Fourteen out of 26 friends are unemployed. My family members are doing slightly better, with a 37.5 percent unemployment rate. While these anecdotal statistics do not reflect national averages, the economic climate in Seattle is akin to the cold, clammy handshake of one sentenced to death, or the armpit of a nervous tightrope walker: Layoffs are rampant. Food-bank lines are long. Rents are late. Belltown is feeling seedy again. Needless to say, it's a cinch to get into once-crammed fine-dining restaurants. But don't bother with reservations. While these are not charitable institutions, many such restaurants offer unemployed dilettantes opportunities--despite empty pockets and emptier prospects--to brush up briefly against elegance with high-end happy hour specials, the poor man's haute cuisine.

For the same price as a box of Hamburger Helper and the ground beef to go with it, you can eat fancy and escape your cramped apartment. I am not one to recommend frittering away your rent on $7 martinis, but do the math with me: At Nikko, in the Westin Hotel (1900 Fifth Ave, 322-4641, happy hour 5:00-7:00 p.m.), buy any drink at the bar and you are entitled to help yourself to a buffet of ABSOLUTELY FREE California rolls, gyoza, and yakisoba during happy hour. Where can you get dinner for the price of a drink?! (Dragonfish, beneath the Paramount Hotel, also has a great happy hour/sushi deal.)

Rub shoulders with the overly employed at the Brooklyn Seafood, Steak & Oyster House (1212 Second Ave, 224-7000) after a day of pounding the pavement. From 4:00 to 6:30 p.m., the windows get steamy with all that hot air being expelled from puffed chests; but hell, the $2.59 wine and $3.59 call cocktails make me rather garrulous myself. Once, I dined heartily upon the Brooklyn's oysters and cilantro calamari for a mere $4.99 while my kid was hidden all the while, strapped to me and covered with an enormous coat.

If you think the Brooklyn is loud, check out the attorney-abundant Metropolitan Grill (820 Second Ave, 624-3287) between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. For ONE DOLLAR, you can drown out the sounds of shouting cell phone conversations with either a sumptuous steak sandwich, oyster shooters, or some sort of three-prawn cocktail. This place is so roaring, you may think you heard wrong--but at both the Met and its sister restaurant, Union Square Grill, happy hour snacks are indeed a buck. The often-quieter Union Square sibling (621 Union St, 224-4321) offers pulled pork sandwiches and fried artichoke hearts during the hours of 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., as well as moderately priced bar specials.

Don't mention to your date that the two of you will be dining in the lounge, but Ponti Seafood Grill (3014 Third Ave N, 284-3000), situated prettily across the canal from Fremont, has a nice crackling fire and some excellent values. Play grown-up in Ponti's spacious bar during happy hour (4:00 to 6:00 p.m.; 9:00 p.m. to close): I can't gush enough about Ponti's nori-wrapped, tempura-crusted, flawlessly seared ahi tuna laced with wasabi and served with Asian slaw, available for half-price ($6.25!) during happy hour. A generously poured $2.50 well drink washes down half-off appetizers, such as a heaping portion of grilled marinated calamari with picholine olives ($3.48), with alarming alacrity.

I have seen TWO delightful happy hours be dismantled because of overanxious bargain abuse: Ivar's on Pier 54 used to offer all-you-care-to-eat chowder and fish & chips with the purchase of a drink, but sadly, this minor miracle was eradicated after certain regulars demonstrated unprecedented abilities to eat large quantities. And back in the early '90s, the poor, naive University District Meany Towers thought to draw folks in by offering pitchers of microbrews for something like $3. In the same way that students in the '60s rallied around peace demonstrations, my fellow '90s academics and I found unity in our unparalleled enthusiasm for beer. They revoked the microbrew happy hour within five weeks of its conception. Heed my tales of warning.

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