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Happy hour: Keeping the dining tab low and morale high

A three-cheese grilled Margherita pizza is one of

A three-cheese grilled Margherita pizza is one of the happy hour specials at Vitae Restaurant & Wine Bar in Huntington. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Happy hour is a time to belly up to the bar -- not just to drink but to sink your teeth into some genuine dining bargains. Think of it as your big chance to eat at places you may have considered out of reach.

Have you been wondering about that posh new spot where entrees run upward of $30? At the bar, a casual meal of sliders, sushi rolls and wings will set you back only $4 to $6 a plate. Then, there's the sophisticated American bistro, where a 10-ounce Cheddar burger with fries goes for only $7. Sip a discounted mojito, merlot or tap beer, and you've got a meal both frugal and festive.

Keep in mind, though, that happy hour usually runs late afternoon into early evening, so you've got time constraints. And don't expect an intimate meal in the dining room; seating is mostly at the bar -- which can get crowded, but that is a plus for some.

"We became happy hour junkies," said Joe Heffernan of Smithtown, a regular at Butera's in Smithtown with Lori Nelson. The two have an easy camaraderie with staff members, customers and bartender. They may order a mozzarella burger, chicken spinach focaccia sandwich or "Sicilian lifeguard" calamari, nothing more than $8.

Dining on $8 items on the happy hour menu at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Garden City also works for Brenda and Gary McCue of Bethpage. "Neither my husband nor I are very big eaters, so for us, it's a meal," said McCue.

The chance to pay less, eat less and eat earlier makes sense to Liz Campione, general manager at Ruth's Chris Steak House. Campione notes that while happy hour has long been popular elsewhere in the country, it's only now starting to boom on Long Island, where most people don't want to be obligated to a big dinner every night of the week. "I don't care what you make; who doesn't want a bargain?"

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