The Joy of Happy Hour

When it comes to places offering evening drinks and cheap but elegant eats, Tucson is blessed

I love happy hour: After being slumped over a keyboard trying to surf for a living, I yearn to share fabulous food and drink at affordable prices with good friends. It's that time of day when I want to revel in my accomplishments or file away failures. Happy hour bridges the joys of cocktails with promising value-driven fare consumed in lieu of a traditional dinner.

Fortunately, Tucson's cup runneth over with happy hours. You can still find free food at Kon Tiki and Macayo's, but my angle is on dining well beyond buffalo wings, crunchy bar mix and institutional cheese sauce from a giant tub. Ambience, attentiveness, alcohol and action--or lack of--are duly noted.

Heart Five

61 E. Congress St.
Weekdays 4-8 p.m.

Heart Five has the least curbside appeal, but don't let that stop you. Once inside, H5 radiates seduction with an imposing bar and a rope-lit, dazzling display of liquor bottles ready for action. Gauzy strips of cloth and butterfly mobiles languish in the air as Norah Jones croons in the background. Chef Joseph Sotomayor, formerly of Lumé Trattoria and the Arizona Inn, prepares an extensive selection of $5 plates of gourmet food like ceviche served in a martini glass and the sublime portobello panini. As bartender Eric recited the drink specials, he introduced us to some of the regulars. I thoroughly welcomed a soothing sour apple martini while Ginger inhaled her cosmopolitan, and then a martini, for a grand total of $19.

McMahon's Steak House

2959 N. Swan Road
Daily 4-7 p.m.

Bob McMahon reigns as the unequivocal king of happy hours. Except for Smokin', the entire Metro Restaurant Group offers happy hours everyday from 4-7 p.m. McMahon claims that he was the first to start the half-priced appetizer trend about five years ago. He initially ran it as a special, but the demand became so great, he kept going.

I can't afford to eat dinner at McMahon's Steak House, so we tried it for happy hour instead. M&M, Ginger and I each ordered an appetizer: Juicy shrimp resembled a ballet of swans dancing over a chilled goblet filled with horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce. Fire-roasted chiles stuffed with goat cheese and cilantro mirrored sophisticated chile rellenos. Stuffed shrimp wrapped in smoky bacon served with sauce remoulade and the ahi carpaccio ranked as favorites. We each savored a glass of buttery house chardonnay. At 6:55 p.m., our server, Helen, asked if we wanted anything else, because the Cinderella hour of eating and drinking for less was ending. Now that's service worth writing about! We split $41.80 four ways and left feeling pampered.

No one wanted beef, or we could've savored baby beef Wellington for $5. And for you true epicureans, foie gras is on the appetizer menu, and escargot and caviar will be added soon.

Gee's Garden Bistro

1145 N. Alvernon Way
Daily 4-6 p.m.

Gee's Garden Bistro really needs signage facing busy Alvernon Way, alerting, "Half-priced appetizers and drinks every day from 4-6 p.m." Although a parade of people came and went with takeout orders while we were there, we had the bar to ourselves. Gee's could be the perfect solution for couples who go out to eat but fail to communicate. With two televisions at the bar, each with its own remote, they can have it all while enjoying BBQ spareribs and spring rolls. We watched the Food Network and learned how to make roasted plantain pie while eating exquisitely fried calamari with sea salt and spicy drums of heaven, and we washed down with a large bottle of Sapporo beer ($9.35 total). Try a sex on the beach or ripe mai tai for a change of pace.

Kingfisher Bar and Grill

2564 E. Grant Road
Weekdays 4:30-6:30 p.m., 10 p.m.-midnight

Kingfisher Bar and Grill is about as close as you're going to get to a Tucson Cheers. Show up three times in a row, and the bartender will know your name and preferences at the clubby and intimate bar. A few of the seafood appetizers are half-priced; Pacific Northwest oysters are a buck, plus $2 discounts on beer, wine and well drinks. We opted for a half-dozen chilled and grilled Gulf shrimp with condiments and a bowl of steamed mussels in Vietnamese red chile fish broth. The former was good, but the latter swept my taste buds away on an ambrosial wave. Herb bread nicely soaked up the juices. Include a sunshine wheat beer with lemon slice and glass of chardonnay for a total of $18.50.

Sakura Teppan Steak and Sushi West

6091 N. Oracle Road

Sakura Teppan Steak and Sushi

6534 E. Tanque Verde Road
Weekdays 4-7 p.m.

Sakura on Oracle proved to be the liveliest venue. The huge room with a round bar that opened onto the patio boasted big televisions screens and a personable bartender. Weekdays 4-7 p.m., a dozen half-priced appetizers and drink specials prevail. We ate an ample portion of vegetable tempura and a less-than-satisfying salmon wheel (thinly sliced smoked wild salmon stuffed with fly fish caviar, cream cheese and capers), along with a pink martini for me and a dirty one with extra olives for Ginger, totaling $16.

HONORABLE MENTION: Busy Bamboo Club (5870 E. Broadway Blvd., Park Place Mall, 514-9665, weekdays 4-6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close) offers a special discounted appetizer menu--try the wonton nachos and grilled chicken with dipping sauces--and $1 off martinis and mixed drinks. The miniscule bar at the downtown El Charro Café (311 N. Court Ave., 622-1922, weekdays 4-6 p.m.) already teems with post-work revelers and local artists. A selection of discounted appetizers (the cheese crisp practically floats off the plate) and half-priced drinks are renowned. Only on Fridays, from 3 p.m. to close, La Cocina (201 N. Court Ave., 623-6024) hosts an all-you-can-eat fajita or enchilada buffet complemented by $2.50 margaritas in the courtyard of the Old Town Artisans. The action begins at 3 p.m. and remains open until restaurant employees begin to outnumber the customers.

Before launching into happy hour, consider these tips: The more the merrier; share and share alike. Be experimental and order different foods. Tip the bartender or server well. Bring along a designated driver or drink responsibly. Don't wait until Friday; immediate gratification is good for the Tucson soul.

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