What do you want from your happy hour: cheap food or cheap drinks? You'll have to prioritize, because rarely do the two coincide. One bar will offer up huge discounts on beer and well drinks, only to stiff you on the snacks. Another will reel you in with the tasty appetizers while socking it to you with the libations.
If hunger is your main concern, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show at Matador (2221 NW Market St, 297-2855, happy hour daily 4–6 pm and 10 pm–1 am). The Ballard classic is a rich fishbowl of human behavior. You can choose to sit by the vast, floor-to-ceiling windows and stare out at the passersby, hurrying home to their ever-proliferating condos, or you can turn your gaze inside to the strange, postfraternity crowd that seems to gather at Matador to guzzle their margaritas, throw back shots of tequila, and scarf down the overflowing piles of nachos. As Stranger reader reviewer I'mMoving wrote, "Just close your eyes and eat the nachos! $4 for the biggest and best nachos with MORE CHEESE THAN CHIPS! Is that even legal?!" And indeed these nachos are both deliciously huge, and hugely delicious: chips, cheese, avocado, sour cream, beans, and chicken. Yum.
Unfortunately, drinks aren't discounted for happy hour at Matador, so you'll have to squeeze your savings out of the food menu. But at $4 each for the huge portions of nachos, calamari, soup, etc., you can afford the high-priced, slightly bland margaritas. Better yet, come by after you're already wasted to grease up your stomach during their evening happy hour. As reader reviewer Balludite put it: "Cougars yelling woooo! So out of place. Is this Belltown now?"
If you're looking for a mellower atmosphere and cheaper drinks, head to Solo (200 Roy St, 213-0080, happy hour daily 5–8 pm). Happy hour here brings discount beer, $2.50 well drinks, and $4 homemade sangria, in a venue that's classically classy. With its white seats and blond wood floor, Solo looks like it was birthed straight out of the head of IKEA, yet the vibe somehow manages to transcend the bland decor. Maybe it's because they have Rainier on tap. More likely, it's because they play consistently good music, mix delicious cocktails, and cook up fantastic tapas. Try the Frico ($6.50), consisting entirely of fried Manchego cheese. How do you turn cheese into a tortilla chip? Who knows, but I love it.
The rest of Solo's menu is nothing to scoff at either. The plates aren't discounted for happy hour, but the prices are moderate compared to much of the rest of Queen Anne. Plus, you don't have to defend yourself from predatory singletons scoping the dating scene, as Solo seems to have transcended the neighborhood's famous "meat market" vibe. As reader reviewer Sam writes, "The food is great and cheap, the drinks are strong and well-made, the bartenders are friendly without being pushy or annoying, they play great music, the art on the walls is often interesting." Speaking of art, the large-screen display on the bar's eastern wall is usually playing one selection or another of cult-cinema eye candy. I saw The Shining, somehow rendered even creepier with the sound off.
If you want cheap drinks AND cheap food, I can't think of a better happy-hour spot than Luau (2253 N 56th St, 633-5828, happy hour daily noon–6 pm). Having gone to college, I should have already learned not to drink anything with Bacardi 151 in it, but a mai tai ($5) seemed the thing to get in a Hawaiian bar. One of these sweet, sticky, strong beauties is enough to get you high even if you also consume the ridiculously cheap happy-hour pork sandwich ($6.95). As reader reviewer Zymyrgy writes, "Once you get two of the Luau's rum drinks in you, you stop wondering what tiki tourist shop exploded and start to enjoy yourself."
If you make it through two Luau mai tais, you'll probably wake up in a ditch with little umbrellas in your hair, but since the Luau happy hour runs from noon to 6:00 p.m. every day, the mai tai drinking contest could wait till the weekend. Or, if you're more sensible than I, you could stick to one of Luau's less potent happy-hour drinks: $3 draft and bottled beer, and $4 wells and house wine.
But wait! There's a happy-hour food menu too. And not only is it cheap, it's good stuff. As reader reviewer Coocamonga writes, "The happy-hour food is delicious and inexpensive with huge portions. The food off of the regular menu is amazing as well, a little high on the price scale, but worth it, and two people can share a main item and a side and be satiated." The Locomoco ($6.95) is a plate of rice, spam, and fried egg. I'm not gonna say I loved it, but it did strike me as authentically Hawaiian. Unlike the tropical aquarium outside the bathroom. But you didn't come here for the decor, did you? You came for the cheap drinks and the cheap food. Now that's a happy hour.