Happy hour haunts

Posted: September 14, 2011

It perhaps goes without saying, but happy hour is one of the sublime pleasures of adulthood. Yet while everyone knows the concept of happy hour, I’ll bet a lot of people never realized that happy hours were so closely regulated.

In Pennsylvania, a bar or restaurant can only hold a maximum of 14 hours of happy hours per week and those hours must be posted seven days in advance. Until recently, an establishment could only host two hours of happy hour each day. Those laws were loosened somewhat in July, and we can now enjoy up to four hours of happy hour.

Now, stupid liquor laws are nothing new in this part of the world. After spending a few days down at the Shore last month, I'd have to say that Ocean City's complete prohibition on alcohol takes the cake. In dry Ocean City, adults cannot even bring their own wine or beer to one of the town's restaurants. Some of the citizenry managed, this summer, via petition, to bring a vote on BYOBs to the November ballot. But earlier this month, BYOB supporters pulled the question after the city's elected officials threatened a lawsuit over the ballot question's language.

I mean, really? Even if you don't drink, are you really offended by people consuming their own booze in a private business that allows them to? Suffice to say that there will never be a happy hour in the self-proclaimed "America's Greatest Family Resort." Which I guess means that next to Ocean City, Pennsylvania is starting to look downright liberal.

So now that Philadelphia bars and restaurants potentially have two extra hours of happy hour to offer, where will you spend your time drinking discounted drinks and nibbling cheap bites? Frankly, I'm excited by the prospect of a four-hour happy hour, but so far, I've not seen any. Though I have seen a number of places that have expanded to 4-7 p.m., or 5 to 8. Since happy hour is a regular part of my workweek, I'd like to share a few places, old and new, that make me happy indeed.

For me, happy hour isn't just about half-priced beers. Not that there's anything wrong with cheap beer, but I like a happy hour that has some interesting food options as well. Perhaps my favorite regular stop is Oyster House's Buck-A-Shuck happy hour, with $1 oysters, $3 oyster shooters, and $3 draft beer Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 9 to 11 p.m. I count beer and oysters here after a stressful day at work as necessary therapy.

I also have been enjoying the nontraditional fare at Sampan's happy hour, with dishes ranging from $2 to $4. The spicy, flavorful Korean BBQ beef satay, the rich Kobe hot dog and the pork bahn mi are a nice changeup from chicken wings. It's also a happy hour that my vegetarian friends can enjoy, with delicious mushroom and edamame dumplings and tofu satay. Oh, and if you really are dead set on happy-hour wings, they offer a Thai-inspired spicy chicken wing.

One of the most exciting new happy hours in the city is Tuesdays at Tinto from 5 to 7 p.m., with $2 small plates of short rib, duck confit, octopus and Portuguese sardines, along with $4.50 sangria and offerings of at least one Spanish red and white wine for $4.

Though Tinto already serves tapas-style dishes on its regular menu, the smaller dishes offered on Tuesday nights are closer to what you'd find in a traditional Spanish tapas bar.

One place where I've been enjoying happy hour for a long time is London Grill in the Art Museum neighborhood, where I lived in the 1990s. Back then, London Grill was one of the first places that served good food with craft beer, and this was in the days when craft beer was not so widespread. You could rarely find, say, Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam in those days, and those beers were first poured at London Grill.

Now, of course, London Grill has been eclipsed by any number of gastropubs in the city, but I recently stopped by and was pleased to see that its happy hour is still strong. For $3 I ate terrific duck spring rolls and mini-burgers, and drank $4 Yards Love Stout and Sly Fox Pilsner. I was also pleased to taste fish and chips, which you can get a small portion of during happy hour for $3. It's still the finest in the city. As it happens, London Grill is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, with a special event that begins during happy hour on Monday.

I truly enjoyed rediscovering London Grill, almost as much as discovering Tuesdays at Tinto. Both, in their own ways, underscore perhaps the greatest thing about happy hour - the low commitment to trying out menus, whether at a place that's usually more expensive, or at an older place that people have moved on from. A good happy hour is an easy way for established places to become relevant again.

I hope we see even more experimentation and innovation, a veritable happy hour renaissance in Philadelphia in the coming months. And here's hoping that Pennsylvania will continue to loosen the reins on the best two - or four - hours of the day.

Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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