Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Don't Worry (About Prices), Be Happy (Hour)
November 10, 2016 -- It's not exactly a leading economic indicator, but the average price of a cocktail in a welcoming bar is skyrocketing.

Try $14 a drink. Tack on a tip, the taxes and any local tariff to help pay the server's health insurance and you're talking a full Andrew Jackson. And that's just in the small northern California college town of San Luis Obispo, not Washington or Chicago or New York. Drink prices there are breathtaking.

Consider the state of the bar at the Broadway Lounge inside the massive Marriott Marquis on Manhattan's Times Square. Order a Grey Goose Martini straight up with a twist and the basic price is $24.50. Add in a 20 percent tip and tax and the tab for sipping five ounces of pleasure is more than $30. Entertaining a customer or wooing a potential client with a drink and a nibble can be a hundred bucks easily.

A few blocks uptown at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel, where rooms on a recent Saturday started at $995, the same top-shelf libation is $26--or about $33 each with tax and tip.

You say your wallet and your expense account can't handle those stratospheric price tags? You say even twenty bucks for a cocktail is too stiff for your taste?

No need to downgrade to a dive bar. Look for a thirst parlor with a Happy Hour.

More on that in a moment, but, first, some libational lore. Historians claim the "happy hour" was invented by sailors aboard the battleship USS Arkansas. To break the boredom of life at sea during World War I, the crew staged boxing and wrestling matches and downed beer, rum and whiskey during a designated 60 minutes or so.

When Prohibition killed that fun, land-locked Americans drinking illegal booze revived the tradition to "whet their whistle," according to wags. In the 1960s, bars and restaurants started discounting drinks for several hours each day to pump up sales and generate traffic during pre-dinner hours.

Of course, not every bar struggling for sales can hang out a two-for-the-price-of-one Happy Hour banner. Twenty-three states ban shaving the price of a drink. Bars in hard-drinking Boston, for instance, can reduce appetizer prices, but a longstanding state law means drink prices do not budge regardless of the hour.

Of course, the term "happy hour" in the singular is misleading. I've never seen a one-hour Happy Hour and would feel shortchanged if any bar or pub only offered 60 minutes. Most are at least two hours. Many stretch to three hours.

One example: The Trident, a bar, restaurant and music hangout on the water in Sausalito, California. Opened in 1966 by the Kingston Trio, the legendary music group, The Trident is always busy, but it has a three-hour weekday Happy Hour.

From 4 to 7 p.m., well drinks are $5 and house wines are $7. The pours are heavy. Tap beers are $4 for a 12-ounce glass and $6 for a 22-ounce glass. Eight appetizers are $6 each, including a delicious mini grass-fed burger with caramelized onions; firecracker popcorn shrimp; and mahi mahi tacos with guacamole.

Manager Helen O Byrne said non-Happy Hour drink prices are typically $5 to $6 higher.

Strangely enough, upmarket restaurant chains with bars seem to have the best happy hours. Roy's, a stylish Asian fusion chain, pours seven "specialty cocktails" for $7 apiece from 4 to 7 p.m. Never thought I'd be seduced by a Hawaiian Martini (Skyy and Stoli vanilla vodka plus Malibu coconut rum), but it was so tasty I went for two.

During Happy Hour, Roy's sells $7 appetizers such as Mongolian spiced pork ribs, lobster pot stickers, Kalua pork sliders, crab-fried rice and truffle bacon mac and cheese. There are more than two dozen Roy's outposts nationwide and chainwide Happy Hour drink and food prices are 50 percent off the regular menu.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, with 67 contemporary eateries around the United States, has two happy hours--5 to 7 p.m. and from 8 to 10 p.m. Five cocktails and wines and five appetizers, normally $10 to $12 each, cost $6 to $8 at the earlier happy hour. But the 8 to 10 p.m. offering is unbelievable. A 9-ounce glass of good wine and a choice of eight "small plates"--boneless short ribs, New Zealand lamb chops, lobster tempura--cost just $5.

After a 25-year ban, the Happy Hour concept was reinstated in Chicago two years ago by the Illinois general assembly. But a quick look at offerings around Chicagoland indicates that the deals aren't great, mostly half-price beers and shots. The Sheraton Chicago O'Hare just added a Happy Hour, but it's nothing to write home about, either. Deals do get better in the neighborhoods, however. The Barrelhouse Flat, a faux speakeasy in Lincoln Park, sells $6 Old Fashioneds, Tom Collins and Daiquiris from 4 to 7 p.m. most weeknights. Otherwise, cocktails are normally $13 each.

Meanwhile, back in quaint San Luis Obispo, the $14 cocktail is alive and well at Sidecar, a side-street saloon and food spot. Since San Luis Obispo is a college town with a huge men's prison and a mental hospital, too, how can Sidecar justify those prices?

Two reasons. San Luis Obispo is slowly and quietly becoming a technology hotbed thanks to comparatively low office rents and a sought-after lifestyle. This helps attract free-spending venture capital and private equity firms looking south of Silicon Valley for the elusive "next big thing."

Second, San Luis Obispo's eclectic crowd has plenty of bars from which to choose. But they favor the funky Sidecar, where adventurous mixologists have created nearly two dozen imaginative drinks. A sample: The Horse + Donkey, which is cilantro-infused gin, house sour, cayenne tincture and ginger beer. It's served on the rocks in a 22-ounce mug. Sidecar also serves up comfort food like chicken and waffles and exotic offerings such as pork belly sticky buns.

Still, Sidecar's owners know a steady diet of double-digit-priced drinks isn't going to fly day in and day out no matter how gilded the patronage. So from 4 to 6 p.m. daily, the specialty cocktails are whittled down to $7 each. Everything else alcoholic is $2 off the regular price.

This column is Copyright 2016 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.