Top restaurants fight slowdown with happy hour menus

Way back when, the phrase "happy hour" was guaranteed to get my attention. Two-for-one drinks! Snacks! Party! Countless unfortunate cocktails and lame chicken wings later, that phrase lost its power to draw me to a seat at the bar.

Or so I thought. Recently there's been a happy-hour renaissance, with several leading restaurants nationwide serving a terrific array of discounted cocktails and small-and not so small-plates.

I discovered a good reason for this. Restaurant traffic has slowed at both sit-down and fast-food places, for a confluence reasons ranging from uncertainty over the upcoming presidential election to Brexit to Chipotle's health-department issues. The ever-expanding range of delivery food services from such sources as Amazon and UberEats is added incentive not to leave home.

But most restaurateurs are in the business of seeing a glass half full and figuring out a hospitable, and profitable, way to fill it up. Restaurants have started serving breakfast (one bright spot in that sluggish dining-out study noted that breakfast sandwiches topped the growth foods list), and they're staying open all day. And most appealing to me: They're ramping up happy hour menus.

No less an expert than Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, has been installing happy hour menus at his spots around Manhattan.

Take the Italian-American trattoria Maialino, where chef Jason Pfeifer is serving Roman-style snacks like an enticing wedge of ricotta and roasted tomato torta and a not-as-traditionally Italian but superb fried chicken sandwich with Calabrian chile aioli, available only at the bar until 7 p.m. With a Peroni, it's a $20 meal.

For various reasons that invariably come back to excessive drinking, happy hour is banned in eight states. Last year, Illinois eliminated that prohibition, with a catch: Places can offer happy hour menus for no more than 15 hours per week. Now one of the cities' most popular spots, Dove's Luncheonette, chef Paul Kahan's platonic ideal of a Mex-American counter (think exceptional chicken-fried chicken and shredded dried beef breakfast tacos). Kahan is celebrating happy hour with Sip or Shoot shots of mescal or tequila for $5, plus there's an option of a $2 beer shorty.

At one of the country's best new restaurants in San Francisco, a city recently called out for its relentlessly high-priced dining scene, uber-sustainable Perennial features 50 percent off the cocktail of the day. It also serves discounted draft beer and bar bites like pork popcorn and a corned beef hamburger.

Down in New Orleans, where happy hour seems like a way of life, John Besh's bakery-restaurant Willa Jean instituted a compelling menu to bring in in more traffic in the late afternoon. Snacks like marinated crab claws and Willa Jean cornbread with Poirier's cane syrup is half price, as are desserts. My pick would be Cookies + Milk served with a beater of raw cookie dough and a Tahitian vanilla bean milk. I'd have it with an unlikely pairing: Willa Jean's Frosé Y'all, the addictive rose wine slushie that screams "happy hour!"

Los Angeles has even more compelling options. At the new West Coast offshoot of the New York-based, meat-centric Cannibal, a complementary charcuterie station has a spread that includes salumi, cacao e pepe chips, pork rinds, chicharron nachos and $5 old fashioneds on tap. It brings to mind Italy's excellent aperitivi hour except that the spread is stocked with items from the Cannibal's butcher shop.

Cory Lane, a partner at the Cannibal, describes its happy hour mentality in a way I very much admire: "Yes, it's driving a full room in early evening, but with the thinking, 'Hi, we're your new neighbors, let's have some fun and make this a proper party every day.' "

The renovated Nick & Stef's steakhouse has expanded the concept of happy hour: it's five hours long, starting at 2 p.m. with $12 champagne punch bowls for two, crab cake sliders and dry aged meatballs with grilled bread and spicy tomato jam.

In New York, Meyer's USHG team is evolving the tradition in an even more dynamic way. At its year-old restaurant Untitled at the Whitney Museum, happy hour is Neighbors Night, held Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings. From 5:30 p.m. until closing, the restaurant offers a juicy Wagyu pastrami sandwich with mustard ($13) and fried chicken with honey ($12). The cocktail and wine specials highlight local products, like Not Long Island Ice Tea, Long Island wines and Brooklyn beers.

"Everyone has fun with it," says Sabato Sagaria, USHG's chief restaurant officer. "Customers don't have to commit to a $30 entrée, and for the team it's fun to design simpler dishes and figure out what we can serve that's local."