Come On, Get Happy

There was a time, not all that long ago, when an enterprising cheapskate could eat out for free (or nearly free) just by hitting all the happy-hour buffets that local bars used to lay out for customers. The food usually wasn’t that great, but there was always a lot of it.

This wasn’t a modern innovation. As far back as the nineteenth century, taverns and saloons put out pickles, cold meats, hard-boiled eggs and crackers for customers. But the concept of a post-work happy hour (typically lasting longer than one hour but ending before dinnertime) evolved after World War II, when it was fun and sexy for office chums to gather for a little martini or two after punching the corporate time clock.

Harsher drunken-driving laws have made it illegal in some states to promote overimbibing at a happy hour. In Missouri, it’s legal to give away free drinks or offer two-for-one specials — but it’s illegal to advertise them. Kansas has happy-hour laws that prevent restaurant owners from serving free drinks, offering unlimited drink specials or cooking up games that encourage excessive drinking.

But excessive eating is still legal, and many local restaurants are beefing up their bar business by offering incredibly cheap food specials — contingent on buying alcohol — during happy hour. At the upstairs bar of the Canyon Café (4726 Broadway), a drink and $1.95 buys a big platter of either spinach-and-mushroom quesadillas or thick, spicy red-chile-and-chicken quesadillas. A friend and I also ordered a heaping helping of roasted-artichoke queso dip and Sedona spring rolls (also $1.95) along with the quesadillas. It was a fabulous dinner for about $8, not including drinks or tip.

The bustling bar at McCormick & Schmick’s (448 West 47th Street) has shorter happy hours — 4 to 6 p.m. — but a much bigger $1.95 menu. Get there early; this place fills up fast, and the tables don’t turn until after happy hour ends. Yes, there’s a $3 drink minimum, but one can eat big — really big — for a ten spot. Three friends and I shared a steaming bowl of steamed mussels in tomato-basil sauce, tangy buffalo wings, crunchy strips of fried portabella mushrooms, a “cocktail” of tiny bay shrimp swimming in a fiery sauce, creamy feta-walnut dip, grilled chicken skewers and a juicy, delicious half-pound cheeseburger. Our food tab cost less than a couple of movie tickets, though the cocktails set us back eighty bucks. But everyone was happy.

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