The Coast News Group
Happy Hour
ColumnsFood & WineI Like Beer

Is happy hour still a thing?

I’ve had this kernel of a thought weighing itself in my brain like the princess’ pea. It is there when I wake up in the morning. It’s there when I have my morning coffee and chocolate chip cookie.* It’s there when I walk the dog past the local tavern and enjoy a glass of fine wine on the patio listening to the cheers from the nearby football stadium.

Okay, the glass is a jelly jar. We don’t stand on ceremony here.

This thought has been bothering me: Is happy hour still a thing?

It’s a relatively simple yes or no question that spins my brain into a web of thought connections not unlike the mycelium stretching for miles under my feet as I traverse the trails of North County.

Historically, happy hour is a term that dates back to Shakespeare and is used in the late 1800s by women’s social clubs. The term became more formalized in 1913 when one women’s group began forming regular gatherings for naval service members who served on the USS Arkansas.

The phrase was adopted by service personnel across the Navy to encompass any entertainment that served as a diversion from the reality of WWI.

After the passing of the 18th Amendment and the onset of Prohibition, illegal speakeasies would hold early afternoon cocktail hours for guests to gather in and enjoy a drink before heading to a restaurant for dinner where alcohol couldn’t be served.

If I had to guess, I bet the daily special wasn’t a price discount but that you could drink at all!

Discounted happy hour specials track back to Southern California in the early 1950s. Flyers displaying discounted specials for Navy service members could be found outside bars on or near the base. However, happy hours were banned at military base restaurants and clubs in 1984.

In addition, Massachusetts joined the military in banning happy hour specials from preventing public drunkenness.

Today, happy hour is a marketing buzzword used to advertise those underwhelming hours of the day when bars, restaurants, and the like offer discounted food and beverage specials to bring more customers through the doors.

Some states, like Rhode Island, have happy hour bans to prevent binge drinking. Other states have more confusing rules. For example, Pennsylvania limits total happy hours to 14 hours per week. It seems simple enough, but they also prevent more than four consecutive hours of alcoholic specials.

Mug clubs don’t count, no specials are allowed after midnight, and they must be posted at least seven days in advance. You are allotted one daily special not part of the happy hour restriction. None of this accounts for the communities that are still dry. The list goes on. It gets complicated.**

In California, happy hour rules are pretty simple. Bars and restaurants should not include any free drinks, including 2-for-1s. However, discounting by 50% is okay because it allows the customer to choose to order a second without promoting extra drinking that may not occur otherwise.

A food and drink special is permitted, but only if the drink isn’t designated as free. In addition, the cost of the meal alone has to be less than the combination.

As a restaurant manager, I used happy hour to generate extra revenue by enticing customers in the doors. After a cheap beer, or two, they’d likely order an appetizer or a burger, making the discount an excellent way to take one step back but two steps forward in the night’s ledger.

I also used it to generate goodwill with a particular brand or move through a product that didn’t sell well. Even the worst-tasting beer will get drunk if the price is right. One bar I worked at offered 75-cent draft domestics from 3 to 4 p.m. The bar was always full by the time the bell rang and often stayed full long after we banged the gong signaling happy hour’s last call.

As a customer, I loved happy hour. As a young collegian, I was always working but seemingly never flush. Happy hour not only worked with my schedule — starting after class ended but before my shift started — but I could afford to get two beers for the price of one. Most of my first dates began at happy hour.

As an adult, my wife and I have more money to spend, but our tastes have gotten more expensive. Somehow, we still don’t feel flush, yet the table can be full of $5.00 pints and half-price appetizers at happy hour.

For a brief window of time, we won’t worry about ordering the extra appetizer for the table or picking up the tab. We feel like kings and queens with the added benefit that we’re home before dark to drink plenty of water and maybe pop an aspirin before bed. At least, we did until the pandemic hit.

Which brings this column full circle. In March 2020, our drinking at home ratcheted up. We added a bottle or a six-pack to every grocery order. Often we added both. We sourced a liquor cabinet from Craigslist, cleaned it up, and added LED mood lighting. We bought glassware.

After years of refusing to bring my work home, I started making drinks again. When the clock struck five, or eventually three, it was happy hour at home. The music was always excellent, and the company was pleasant. It was never too loud or too crowded.

So I ask you, is happy hour still a thing? Is a discounted glass of wine or pint enough to entice me (or you) off the patio chair, out of the lounge pants, and through the bar doors again? Or is going out supposed to be something special?

Seriously, I’m asking. What happy hours around North County are so good they inspire you to leave the house. Send a message to @CheersNorthCounty on Facebook or Instagram, or e-mail me at [email protected].

*Don’t judge. Eating cookies for breakfast is one of the best things about being an adult.

**Pittsburgh, PA, has 90 distinct neighborhoods. Post-Prohibition, they were each given a choice to allow alcohol sales or stay dry. There are quite a few that have stayed dry through the years. It isn’t unheard of to get dinner to go on one side of the street, then walk across the road over the neighborhood line to sit and eat at a bar that sprung up to serve that need.