A discussion of downtown's Sazerac must begin with the light fixtures. The word "fixtures" does not do justice to the lighting situation in Sazerac's soaring airspace; these are sculptures, apparently in the medium of giant pieces of fruit leather. They were installed in the Sazerac remodel of January 2008, an effort that changed the determinedly upscale-"fun!" interior to a dramatic-chic hodgepodge that's less dated by at least 10 years. Progress!
The overwrought and overthought decor bothers exactly no one at Sazerac's epic happy hour, however. Monday through Saturday from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m., the bar that swoops down one side of the room, the counter seating at the exhibition kitchen shimmering in the distance, and every table and booth under the fruit-leather fantasia are all given over to happiness. It's 185 seats of les bon temps actively roulez-ing, with beer, wine, and cocktails priced to move at $3 to $6, and more than two dozen small plates under $10. Would grilled andouille sausage make you happy? How about gulf prawns, wood-fire-roasted with chorizo? Perhaps you would like a Caesar salad with grana cheese and roasted garlic crostini, or a salad of organic lettuces, or regular or sweet-potato fries with sea salt and multiple dipping sauces. (Why choose? These last three, and three more, are $2 each.) The happy-hour menu boggles the mind while haphazardly circling the globe, encompassing local oysters, pulled-pork sliders, wood-fired pizzas (including the regrettably named "Funky Pizza of the Day"), beef tartare, feta-stuffed peppers. A liberating close-your-eyes-and-point joie de vivre is induced, and huge tables of office workers (among whom this happy hour is justly famous) overdo it jubilantly.
Furthermore, the food is actually good: The presentations are elegant, the portions aren't stingy, and the flavors surpass by far the usual tamped-down timidity of happy-hour fare. The chicken livers—a divisive food if ever there was one—wear a light cornmeal coat that is fried crispy-brown, their insides melty and silky and rich, with the haute accents of a sliver of piquillo pepper underneath and a dab of herbed aioli on top. Marshalled to change the minds of those who would hate, they come lined up with plenty of white space on a rectangular plate. Getting two orders is probably a good idea, but there's also a legion of other dishes to try.
The $6 cocktail of the day one evening last week was the Hanky Panky, which the server said was gin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet. Met with "That sounds terrible!" she maintained a diplomatic silence and gave the slightest impression of a nod. A sazerac itself costs $11, but it's an excellent rendition of a classic: warming without sharp alcohol heat, herbal but not medicinal. And in the economic bubble that is Sazerac's happy hour, not having one just doesn't make sense.