By Dr. Ink
There are some things with which I am unwilling to part.
Yes, these are frugal days with an uncertain job market, fluctuating stock markets and rising prices at the supermarket. Houses are in foreclosure, the war in Iraq drags on, our region is thirsty for water and gas is expensive (again!).
As the world swirls and churns, I find myself wanting a drink even more than usual. You know, a calming concoction that caps a stressful day? Or a foamy pint of hops to soothe the soul? One (or three) of those—plus a few laughs with friends—and all seems right again. At least until morning.
But as much as I want to drown my sorrows some days, I have to keep my wallet buoyed. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why this column will celebrate the American version of “tea time”: the Happy Hour. (I mean, duh. Tea is for breakfast, right, Yanks? Unless it’s a Long Island, of course.) No other marketing campaign or discount card tops the enduring value of Happy Hour, which is found at almost any bar and restaurant in our region. For that hour – hours, usually – we can sip without feeling like we’re swallowing our bank accounts.
The problem is, how does one keep track of which places offer what prices and menus? And who is offering the really smokin’ deals? Not to mention which days, what times and where.
This is why I, Dr. Ink, welcome you to my office. In each issue, I will prescribe yet another Happy Hour therapy to cure what ails you. Some remedies will be more effective than others, mind you, but even the worst Happy Hour is better than a $15 martini in the Gaslamp – and we get the added pleasure of supporting one of our hard-working neighborhood proprietors.
With all of that in mind, a friend and I decided to toast this new venture with – what else? – a bit of the bubbly. So we headed to Bite in Hillcrest, the only champagne Happy Hour in San Diego that I am aware of (e-mail me at email@example.com if I am wrong).
On busy University Avenue, Bite is fronted with angled parking (free after 6 p.m.) but street parking nearby was plentiful on a weekday evening.
Walking in to the restaurant I had that sinking feeling that Bite’s Happy Hour might be less than a “deal.” The lounge area includes chocolate leather sofas, four leather armchairs and a fluffy red carpet. Farther in, three white contemporary pub tables are flanked by three chairs each, while an artfully arranged wine wall displays bottles, votive candles and Bite’s ubiquitous “W” art, an homage to chef Chris Walsh. Five patio tables along the sidewalk and a large inside dining room with tables and booths complete the restaurant.
In this case, however, looks were deceiving. While the ambience definitely was polished, my companion’s assessment of “fancy but not pretentious” seemed apt. Servers were in T-shirts, for example, and the vibe was anything but stuffy with modern – yet not thumping or loud – music.
The greeter did not ask us for our seating preference but took us to one of the white high tables, which we both found comfortable. He provided us with a Happy Hour menu plus the dinner menu and wine list. A carafe of water and glasses quickly appeared – and I so appreciate places that give a pitcher or carafe so you don’t have to wait or ask for refills, especially when dehydrating alcohol is involved.
A few minutes passed with no server before another server saw us looking around and did the “has he taken your order yet?” stand-in. Then he glanced at our Happy Hour menus and promptly exchanged them for the updated version, which is more extensive. (Why do restaurants keep old menus around? I’ll never understand that.)
Anyway, the first thing I noticed on the rectangular sheet was Bite’s Happy Hour is every day – yep, even Friday and Saturday – from 5-7 p.m. Look around and you’ll realize how unusual it is for a restaurant or bar to offer specials on weekends. After all, the discounts really are to attract customers, and that’s not usually an issue on those days.
I immediately chose a Kir Royal with pomegranate syrup from the Happy Hour menu—there are seven champagne cocktails from which to choose—while my friend ordered a glass of Cono Sur pinot noir. The menu includes 11 choices of wine by the glass, several each from red and white. All champagne cocktails and wines by the glass are $4.50 each (regularly $7+). Bite does serve a handful of bottled beers, but no liquor.
For a snack with our drinks, we selected the saffron risotto croquettes ($4) and the swordfish skewers ($5) from the dinner menu’s “small bites” section. These were not specially priced, but they were inexpensive enough to justify veering from the Happy Hour bar menu. Other “bites” included wasabi shrimp cocktail ($3.50), dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in bacon ($4.50) and deviled eggs with salmon caviar ($3.50).
Our drinks arrived in high style. My cocktail was in a larger flute (not one of those tiny brunch glasses) and my friend’s wine came in a small carafe, which the server poured for her. A nice touch, especially at the Happy Hour discount. The champagne cocktail could have used more pomegranate but the raspberry floating on top made me happy. As for the wine, it was a flavorful pinot but I lean toward more full-bodied varietals.
The food arrived shortly afterward. First came a complimentary amuse-bouche of salmon tartar on crostini, which again was unexpected during Happy Hour. We also were impressed with both dishes we ordered – the fish was moist and enhanced by the cup of tsatziki sauce, while the risotto was crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, topped off by a tomato vinaigrette. Everything was served with a flourish on artful glass plates.
Later, my friend opted for another glass of the pinot while I went for the tropical fruit sangria ($5.50). The waiter asked if I preferred red or white, then disappeared for too long, I suppose to prepare it. In any case, I decided it was worth the wait when he set a half-carafe on our table along with a wine glass filled with ice. The sangria was heavy with strawberry on the nose, but the mélange of tropical fruit came through in the taste. Delightful, and easily two to three glasses at one price.
With our new round of drinks, we decided to give the truffle popcorn ($2) off the bar menu a try. It was a bit chewy and not hot enough, but the truffle butter gave it an addictive quality anyway. The popcorn, in a cone, was gone way before we were. Other options on that menu include nibbles such as olives ($3), walnuts ($3), flatbread and hummus ($4), an onion and olive tart ($4), chicken liver mousse ($4) and fries with aioli ($4).
The tab for this relaxing two hours came to $32 plus tip – not necessarily cheap, but a less expensive way to enjoy an upscale environment and chic food and beverage. Bite offers other ways to save too: half off all bottles of wine and champagne on Mondays, plus a $20.09 four-course menu Tuesday-Thursday.
My only complaint was the sketchy service. As my friend said, “I don’t know who our server is.” I wasn’t sure if the bar area was attended by any waiter who happened by, or if they take a team approach. In any case, although the servers – all good-looking men – were friendly, none introduced himself and we never knew whom to ask when we needed something.
One of those questions was about the outdoor seating. My companion, who is a foster parent for abandoned dogs and cats, wondered if the restaurant’s patio is dog friendly.
“Oh, yes,” said one of the rotating waiters. “In fact, we encourage it—we give water dishes and doggy biscuits.”
Could give a whole new meaning to “Bite.”
1417 University Ave.
The champagne cocktails and nice selection of wine by the glass were terrific, but there is little for those who dislike the grape.
Tasty and inventive.
Two delicious drinks and a snack for under $15 with tip.
Decide who’s doing what and tell us, please.
Seven days a week until 7 p.m.!
Note about the ratings: Each category is based on 1-5 glasses, with 5 being best. Drinks and food are rated as to quantity and quality, while duration is based on the number of days and hours Happy Hour is offered. Value and service are self-explanatory.
Want to make me happy? E-mail Dr. Ink about your favorite Happy Hour and I’ll drop by with my stethoscope: firstname.lastname@example.org.