireland, which dates back to 1702. You get $2 off all drafts and bottles, $4 off all pitchers, and half off all appetizers.
And here’s the thing: There’s nothing “Honey I shrunk the appetizers” about these appetizers. I see dishes like Irish meat pies and potato skins and boxties going out that look enough to fill any beer belly.
Price-wise? They just say “Half off.” At first I’m apprehensive. “Half off?” Half off of what?
So I start out with a “mini beef boxty,” whatever that is. Because it’s only $2.98.
Turns out it’s a potato pancake with sirloin tips and blue cheese. Looks like a big tortilla, with blue cheese squiggled over the top. Sabroso.
Other HH deals include Derry bangers and mash (“Irish sausages, mashed potatoes, baked beans”), usually $14.95, now $7.50. Irish meat pies, $3.50, Guinness beef crostini (beef tips on toasted baguette with blue cheese) $5, and Dublin Square sliders, with choice of cheese or curry mayo, $4.50.
Everyone says this is the best deal. I order them. When they come, they’re huge, for sliders. Totally fill me. The curry mayo splots kill me.
Along with the boxty and a Guinness ($5 after $2 off for happy hour), I’m lighter by about $12, plus tax. For the Gaslamp, that’s incredible. A happy hour that makes you happy.
109 F Street, Downtown San Diego
Athens Market Taverna
Happy hour: 3:30–6:30pm, Monday–Friday
This is Mary Pappas’s baby. She rules here where judges, plaintiffs, prosecutors, defense attorneys all gather for happy hour after a long day in the courts around here. This is neutral territory by unspoken agreement. Even judges don’t argue when she comes down with a judgment. Hey, cross her and she may elevate the HH prices.
And right now, prices are pretty good, for this silver cutlery and linen tablecloth watering hole.
Of course you’ve got to like Greek food to like this happy hour. If you do, look for $5 HH bargains like spanakopita (filo pockets with spinach, cheese); feta cheese, olives, and pita bread; grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice; a gyros sampler; Greek meatballs; and three-dip combo (hummus, satziki, and melitzansalata).
But what sticks out is the feather-light pastry of the spanakopita with the spinach and cheese inside. Goes fine with the really interesting beer called Keo, from Cyprus, $3 (usually $6.)
Last time I was in, on a Friday night around six, the place was turning into a party. Everybody letting off steam, even sober judges.
2550 Fifth Avenue, 12th floor, Bankers Hill
Bertrand at Mr. A’s
Happy Hour: 2:30–6pm, Monday–Friday
Who’d believe it? They let us cent-skimping peasants up to the twelfth floor to taste samples of what Top People eat.
Actually they are pretty friendly up here where the sky’s nearer than the sea, and the planes come in below you on their way to land at Lindbergh.
Sean the savvy bartender says everything on Mr. A’s HH menu is $7. From fries (truffled or sweet potato), to calamari, to tempura mixed veggies with aioli. But looking around, most people seem to go for the sliders. Makes sense. There’s so much more of them. You get three swordfish steak sliders with onion rings, two ahi tuna sliders with capers and lemon sauce, or three Kobe beef sliders with truffle fries.
Drinks are reasonable too. Wines, $6, beers mostly $4. I get me a Stone IPA, and settle for the bar stool facing away from the view. Should have come earlier.
Even so, it’s no prob to turn and catch the ocean turning black, the sky turning purple, and the city turning on its necklace of lights. Gotta admit: with this million-dollar view, the $11.85 I’ve just paid is a heckuva deal.
More from the Happy Hour issue: Not just drinking on the mind | That transcendental space between drinking too early and drinking too much