Restaurant Reviews

South Florida Happy Hours: Where Great Food and Booze Collide

My heaviest of bar-going days took place when I was a server for a notorious Italian chain restaurant. After our shifts, the other servers and I would drag our pasta-sauce-speckled selves to whatever seedy dive offered us the most liquor for our crumpled dollar bills. Even so, on most nights, we were lucky to walk away with any of the meager earnings we had made. Still, we left happy.

Thankfully, today's bar-going experience is much different from my booze-soaked salad days. What the majority of working-class folks want after they pick themselves up out of their cubicles isn't just a place to get crocked in. They want the total package: a bar with a fun atmosphere and food that's accessible yet honestly prepared. Here are a few local spots that deliver on those fronts.

Triple Eight Lounge at the Falcon House

116 NE Sixth Ave., Delray Beach; 561-243-9499; thefalconhouse.com. Happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Not many South Florida eateries have the reputation for revelry that the Falcon House does. The vintage cottage, constructed in 1925, is lit romantically, with roughed-up red plaster walls that look like they've seen their share of good times. The dining room twists and turns through hallways, alcoves, and around the workmanlike bar, hiding all sorts of nooks and crannies. Current owner Karl Alterman — who purchased the Falcon House four months ago and added the Triple Eight Lounge moniker — laughs when I ask him if those walls house any hidden secrets: "The stories that go on here are unbelievable," he says in a sly tone. "There's a party here almost every night."

Alterman knows firsthand. Long before he became the owner, he was a frequent customer, ponying up to the Falcon House's long, lacquered bar to eat small plates and drink cocktails. The drinks are made by a crew of bartenders who don't take any crap. I found that out for myself during a recent happy-hour session. I asked our bartender du jour if he could recommend any specialty drinks. "They're all sort of, well, girly," he bluntly offered to my male friend and I. "I mean, the drink menu's purple. What does that say?" This is despite the Triple Eight being named after a brand of all-natural vodka made in Alterman's hometown of Nantucket.

We took that as a hint and instead ordered a couple of Sierra Nevadas — $2.50 a bottle at happy hour. Drinks in hand, we combed over the menu, which Alterman has reworked with the help of his new head chef, the aptly named Jimmy Dean. Dean's home-style offerings rely heavily on gussied-up comfort food. Owing to the name, none of the small plates weigh in over $8.88.

We found anything served with one of Dean's funky-sounding sauces to be legit. A five-cheese fondue ($6.66) featured a cup of luxuriously textured dip along with a few spiced toast points. We ditched the too-brusque toast and asked for some plain baguette to sop up our fondue with, which fared much better. A steak quesadilla ($8.88) made with grilled rib eye and roasted peppers had some sublimely funky, cumin-laced sour cream on the side. Thin-cut yucca chips ($4.44) were flawless bar snacks served with a tin of yogurt-based onion dip that we swiped completely clean. All around the bar, folks pounded fish tacos and dunked buttermilk-soaked chicken strips into bowls of agave-mustard sauce as they made new history in a place full of it.

Grand Lux Café

1780 Sawgrass Mills Circle, Sunrise; 954-838-9711. Also 6000 Glades Road, Ste. 1016, Boca Raton; 561-392-2141; grandluxcafe.com. Happy hour from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

David Overton, the guy behind the fun-to-love and fun-to-hate Cheesecake Factory, envisioned the Grand Lux Café chain. His new venture skews along the same lines — it draws upon an impossibly crass cultural mishmash of homey bistro fare, Asian stir-fry, pasta, pizza, and even Caribbean flavors to try to please all palates. When you take a seat, you're saddled with a menu so large that J.R.R. Tolkien could write its appendix.

As chaotic as the menu is, there's something well-articulated about Grand Lux's design. The décor is nothing less than grandiose. Heavy, ornate double doors open into a wide foyer full of wrought iron and creamy marble tile. The bar, positioned dead center, has a sort of classic, 1930s, height-of-elegance feel, with granite-topped tables sporting high chairs and a slick bar top anchoring the action. Couple that with picture-frame ceilings and a fancy commode that makes Scott Rothstein's gold toilet look like a Port-a-Potty and you've got a pretty striking base camp for happy-hour fun.

Unfortunately, Grand Lux's bar doesn't have the colorful crowd of a local dive. Its customers consist of mallgoers looking to cool their dogs with a pint of beer. But the bar bites, mostly $5 or under, are shockingly good. The selection is wide, ranging from bistro-esque stuff like warm goat cheese salad and fried wonton wrappers filled with duck and ginger to more common apps like seared ahi tuna and fried calamari. Thumbing over the options, my cohort turned to me and commented, "There's no way the kitchen can do this many things well unless half of it is premade."

Surprisingly, what we got didn't taste that way. A trio of pork carnitas tacos ($4.95) napped moist meat inside a corn tortilla and then slathered the whole package with tart cabbage and cilantro slaw. A well-balanced avocado crema went great with the tacos, especially the mahi-mahi version ($5.95). We also split a haute burger (overpriced at $13.95) topped with braised short ribs and bacon. Although the beefy sandwich was flavorful enough, it was skimpy on the short ribs. Even so, the beer selection is solid, and the bartenders can mix a drink with class.

Himmarshee Bar & Grille

210 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-524-1818; himmarshee.com. Happy hour from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Not much has really changed in downtown Fort Lauderdale's Himmarshee district in the past ten years, despite the recession-shuffling signs on buildings elsewhere. The two-block stretch of pavement is still the city's center for partying, especially on weekend nights, when the streets are mobbed with fly-collared dudes sporting cups of swilly beer.

Himmarshee Bar & Grille has long been one of the anchors on the block, managing to keep up with local dining trends. Chef Chris Miracolo's monthly beer- and wine-pairing dinners in conjunction with Whole Foods have stayed exciting, especially in the price department: Where most pairings climb toward $100 a head, Himmarshee's multicourse dinners usually clock in around $30 and include tax and tip.

Himmarshee's casual Side Bar has followed that "more for less" theme with an extended happy hour that features an assortment of appetizers culled from the full menu, each for only $2. The plates are all updated classics: risotto rice balls breaded in panko and made crisp and light, served with a melting cambozola fondue; blue-cheese-stuffed dates that dress a simple micro-green salad with salty bacon and sweet maple vinaigrette. The sizes are such that you could easily down a few of these with your pint of Anchor Steam ale. But it's the prices that make it reasonable to do so.

My coworkers and I stopped in recently, and instead of picking and choosing, we simply ordered two or three of everything. Our favorites were unanimous: The grilled, ancho- and guava-glazed chicken wings were sticky and irresistible. Equally appealing was a duo of butternut squash "purses," which piped a silky smooth purée inside chewy pasta wrappers topped off by pungent and earthy shiitake mushrooms. And there's little to improve on with the house meatball, here dressed simply with ricotta cheese, pesto, and plenty of bright tomato sauce studded with onions and garlic.

We started off downing drinks and apps at Himmarshee at 5 p.m., and by 7, the place was mobbed. The understated space, full of wood and stone, filled up with workers from nearby government buildings, their ties pulled loose around their necks. Alongside them were girls in backless shirts drinking an array of martinis that looked like stoplights. Sounds like the complete package to me.

Want more happy hours? Visit our food blog, cleanplatecharlie.com, for a list of other great happy-hour eats. And get our free app by searching for "happy hour" in the iPhone app store or the Droid app market.

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John Linn