Because my hedonism is often constrained by a limited budget, I'm always on the lookout for a good happy hour. So for the benefit of all cheapskates who suffer from expensive taste, I decided to check out a few of Anchorage's better early-evening (or, in some cases, late-night) dining bargains. Because the only things better than cocktails and appetizers are cheap cocktails and appetizers.
I joined a group of friends at Kinley's Restaurant and Bar, where they offer three rotating happy hour appetizer specials. That day's choices were lobster-stuffed ravioli ($7), calamari steak ($7), and salmon tartar "tacos" ($8). Because I'm nothing if not thorough, I tried all three.
The ravioli was decadent -- plump pockets of sweet lobster meat in a creamy sauce served "gratin" style. It's not a dish for sharing, but I didn't feel like sharing it anyway. The calamari steak was served in a creamy beurre blanc sauce, which hit the same heavy note as the ravioli -- it went mostly untouched by the group. The salmon "tacos," by comparison, were light and refreshing, their generous serving of tartar enlivened by a bright sesame vinaigrette and heaps of crispy Napa cabbage. Since the choices were limited, I would have liked to see a more balanced trio, giving the diner a chance to enjoy a three-course appetizer "meal." That said, Kinley's offers a lot of richness for when you're not feeling rich.
Table 6 offers six "first bites" for $6 and six special vodka-based cocktails -- also for $6. (Note that municipal liquor laws don't allow bars and restaurants to reduce the price of drinks because of what time it is. That means that while happy hour food deals "expire," drink deals do not.)
Table 6 offers pleasingly greasy, ample quantities of shareable bar-food, and it's a good, casual choice for the frugal. The messy chili-cheese fries, while unsophisticated, are addictive and will prove to be too much by half for even the most avid snackers. A half-order of chicken nachos left me wondering how many people it would take to finish a full order. Other menu choices are onion rings, quesadillas, and macaroni and cheese. A lighter, more grown-up choice is the "Cheese Bread for Girls" -- focaccia topped with chevre, ricotta, apricots, pistachios and tart apple slices. It's an unusual and elegant dish. The by-word here is value. Grab a friend (or two) and fill up when your wallet's not too full.
At Simon & Seafort's, an Anchorage happy hour institution, I was surprised and delighted to find a small but humming crowd enjoying cocktails and nibbles at three in the afternoon. I hadn't been here in years and was glad to be reminded of its spectacular view. Early evening (aka happy hour) is the best time to enjoy the scenery, and the only time during winter months. A limited list of specialty cocktails are on offer for $5 and house wine is $4. The appetizer menu offers a nice variety of traditional bar food, from dips to meatloaf sliders to buffalo wings. We ordered French dip sliders ($7.95, basic but with a perfect jus -- savory, beefy and salty), fried calamari ($7.95, disappointing -- not quite crisp enough and with a batter that slid too easily off the seafood) and steamed clams ($7.95, a generous bowl of sweet and briny clams served in an herby broth, just right for bread dipping). A nice (and new) item on the menu was the warm donut holes ($4.95), which -- charmingly -- arrived at the table in a brown paper bag, to be shaken up with cinnamon sugar right in front of us. Having a dessert choice can turn your happy hour into a grown-up happy meal.
The kitchen was rather slow but the service was attentive, keeping us well supplied with drinks and bread while we waited. And really, if you're drinking margaritas and eating clams at 3 p.m. on a weekday, how much of a hurry can you possible be in?
On a recent Thursday evening, Orso's was full of people placing orders for half-price appetizers just under the 6 p.m. wire. Orso's also offers two special $5 cocktails, house wine for $4.95, and 10 oz. Glacier Brewhouse beers for $2.50 a glass. My friend and I ordered calamari ($5.95), crab cakes ($7.45), lamb sliders ($5.50) and polenta "fries" ($4.50). The calamari was my ideal of the dish: the batter was crispy, flavorful and deep golden brown, while the calamari itself was sweet and tender. The crab cakes were less satisfying -- heavy and somewhat bland. The polenta "fries" were comfort food with a flair, perfectly crisp little rectangles with a starchy, creamy, cheesy interior and a gentle hint of rosemary. We also loved the lamb sliders -- ground lamb patties on brioche with a tangy tzatziki accent. They were a fun and creative take on a traditional gyro.
My favorite late afternoon indulgence is the happy hour at Muse in the Anchorage Museum. It's a well-kept secret but it deserves to be out, even if it means not having the wait-staff to myself.
Muse offers its signature "Strawberry Muse" cocktail for $5, as well as $5 white and red wine by the glass and half-price appetizers. A friend and I have a weekly ritual that involves a few drinks and a silly number of oysters on the half-shell at the bargain-basement price of $1.50 each. As oyster enthusiasts, we had stubbornly refused to try the oysters Rockefeller, feeling that anything but a squirt of lemon "gilds the lily" of these lovely local mollusks. Recently, however, Muse's bartender persuaded us to try them and now we want all of those oysters Rockefeller years back. Piping hot, the oysters rest in a little bath of cream, blanketed with parmesan cheese and studded with bits of bacon -- the ingredients read like a last-meal request. Surprisingly, the oyster flavor, enhanced by the heat, still prevails and remains the star of the dish. Other offerings are seared scallops ($6.75), perfectly seared and seasoned, served alongside risotto and a decidedly unhealthy creamed broccoli puree (emphasis on the cream), ahi nachos ($5.85), crab cakes ($6.40), seared venison ($7) and a bruschetta ($4.75). With an elegant room, menu, and service, happy hour at Muse is the best deal in town. A big dining experience at a surprisingly small price.
The early bird can keep the worm. I want oysters and a basil-infused gimlet.
Kinley's Restaurant and Bar
Happy Hour: 4-6 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 5-6 p.m. Mon. and Sat.
(644-8953, 3230 Seward Highway)
Happy Hour: 4-6 p.m., 9 p.m. to close all week
(562-6000, 3210 Denali St., #8)
Simon & Seafort's Saloon & Grill
Happy Hour: 3-6 p.m, 9 p.m.-close all week
(274-3502, 420 L Street)
Happy Hour: 3-6 p.m., 9 p.m.-close all week
(222-3232, 737 West 5th Ave.)
Happy Hour: 4-6 p.m. Thurs., Fri. and Sat.
(929-9210, 625 C Street)