Food for the Happy-Hour Diner
They say that chefs hate happy hour, and when I say "they," I mean chefs. Owners love happy hour, wait staff love happy hour, patrons love happy hour... only the chefs are left to pout about the mandatory super-cheap menu of tiny burgers, various poppers, and mini pizzas for a bunch of cheap drunks and yuppies. Some chefs, however, embrace the idea, striving to offer something more significant (if not in size, at least in concept).
Maximilien (81A Pike St, Pike Place Market, 682-7270. Happy hour: Mon–Fri 5–7 pm, Sat 8–10 pm.)
We were charmed instantly by Maximilien, by the stunning views from the west-facing deck, by the perfectly French waiter (cheap white-button-down shirt and fabulous tie) greeting us with a bland "bonsoir," and by the fact that you can order a bucket of six bottles of Kronenbourg beer for $15. Maximilien is disarmingly casual—for all of its Europhile pretension, it's a charming place to sit and watch the sunset with your feet up on the extra chair, periodically dropping a few remembered French phrases on the waiter.
The $2.95 happy-hour menu is tres français, featuring a croque monsieur, a lovely tarte flambé, steamed mussels marinière, and even a French hot dog (but you have to say it like "otte dougge"). The croque monsieur was delicious (if a little dry) and the tarte was perfect—daintily hand-crimped edges holding a bit of melted Brie, sliced tomatoes, and herbes de Provence. Both were ludicrously small portions when compared to many of the other entries reviewed here, intended as more of a light snack after work than the pre-dinner meal many others present. But despite the nouvelle portions and rampant Francophilia, Maximilien can hardly be beat—in both the physical setting and menu they seem to deeply understand this late-afternoon bar phenomenon, and I can honestly say that my guest and I went away (after almost exactly an hour) happier than when we arrived.
Chapel (1600 Melrose Ave, 447-4180. Happy hour: Daily 5–8 pm, 11 pm–close.)
The dining room at Chapel might be the first fully dichromatic room I've ever been in. White and brown—from the walls (brown) to the chairs (white) to the tables (brown) to the art (white), everything you can see is white or brown. Chapel burger ($7): various browns. Pizzette ($5): various whites. The chef at Chapel has taken the world's two most ubiquitous happy-hour menu items and created straightforward, well-crafted, relatively light versions. The burger is moist, tasty, and well spiced on a plain-but-high-quality bun, not too mushy, not too crunchy. The pizzette is a sauceless three-cheese affair, mixing a mild-mannered goat cheese with a bit of mozzarella and Parmesan. It's all uninspired, but well prepared.
Wasabi Bistro (2311 Second Ave, 441-6044. Happy hour: Daily 4–6 pm; Sun–Thurs 11 pm–1 am.)
Even though Wasabi's happy-hour menu is simply a subset of its dinner offerings (at half price), it somehow feels like a phoned-in version of what is usually a lively, interesting delight. There's miso soup for $1, a plate of gyoza dumplings for $4, a California roll for $3, spring rolls for $5—you can almost hear the bored tone in the chef's voice as you read the choices off the menu. The food is, of course, still good, and there are a few interesting choices on the limited menu—the Seattle tempura roll, for example, is a lightly battered and fried hosomaki roll with salmon, avocado, sprouts, cream cheese, and nori nestled inside. The Chicken Kara Age is simply deep-fried chunks of dry chicken, but accompanied by a light, sweet dipping sauce. But the happy-hour menu does no justice to the innovative and interesting choices on the main dinner menu. It's as if the chef said, "You want a happy hour menu? Fine. Here's a happy hour menu. Have the California roll, honky."
Dragonfish Asian Cafe (722 Pine St, 467-7777. Happy hour: Daily 4–6 pm, 10 pm–1 am.)
Dragonfish's happy-hour menu is easily the most extensive of the establishments reviewed here, with over 20 choices offered at three price points: $1.95, $2.95, and $3.95. There are a half-dozen sushi rolls to choose from, there are salads, satays, tuna tartare—a basic (if tasty) pan-Asian panoply. We probably would have enjoyed it if it weren't for the two short (but thankfully not curly) hairs we found in the tamarind chicken satay's peanut sauce. Get some hairnets in the kitchen and Dragonfish will be a contender.
Ray’s Cafe (6049 Seaview Ave NW, 782-0094. Happy hour: Daily 4–6 pm, 10 pm–close.)
Ray's is of course a great happy hour. You're practically right on the water, watching commercial shipping and pleasure boating slowly pass by; the food is outstanding; and the place is always packed, both inside and on their deck. The only problem: my innate aversion to employees in logo-embroidered polo shirts, to the yacht-clubby feel to the place, to the generally bourgeois suburb that is Ballard (here comes the hate mail). But the food is wonderful. A basket of truly sour sourdough rolls accompanies any order, and the grilled salmon burger ($5.95), with its lime-and-ginger infused aioli, is arguably the best in town.
West Five (4539 California Ave, 935-1966. Happy hour: Daily 4–6 pm.)
West Five blows me away. It feels old and solid, full of dark woodwork and classic signage. The fiftysomething bartender sits and reminisces with a regular about what stores were where on California Avenue back in the day. There's a sign in the window that says, "A Certified West Seattle Original Establishment." Their $4 happy-hour menu is "lounge classic"—sirloin steak bits, crab cakes, an olive plate. Then, in a nod to internationalism, there are satay skewers, quesadillas, and hummus. Their sirloin bits were perfectly "American steakhouse" circa 1966—swimming in a deep rustic brown pan sauce popping with garlic, alongside a few hunks of crusty bread and a dollop of a beautiful béarnaise sauce. The crab cakes were delicious and nicely offset by a sharply hot horseradish sauce. Both the crab cakes and the sirloin were extremely healthy portions for a happy hour.
By the way, after being impressed with all this overwhelming "authenticity," I learn that West Five is less than three years old. Turns out that "A Certified West Seattle Original Establishment" is nothing but the best marketing line in West Seattle. West Five blows me away because it's perfectly seamless theater, with an attention to realist period detail that is carried through the set dressing, the lighting, the casting, the signage, and, yes, the food.