New Orleanians of a certain age may recall when local “happy” hours came in three basic forms with slight variations: Sure-bet barf-inducing three-for-one well brand specials; the Friday evening “Sippin’ into Sunset” all-you-can- drink for $10 booze fest hosted in the mid-1980s at a certain downtown hotel where IDs were never checked; and 50 cent bottles of Mickey’s Big Mouth malt liquor and bowls of greasy peanuts on Wednesday nights.
By today’s standards those happy hours were, most assuredly, crappy hours. Restaurants targeted elderly diners with early bird specials featuring entrée discounts or free appetizers, and bars offered cheap drinks and stale nuts, chips and popcorn from randomly scattered communal snack bowls. The revival of cocktail culture blurred the line between the two, blessedly allowing for the evolution of the modern, restaurant bar-oriented happy hour. In a city where restaurants have some of the best bars and bar food, this is as it should be, and the offerings and specials are as diverse as the restaurants themselves. We turn to them for the happiest happy hours with exceptional food, cocktails and wine, usually at bargain prices.
Hands down the happiest hours of every day are from 3 to 6 p.m. at Luke, where the three clocks above the doorway are all permanently set to that magical afternoon hour when the house packs with the hungry in search of cold, plump, freshly shucked oysters for 50 cents apiece. Half-priced beer, wine and cocktails and super fun appetizers of the day (there’s no list; you must ask), such as two house-made soft pretzels with apple jalapeño schmaltz for $2, have earned the restaurant a spot on Food & Wine magazine’s list of the “Top 10 Happy Hours in the Country.”
Across town on Oak Street, the Asian-fusion Chiba offers “Funk and Roll Hours” with an afternoon happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. every Monday through Saturday and a never-before-heard-of Reverse Happy Hour, which runs during the restaurant’s last hour of business (10 to 11 p.m., Monday-Tuesday, 4 p.m. to midnight Wednesday, 11 p.m. to midnight Thursday and midnight to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday). “I would dare say we have the best happy hour Uptown” says chef James Cook. “We’re serving really great food like steamed buns, dumplings, sushi rolls and sashimi for as little as $3, $4 glasses of wine, $3 beers – and that’s not just for Miller Lite but the good stuff, too – and $7 for craft cocktails. You can’t beat the price for the exceptional quality of the food. We even have a dessert menu.”
Broussard’s Restaurant recently launched L’Heure Vert, “The Green Hour,” in the elegantly renovated Empire Bar and verdant courtyard with absinthe (the green fairy) service, cocktail specials and eight versions of Moules et Frites offered daily from 4 to 7 p.m. Executive chef Guy Reinbolt’s Prince Edward Island mussels are a bargain at $8 per bowl and come in variations such as Marinières (white wine, garlic, parsley), Fra Diavolo (shrimp, scallops, clams, white wine, garlic, tomatoes), Creole (andouille and alligator sausage, Creole sauce) and Forestière (Portabello, Shiitake, wild mushrooms, garlic cream sauce), as well as Spanish, Greek, Italian and Thai interpretations.
Head bartender Paul Gustings, aka Marshal of Imperial Libations, concocts Imperial Punches (Swedish Punsch, Nuremberg Punch and English Milk Punch) in hot and bottled incarnations for $7 each. Daily wine specials are $5 per glass or $20 per bottle, bottled beers are half-price and absinthe service ranges from $5 to $7. Swiss, French and American absinthes are offered.
Those without the bucks to experience chef Philip Lopez’s 15-course tasting menu at the swank new Square Root in the Lower Garden District can head upstairs, sink into a Le Corbusier chair and bask in a bit of the glamour of the hip and beautiful at Root 2, the chef’s artisan charcuterie, cheese and cocktail studio and bar. Charcuterie selections, all priced at $10, include Orange Wine Scented Lamb Pancetta, nine-month-aged Lardo di Colonnata and Pickled Black Tea Smoked Tongue. Specialty cheese selections are priced per ounce, and small plates include Steak Tartare, Indian Spiced Peach Galette, Heirloom Carrot Salad and Lamb Meatball Rigatoni. Bar Master Max Messier’s happy hour drink specials are offered from 5 to 7 p.m., and $6 will get you a libation with a clever name like Codename, Duchess, Private Dancer, Streetcar Named Desire and The Night Starts Here. Classic cocktails are $4.
Chef Glen Hogh’s tapas menu at the intimate, sexy Vega Tapas Cafe on Metairie Road lends itself easily to the happy hour format, and he keeps the week lively with daily themed specials that last all night long. All bottles of wine are half-price on Median Mondays, and Two Buck Tuesdays feature well cocktails, domestic beer and sangria for $2 a pop at the bar. Please remember whining isn’t an aphrodisiac and stick to what’s in your glass on Winey Wednesdays, when all wines by the glass are $5 and you should leave your shrink in the office when you partake of the alternative VINOtherapy, a daily chill period from 5:30 to 7 p.m., when $2 are knocked off of each wine by the glass.
Antoine’s entire menu is available without all the pomp and circumstance in the restaurant’s Hermes Bar, which offers a daily 4 to 7 p.m. happy hour when beers, house wines and well cocktails are all available for less than $4. A special bar food menu with casual takes on some Antoine’s classics is also offered.
“We do not have a happy hour, per se, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t offering some happy summer specials!” says Regina Keever of Bayona. In June the perennial favorite restaurant started offering a $24 three-course lunch with 24 cent martinis. “Twenty four cent martinis could make for more than a happy hour,” Keever says. “That could make for a happy day!”
Also this summer on Bastille Day (July 14) the restaurant will begin hosting “ Fete Art de Montmartre,” nightly in the courtyard at 6 p.m. when the lush space will be strung with atmospheric lighting, colorful market umbrellas and works of local artists. “It will be reminiscent of gatherings in the Parisian landmark of Montmartre,” Keever says. Bastille Day will also be a day for corkage fee amnesty. “Let them drink wine! Bring your own and drink all you want. No fee.”
The 21st Amendment Lounge at La Louisiane pays tribute to the 1920s Prohibition era when the Mafia thrived and speakeasies proliferated through the trade of illegal booze. Seek the Don’s Pardon (a specialty cocktail) at a discount on Wednesday through Friday evenings from 4 to 7 p.m., or channel your inner Bonnie or Clyde on Wednesday nights when patrons in mobster attire see 20 percent of their bar tabs vaporize and free mobster movies set the tone. Seek the secret speakeasy password for regular drink specials. How is that for an offer you can’t refuse?
21st Amendment Lounge: 725 Iberville St., 378-7330, 21stAmendmentNola.com
Bayona: 430 Dauphine St., 525-4455, Bayona.com
Broussard’s: 819 Conti St., 581-3866, Broussards.com
Chiba: 8312 Oak St., 826-9119, Chiba-Nola.com
Hermes Bar: 713 St. Louis St. (inside Antoine’s), 581-4422, Antoines.com
Luke: 333 St. Charles Ave., 378-2840, LukeNewOrleans.com
Root 2: 1800 Magazine St. (upstairs from Square Root), 309-7800, SquareRootNola.com
Vega Tapas Café: 2051 Metairie Road, 836-2007, VegaTapasCafe.com