Food eclipses drink at today's happy hours


Happy hour is still jolly, but the source of the joy is no longer confined to the overflowing, underpriced cocktail. These days the eats, not just the drinks, figure prominently in the merrymaking.

I found this out when I made a short return visit to the happy-hour circuit. Years ago I was a regular attendee of any gathering that marked the end of the work day.

But then the kids came along, and rather than leaving work to check out the social scene, I found myself going home to check out the latest scream. Moreover, when you have young children you tend to think of the time preceding supper not so much as happy hour, but more as the "hour of prayer."

Nonetheless, I recently slipped away from domestic responsibilities for a few nights to see what was new in the field of after-work merriment. On a Friday evening I went to the happy hour at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel. At first it looked like an old-time happy hour. Lots of well-dressed men and women eyeing each other.

But then I noticed that the folks coming into the lounge didn't head for the bar. Instead their first stop was the shrimp.

A line was forming at a buffet table that held mounds of steamed shrimp. The drink prices were not reduced. A bourbon and water was about $4, a glass of cabernet sauvignon wine was $6.50. But the shrimp was free and the place was packed.

People lined up at the shrimp table and piled the shrimp on their appetizer plates. Then, if they were lucky, they would find a place to sit. The bar and lounge had about 150 seats. But during happy hour there were more people than chairs.

Later Monty Eberhardt, the hotel's food and beverage director, told me that on a Friday night the establishment went through 150 to 175 pounds of shrimp. There were between 43 and 50 shrimp in each pound, he said.

Eberhardt said changing attitudes toward drinking were one of the reasons he emphasized food during the cocktail hour.

"Years ago everybody did two-for-ones at happy hour," he said, referring to the practice of giving two drinks for the price of one. "You still see that around in a few local bars, but not as much as you used to.

"In general the industry . . . would rather sell a nice glass of wine at $6.50 than draw people in with two for ones, or doubles."

The introduction of stiffer drunk-driving laws has also figured in the move toward more food and less hooch during happy hours, he said.

There is also the fact that restaurateurs, who once discounted drinks just to stay "even" with their competitors, no longer feel obligated to join in a price war over cocktails.

And so, these days when a restaurateur is looking around for ways to generate business, he is more likely to wheel out the food than to cut the price of drinks.

Or, as Eberhardt put it, "Shrimp draws people."

Warm homemade pretzels also seem to work. I had some warm pretzels a few nights later during a busy happy hour at a new Clyde's restaurant in Reston, Va. The Clyde's enterprise, which began as a saloon in Georgetown, now has five restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington area, including one in Columbia. It does not reduce drink prices during happy hour at any of its locations. Instead, in most locations it cuts appetizer prices or gives away snacks.

Clyde's executives said they want their customers to think of the restaurants as comfortable local gathering places. The kind of spot where, to pull a phrase out of the air, everybody knows your name.

Indeed after hearing Gary Glover, Clyde's corporate operations manager, talk about how the "bar and the personality behind the bar," not the booze, were what appealed to customers, I had a strange sensation.

I got the feeling the homemade pretzels I was eating were a modern-day replacement for the warm chocolate chip cookie I used to get from Mom after a hard day at school. Both were warm and comforting, both were rewards for making it through another day. Both made me thirsty.

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