As anyone who works retail will tell you, the main reason to hit up a happy hour is thriftiness: The booze is cheap, the food is cheap—the ideal happy hour is a diverting entertainment for (practically) free. In search of the ever-elusive "good time," I went out with an $8 expense account to six local happy hours that proudly proclaim their thriftiness. The object was to have the best time possible for a little more than one hour of work at the current Washington State minimum wage. Of course, good times are an entirely subjective proposition, but I can tell you this much: If your idea of fun is a lot of alcohol and deep-fried food, then look around, my friend—you're already in paradise.
Dante’s Steak & Grog in the University District (5300 Roosevelt Way NE, 525-1300, happy hour Mon–Fri 3–7 pm) is the bar you think of when you think of happy hours: The domestic beers are $2, you can get a huge basket of greasy, salty fries for $2, and the jukebox is free until 6:00 p.m. Dante’s looks like a high-school nerd’s dream basement, only, you know, extreme, with pinball, video games (there’s something called “Xbox 360,” which is free until 8:00 p.m.), and an air-hockey table. For a place that bills itself as a sports bar—normally, any sort of sporting event makes me want to sit in a kitchen with women and sip tea until it’s over—the kindest words I can offer is that Dante’s made me feel cozy, like, well, a homely nerd’s basement. And my eight bucks took me as far as I was willing to go, buying three Redhooks and a heaping helping of fries.
Ozzie’s Roadhouse (105 W Mercer St, 284-4618, happy hour daily 3:30–6:30 pm) has a reputation as the kind of place you don’t want to take a girl unless she’s had: (a) some martial-arts classes, and (b) all of her shots. It’s a little bit odd, then, that the happy hour was the most unexceptional of all that I tried: The beer was $2.25 a pint, and the burger—a previously frozen lump with 12 fries on the side—came to $1.95. You’d be better off ordering the super-greasy ?sh and chips ($3.95) and a regular-priced shot, but honestly it’d be better to just ignore the whole happy hour and instead head to Ozzie’s whenever you’re consumed with the aching desire to drink a body shot off of a stranger, which is, of course, spare-no-expense territory.
Maharajah on Capitol Hill (720 E Pike St, 320-0334, happy hour daily 4–8 pm) has a much tastier happy hour—a small but yummy order of vegetarian pakora or pillowy naan is served free with every drink ($2 for well drinks and beer). The gin and tonics I drank were like a lime-tinged floor cleaner—the perfect stiff drink for summer overintoxication. At the end of my eight bucks, I had entirely forgotten that the bar appeared to have been decorated by a hippie teenager: fabrics tacked to the ceiling, illuminated by light ?xtures that could’ve been shoplifted from a Target.
The best food available for cheap is a tossup between the Hi-Life (5425 Russell Ave NW, 784-7272, happy hour Mon–Fri 3–6 pm, Sat-Sun 10 pm–close) and McCormick & Schmick's (1103 First Ave, 623-5500, happy hour Mon–Sat 3–6 pm, 10 pm–midnight; Sun 4–6 pm, 9–11 pm). Everything on the Hi-Life menu is $3, which was a problem with the strict $8 budget. I opted for the Breads & Spreads platter, which came with salty kalamata tapenade, roma cheese dip, and yogurt and garlic sauce. To get as close as possible to eight bucks, I ordered a $4 menu-described "froo-froo drink"—a cosmopolitan, at the bartender's suggestion. I'd never had a cosmo before, and I never will again, but it did what it was supposed to—it was tart and fruity and, in the restroom, I found out that I was astonishingly drunk when I accidentally urinated on my own hand. Meanwhile, McCormick & Schmick's, that corporate mashup of sports 'n' seafood, got me nearly as wasted on three Irish coffees—only $1 each during the first hour of happy hour. I had enough cash in my $8 left over for a PBR and a terrific half-pound burger (with fries), cooked medium-rare and not at all resembling a foodstuff that had previously spent time as a hockey puck. My fellow good-time connoisseur had a plate of mussels in marinara sauce that were, by far, the best $2 shellfish he'd ever eaten. If you can handle the tourists and the clientele—people who buy sweaters solely to tie them around the necks of their polo shirts—you simply can't do better for good food and drunk-makin' liquor than McCormick & Schmick's.
But the happiest of all the happy hours I attended earns its stripes not for any schmancy drink specials, though all the wells and drafts are $2. Vito's Madison Grill (927 Ninth Ave, 682-2695, happy hour Mon–Fri 4–7 pm) is pure ambience, remaining seemingly unchanged since the 1970s, with huge red-pleather booths, mirror balls spinning everywhere, and a dreamy, feathery painting of a topless woman adorning the men's-room wall. The bartender applied fistfuls of hair gel in between making drinks—margaritas, double screwdrivers, mojitos—designed to taste like grown-up drinks, the kind of ring-a-ding beverages that will knock you on your ass if you're not careful. I was told anal sex jokes, people called me paisan—and I'm about as Italian as Mickey Rooney—and when I left the bar, lit up like a Christmas tree, the sun was still hanging high in the sky and the world was still hard at work and that was just everybody else's goddamn problem. I was on Vito's time: a cheap, drunk, abundantly happy man.