Sometimes it feels as though I need a doctorate in physics to get my friends to agree on a place to meet for drinks. Money is an issue—most of my drinking buddies work in the retail or nonprofit sectors—but that's why God invented happy hour, the great social equalizer. Virtually every bar has a happy hour, so the problem's solved, right?
Wrong. My friends are also picky, and many of them have bars, or entire parts of town, that have made it on their shit lists. Either from bad past experiences or simple geographic bigotry, they're painfully provincial, and I'm sick of it. With a strict $8 budget, I set out for three places that, for one reason or another, are no-fly zones for some of my boozy compatriots, to see exactly how much of a cheap, drunken good time I could have.
The first place that many of my friends have entirely written off is the Cha Cha Lounge (1013 E Pike St, 322-0703, happy hour Sun–Mon 4 pm–2 am, Tues–Sat 5–7 pm). "It's too crowded and sceney," they whine. While I can attest to the crowdedness of the old Cha Cha—I have a hard time drinking in bars where I can't whimsically spin 360 degrees while singing "The Sound of Music," for what I assume are obvious reasons—the new Cha Cha is an amazing space, a bar planned and built by people who know what it takes to make a great bar.
First of all, the Cha Cha is now officially roomy. Many of the original elements (the saturating red light, the sombreros, the Mexican wrestlers) remain, but the cramped, claustrophobic sceney feeling is gone. It's a perfect place to get drunk, and the happy hour facilitates that: The margarita ($3.50) is stiff, salty, and good. The well drinks are $2.75 ($4.75 for doubles), and they're similarly strong, solid beverages. Bartenders at the Cha Cha have been claiming for years that they're planning on having food specials with their happy hours, but that still hasn't materialized; food from the upstairs Bimbo's Cantina is still available in the bar, but, though it's definitely inexpensive, none of it was cheap enough to meet my exacting $8 happy-hour standards. What's lacking in the food department, though, is made up for in availability: Every Sunday and Monday at the Cha Cha is an alcoholic-friendly all-day happy hour. Haters of the old bar need to experience the new incarnation before renewing their license to loathe; it's improved in every way.
I know a lot of people who refuse to drink in Belltown. The upscale, meat-market vibe of some of the nightclubs has, for some, tainted the entire area with a fratboy-in-a-dress-shirt vibe. The antidote for those complaints is Buddha Bar (2222 Second Ave, 441-4449, happy hour Mon–Sat 5–7 pm and 10 pm–midnight, Sun 5 pm–close), a restaurant and bar that runs counter to pretty much every Belltown horror story. Instead of the faux-futuristic brushed steel of Venom, Buddha is covered in kitschy bamboo, and rather than forcing you to sit on some hideously uncomfortable plastic stool-shaped things, there are several old, mismatched couches that will swallow you whole as you drink. And drink you will: The martini ($4.50) is a classic, chilled wonder that may have heard of vermouth at one point back in the '80s.
The bartender, too, is classic: He's a friendly older gentleman who's quick with the repartee. I order a Pyramid ale ($3) as my second drink, noting that if I had another martini, I'd wind up on the floor. The bartender's reply is quick and indignant: "What's wrong with our floor?" I'm willing to bet that some people have gotten friendly with Buddha's floor before: Jäger shots ($3) and cosmopolitans ($4.50) are a specialty of the bar. Like the Cha Cha, Buddha offers some cheap dining opportunities, but they don't have happy-hour food specials.
If you're looking for cheap food and beer, the place you really want to be is Calamity Jane's (5701 Airport Way S, 763-3040, happy hour daily 3–6 pm). I can hear just about everyone I know—I am part of the great carless horde—start complaining at the very suggestion: "Georgetown? That's so far away!" Listen: Take the bus. Seriously. The 131 will get you from downtown to a block away from Calamity Jane's door within 15 minutes, and once you get inside, your cheap ass will be satiated.
A fairly new lounge and restaurant with walls freshly painted in yellows and reds, Calamity Jane's is the kind of place that would give snobby chefs nightmares. Their happy-hour menu has four snacks—buffalo wings, gyozas, pulled-pork sliders, and mozzarepas (mozzarella and basil sandwiches on fried cornbread, served with marinara sauce)—for $3.66 each. The sliders are White Castle–style minisandwiches, and the pork is juicy and cooked just right, with a slice of Velveeta slapped on top. The only problem with these little wonders is the sauce: Each sandwich gets a miserly dollop of the tangy barbecue sauce instead of being slathered in it; a more indelicate, messy finger food is what's needed here. The mozzarepas are fried, cheesy heaven, with the nice added kick of fresh basil to make the sandwich a little more reputable, and the buffalo wings are spicy, barbecued perfection. To wash down these white-trash masterpieces, Calamity Jane's offers cans of Hamm's for a buck apiece. In theory, one could have a plate of buffalo wings and four beers for less than $8, and still get back downtown in plenty of time to avoid the late-night drunk bus. That's the goddamned cheap-ass happy hour of kings, right there.