Consider two figures, living in two different times. First, there is the college-age version of you, the one who was leaner and heedless and possibly poorer, and who sought out happy hours for the necessary sustenance of cheap, frosty pitchers of beer and sticky 10-cent wings.
And then there is the version of you reading this now, older and wiser (well, hopefully), possibly more evolved in your tastes, still partial to Buffalo wings on occasion but always willing stretch your wings in new culinary directions. For you, for me, happy hours have maybe taken on another, less primal meaning — not as places to get buzzed and eat cheaply, necessarily, but as a way to sample a talented kitchen’s food with a minimum of commitment. And when the winter nights are 12-plus hours long, still get home at a relatively decent hour.
“It’s about overall value and quality — especially food quality,” said Seth Birdoff, a customer-service rep who lives in Great Neck but scours most of Nassau County for good eats, such as the happy-hour burger at Grand Lux Cafe in Garden City or the startlingly comprehensive happy hour at Miko Sushi and Hibachi in Plainview. “You can get discounted drinks almost anywhere, but good food always wins out.”
I’d heartily agree. I spent more than a few hours scouring the island for standout happy hours, because they are solid opportunities to sample a great kitchen’s food. Not that they necessarily began that way: The custom, fundamentally American, developed during Prohibition when revelers hit up speakeasies before going out to dinner. (This practice, though, finds kinship with the longstanding Italian tradition of aperitivo, an appetite-whetting hour of snacks and bitter drinks).
Because fast-paced drinking can put people in all kinds of trouble, eight states have banned happy hours and a few dozen more restrict them, including New York, which mandates that drink prices cannot be slashed less than one-half of usual cost.
But happy hours also serve another industry-side role, drawing in diners during what could be the slower predinner hour and giving chefs a stage for showing off their bar snack mettle. “There are times that bar food is cast aside as something that not that important, and ends up mediocre,” said Peter Mistretta, chef and owner of Perennial in Garden City. Mistretta instituted a weekday happy hour almost from the day Perennial opened in 2018. Happy hour is “a fun way for us to create simple but delicious bar food, and get people in here earlier than when they might be used to having dinner," he said. "It’s just as valuable and important to the restaurant as someone spending a couple of hundred dollars.”
WHERE TO FIND THEM
One10 (569 Broadhollow Rd., Melville): This latest node in the Scotto Brothers’ empire is one of the year’s most high-profile openings, a sleek, soaring dining room that also has two bars — one devoted to mozzarella and burrata (the M bar) and the other, an undulating cocktail bar that's already acquired an animated, flirty after-work scene. Chef Ron Gelish’s Italian oeuvre can be sampled during the excellent happy hour, called One10 Aperitivo, which highlights an array of interesting snacks from cured meats ($7, mostly) to grilled artichokes ($7) to shiny anchovies draped over orange wedges and fennel ($5). Oysters are $2 each, and the $8 classic cocktails run the gamut from pineapple-infused cosmos to a twist on the bee’s knees. Details: 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday with $2 oysters, snacks mostly $5 to $8, $5 draft beer, $7 select wines, $8 classic cocktails and bubbles. At the bar and M Bar only. More info: 631-694-3333, one10restaurant.com
Perennial (990 Franklin Ave. Garden City): Chef-owner Peter Mistretta sees happy hour as an integral part of his modern, farm-to-table bistro. “We put just as much care and love into the sourcing and preparation of bar food as we do the rest of the menu,” said Mistretta. “It’s not an afterthought.” The $7 bar snack menu is succinct but superb, drawing on grass-fed, dry-aged ground beef from Happy Valley Meat Co. for sliders, which come on house potato bun. For pork tacos (also using grass-fed meat), the kitchen makes tortillas from scratch, and the braised pork shoulder that fills them “takes us two days from start to finish,” Mistretta said. Drinks-wise, award-winning cocktail maestro Jonathan Gonzalez is behind the stick, so the $10 happy hour libations are first-rate. Details: 5-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (bar only) with $7 bar snacks, $5 draft beer, $10 cocktails, $7 select wines. More info: 516-743-9213, perennialrestaurant.com
H2O Seafood & Sushi (66 W. Main St., East Islip): In an age of waning happy hours, this one is an easygoing gem, one that unfurls at a four-sided bar in the midst of this contemporary seafood palace. Dubbed “$7 till 7,” the apps are generous, such as perfectly crisp calamari with lemon-pepper aioli or rock shrimp tempura with spicy mayo. A shareable pile of tuna poke nachos are $14 — but the best part, at least for oyster lovers, are $2 oysters from various spots around Long Island, including Lucky 13s from Fire Island. And many of those fiver drafts were brewed locally, too, from Oceanside's Barrier Brewing Co. to Bay Shore's Great South Bay Brewery. Details: 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday with $2 local oysters, $1 local Littleneck clams, $7 bar snacks, $7 mixed drinks and $5 draft beer. More info: 631-277-4800, h2oseafoodsushi.com
Mirabelle Tavern (150 Main St., Stony Brook): Chef Guy Reuge is as close to Long Island culinary royalty as they come, and while you can throw down for a languorous multicourse meal at his Restaurant Mirabelle, the adjacent tavern shares the same menu but has the additional perk of a thrice-weekly “social hour,” when app prices are slashed by a quarter. That means chick pea fries or a velvety steak tartare with grilled, buttery brioche are $6 and $6.75, respectively. The drinks menu is no slouch, either, such as a “smoked winter mule” that blends mezcal (instead of vodka) with ginger beer and thyme simple syrup. Sipped slowly inside this beamed, cozy, colonial-era bar, fires flickering here and there, it’s a toasty mini-break from Old Man Winter. Details: 4-7 p.m. “social hour” Monday, Wednesday and Friday with 25% off appetizers and drink specials at the bar. More info: 631-751-0555
Miko Sushi & Hibachi (379 S. Oyster Bay Rd., Plainview): The three-plus-hour window at Miko, a vaguely Vegas-like sushi spot which opened about a year ago in Plainview, is a smorgasbord of specialty rolls that riff on American sushi tastes. Take the Paradise roll: shrimp tempura, lobster salad, crispy bananas and yuzu-mango sauce rolled in soy paper; that this behemoth is only $9 during happy hour is a steal for those who eat specialty rolls as their religion. But even sushi and meat purists can find things to love, such as flaps of white tuna drizzled with soy sauce and truffle oil ($8), or tender, fatty grilled short rib, also $8. Details: 4:30-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 4-9:30 p.m. Sunday with $5 classic and $9 specialty rolls, small plates between $5 and $8, and assorted drink specials. More info: 516-719-5900, mikojapanese.com
Meet Izakaya (216 Sunrise Hwy., Rockville Centre): Izakaya is having a moment on Long Island, and the tradition of gorging on skewered, grilled meats with copious drinks is the Japanese (and older) version of American happy hour traditions. This spacious new restaurant was recently opened by the owners of Kashi, the disco sushi and hibachi place a few doors down, but has a much more rustic, laid back vibe. Its bar is also utterly jammed during happy hour, probably because the kitchen turns out hot, blistered, flavorful yakitori skewers of shishito peppers, lamb, chicken thighs and the like for a whopping two bucks each. A $5 saketini is hefty and powerful, but there are assorted other liquid pleasures to be had as well. Details: 4-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday with $2-$3 yakitori skewers and $5 appetizers, $4 beer, $5 wine, $6 well drinks and $7 cocktails. More info: 516-608-9191, meetizakaya.com