Long Island happy hours for every taste

Ambiance at Bar Plancha restaurant in Garden City. Credit: Noah Fecks

Will this be the greatest drink I’ve ever had? Sitting on a barstool at 5 o’clock on a Thursday, I could see a cocktail being mixed a few steps away. Ice thunked into the glass, followed by a splash of gin. Nearby, the chef turned shrimp on the flat-top, garlic oil hissing on hot steel. Soon enough we had drinks in hand: for my friend, a glass of Provençal rosé and, for me, a guava-gin concoction called The Orchid.

The best drink you’ve ever had, I thought, is the one just before dinner—the one that kept an extra dollar in your pocket. After all, humans are wired to derive intense satisfaction from things we acquire for less, whether it be boots, plywood or alcohol. Bar Plancha in Garden City—where the weekday happy hour starts at 4 p.m. and runs until 6 and prices of wines by the bottle are slashed by a third—is a wine geek’s dream, for instance. And, you know you are definitely going to eat something with that.

“I’ve had some weird bottles being opened at 4 and 5 o’clock,” said Andrew Isaacson, Bar Plancha’s beverage director, whose lineup passes over pinot grigio and merlot to pull wines from less common pockets of the Old World: Ribera del Duero, Zweigelt, Albariño. “Weird in a good way,” he added.

The term “happy hour” conjures instant images—of chicken wings, $3 pints, bar tops sticky with spilled sour mix. Across Long Island, where there are almost as many happy hours as there are pizzerias, these scenes still exist and are deeply loved, churning into action on weekday afternoons at hundreds, if not thousands, of pubs and taverns. And then there are places that tinker with expectations, such as Bar Plancha.

When Lilly Kanarova and Josh Kobrin opened Bar Plancha in 2013, they aimed to create a place that was “very European,” said Kanarova, and with a strong Spanish bent: Composed boards of Ibérico ham, Manchego and other cured meats and cheeses washed down with cava or a classic martini, followed by even more small bites and perhaps a bottle of something offbeat, like negroamaro. “It’s mix and match, not quite dinner, a couple of glasses and a Spanish board, with the idea behind the bar that everything is super-fresh and small batch.”

Plancha in Garden City.

Plancha in Garden City. Credit: Noah Fecks

Ramekins of anchovies, warm Castelvetrano olives in citrus oil, and crispy patatas bravas with cumin aioli pave the way for braised pork-belly sandwiches that mimic banh mi and other dishes that change every six weeks or so, with the seasons. (Summer, for instance, brought panzanella salad with slivered peaches and chunky cubes of herbed bread.) No one knew if the approach would take root in Garden City, at least at first.

As it happens, locals were ripe for the medicinal tang of Negronis and creamy marcona almonds before dinner, or for scoring a slashed glass of Barolo during happy hour. “I was the bartender every Saturday for the first few years, and it was immediately as busy as it could be,” said Isaacson. “Those first few Saturday shifts were intense.”

The happy-hour transition from day to night is deeply woven into our psyche. Sipping bittersweet spirits and nibbling finger snacks to close the day and jump-start the evening is a ritual that stretches way, way back to the ancient world. The term “aperitif” or, if you’re in an Italian frame of mind, “aperitivo” come from the Latin aperire, meaning “to open”: The hour that opens the evening. Food and drink—the salami and Aperol spritz or a Spanish- style gin-and-tonic, garnished with strawberries and basil—that opens the appetite.

The tradition is infused with subtle, sometimes secret, purpose. The complex suite of herbs in vermouth—aromatic, fortified wines first produced around Turin in the late 18th century—can stimulate the digestion. The French fortified wine Dubonnet (swell on its own, but even better blended with gin, and a favorite drink of the late Queen Elizabeth II) was one of a few utilitarian spirits created in the mid 1800s to deliver quinine to those exposed to malaria. And, as it turned out, it could also make people “happy.”

Happy-hour rituals were born in cities, among friends and family who converged around wobbly tables in a public space and who could walk or ride home. In the United States, the relationship between happy hour and driving culture has often been fraught, at least once cars became more commonplace. That natural clash between knocking back bargain-price drinks, then getting behind the wheel has compelled many places to ban the practice, in fact. You won’t find happy hours in Vermont or Massachusetts, for example, two of the 11 states that prohibit it completely, as do countries such as Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands.

Rock shrimp tempura at Nomiya at Roosevelt Field in Garden...

Rock shrimp tempura at Nomiya at Roosevelt Field in Garden City. Credit: Noah Fecks

The exuberant drinking culture in Japan inspired Nomiya, a sushi and izakaya spot that opened at Roosevelt Field mall earlier this year. “[The original] Nomiya Station is only open four days a year, and it was a place where the samurai used to hang out and drink,” said co-owner Ajay Chawla, referring to an infamous railway crossing near Kyoto. “Nomiya,” he added, means “saloon” in Japanese.

Nomiya didn’t have a full liquor license when it opened, but because the restaurant was able to serve beer and wine, beverage director Julie Basem cleverly built a list of gentler cocktails based on soju, the Korean-style rice wine, to go with the sushi and other Japanese and Korean plates that chef James Choi put together.

On one late afternoon, western sunlight spilled across Nomiya’s patio and through to the curved, granite-and-hickory bar, illuminating some of those bottles of sake and soju. Bartender Scott Macchio strained some of the rice wine into a rocks glass with lemon juice for a citrusy East Asian spin on a sour. A maki roll arrived literally on fire, wrapped in foil and enveloped in blue flames. (The whistling it makes is sesame oil smoldering along the roll’s base.) When the sizzle died down and we unwrapped the roll, each slice was smoky and lightly charred, fire as an ingredient.

The happy hour menu at Nomiya is a treasure trove of $8 snacks, such as Korean-style wings and shrimp tempura, but throughout the day, shoppers trickle in for sushi, pillowy gyoza, Korean-style wings and the Avocado Bomb, a theatrical tartare-meets-guacamole creation of avocado wisps layered into armor around bluefin tuna—food that doesn’t lull you to sleep, but provides just enough fuel for the rest of the evening, or another bout of shopping.

As the specter of recession hovers, the allure of happy hour grows. The term is most heavily searched from Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, according to Google Trends, but just a few months ago an intrepid Long Islander founded a local Facebook group, Happy Hour Long Island, that has grown quickly as people share menus and deals with one another: $6 margaritas, $8 filet mignon skewers, $7 flatbreads, half-price martinis.

Comfort food has long reigned at South Shore Dive in West Sayville—think off-beat takes on mac-and-cheese, poutine and wings—but once a month the happy hour is particularly epic. Local oyster farmers such as Thatch Island Oysters or Deep Water Oyster Co. live-shuck for revelers, who cluster in the bar room, sipping fro- zen Lolas (a lavender-infused margarita) or pints of IPA.

The Midnight Bramble cocktail at South Shore Dive in West...

The Midnight Bramble cocktail at South Shore Dive in West Sayville. Credit: Noah Fecks

While happy hour at South Shore Dive is relegated to the late afternoon, other bars have been expanding its bounds for a long while: From late afternoon to all afternoon, from late in the day to all day and some- times even late at night, as at Prime 39 in Lynbrook.

“We play a little lounge music and stay open ’til 2 a.m., so people can come in and sample different cocktails and some of our small bites,” said Bryant Postell about Prime Afterdark. Along with partners Rick Riddick, Neil Bailey and Rocky Jenkins, he opened Prime 39 in 2021. “It was an opportunity to draw people in later on.”

When Prime 39 first opened, COVID was still raging and the partners kept the bar seats closed. Once they reopened, the late afternoon became a magnet for a crowd who arrived for frosé, jewel-colored Fenty cocktails (a dragon-fruit, rum and lime drink named for Rihanna’s beauty brand), lamb lollipops dusted with jerk spices and sweet-potato deviled eggs. “Sometimes I sit at the bar and strike up conversations with people, and am able to network,” said Postell. “You see people forging new friendships.”

Black eyed pea hummus at Prime 39 in Lynbrook.

Black eyed pea hummus at Prime 39 in Lynbrook. Credit: Noah Fecks

One of the delicious beauties of happy hour, as Postell and other owners know, is the ability to slip into a place alone and leave with a new friend or acquaintance. To stay as long as you want, resting your elbows on the bar’s curved molding to try and catch the bartender’s eye as she shakes one drink and strains another, the clock hands nearing 6, the volume rising: shouted orders and peals of the phone, the crackle of ice being scooped into glasses over and over.

At Lala’s in Bay Shore, at Little Mexico in Medford, at Da Nicola in Hewlett, where the bar pies are $9 and in the corner near the window, an acoustic guitarist eases into the opening chords of a Simon & Garfunkel classic: “And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson / Jesus loves you more than you will know / Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

It’s always 5 o’clock somewhere, and that somewhere is here. “What can I get for you?” asked the bartender.

The details

BAR PLANCHA: 931 Franklin Ave., Garden City; 516-246-9459, barplancha.com

DA NICOLA:1203 Broadway, Hewlett; 516-812-5155, danicolahewlett.com

LALA’S: 25 Bayview Ave., Bay Shore; 631-206-0420, lalaslounge.com

LITTLE MEXICO: 3253 Horseblock Rd., Medford; 631-730-8199, littlemexico-restaurant.com

NOMIYA: Roosevelt Field, 630 Old Country Rd., Garden City; nomiyastation.com

PRIME 39: 39 Atlantic Ave., Lynbrook; 516-837-3939, prime39.com

SOUTH SHORE DIVE: 65 Main St., West Sayville; 631-218-6500, southshoredive.com

 
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