Best Happy Hours Portland Style: What's In the Mix?

September 27, 2016 • 6 min read
Byron Beck

Byron Beck

PDX Correspondent

The happy hour. It’s an institution that many of us have to come to rely on, especially after a long day at work.

But it wasn’t always that way. Did you know that the happy hour is a homegrown Portland invention? Legendary restauranteur Doug Schmick, who recently passed away, created the super-cheap $1.95 happy-hour bar menu for his Portland-based McCormick & Schmick’s restaurants decades ago. For years, people called him crazy for offering his entrees at such bargain prices. Schmick believed it would be good for business—and, boy, was he right. Now, of course, the concept of happy hour has spread across the industry, and there are happy hours Portland style, all across the country.

According to the National Restaurant Association, happy hour and late night deals can increase overall traffic and sales. The Association notes, “creating incremental drink sales during untapped day parts is a tactic many restaurant operators recognize as a way to build their businesses.” This works especially well if the food and drink program or special offer is engineered with the guest in mind.

So, businesses need to understand what their customers want. Happy hour patrons are often looking for more than just low-priced drinks and food. Many customers attend happy hours “as a way to relax, to meet up with friends, or to connect with colleagues outside of the workplace.”

Of course, it’s also essential that bars and restaurants know what their state and local agencies, such as the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), will allow them to do. The OLCC has some handy guidelines for advertising.

The Happy Hour Completists

cocktail neonTownsquared reached out to two happy-hour connoisseurs, who also happen to be business owners and best friends, to get the lowdown on this venerable, Portland-born tradition. Katie Burnett is one of the owners of Portland’s bar-gear emporium, Bull in China. Burnett’s best happy-hour buddy is Jennifer Quist, who works in hospitality development, primarily with Portland hotels, restaurants, and bars.

In addition to being a developer and purveyor of barware, Burnett, whose business partners are both bartenders, likes to call herself Bull in China’s Professional Taster. For Burnett, happy hour is as important a part of her workday as anything else: “Part of my job is keeping up on trends and visiting the awesome bars and restaurants that use Bull in China gear,” says Burnett. “That takes me to many happy hours about town.” Nice work if you can get it.

Figuring out what concepts and menus are “best for the guests, as well as the operation,” is a big part of Quist’s work. She also used to own a restaurant and knows “the importance of happy hour to make that after-work crowd happy.”

“Portland is a happy hour town,” says Burnett. And while all neighborhoods are good for happy hours, Burnett and Quist agree that that “downtown and Northwest tend to be the best because of walkability and density.”

Happy Hours Portland Style

What makes a good happy hour? For Quist, the number one factor is atmosphere.

“I’m always amazed at how busy a place can be at 4 pm because of happy hour. It just creates energy for a late afternoon meeting, pre-dinner drink, or just a fun way to unwind after a long day,” she explains.

For Burnett, food and drink come first: “For me, what makes a good happy hour is having substantial food that goes beyond everything being fried, and quality cocktails—not just $1 off well drinks.

craft cocktail“That’s part of why I love Interurban’s happy hour. They have my favorite broccolini on the menu, along with a great salad and a paté board. Plus, they have $5 classic cocktails.”

Burnett notes that the space matters, too. “I also love happy hours that are available beyond the bar [area],” she says, because “when they’re limited to the bar, then everyone tends to crowd in there and you end up eating on top of each other, which is never fun.” She recommends Clyde Common’s happy hour for that very reason: “You can sit wherever in the restaurant and enjoy the happy hour menu.”

Not surprisingly, Burnett and Quist share many favorite happy hour hangouts, and nearly all of them are locally-owned small businesses, like Interurban, Nostrana, and Clyde Common.

“Clyde Common is the most iconic happy hour destination in town, I think,” says Burnett. “The vibe is always on point—good looking people, loud music, big windows, and kick-ass cocktails and food. I tell my friends to snag a spot in the bar by the window so they can people watch.” The women agree it’s a great place to take Portland visitors.

But where should we go if we’re looking for new, maybe off-the-radar happy hours? Burnett and Quist are checking out the just-opened Revelry in inner Southeast. It’s unusual in that it limits its daytime happy hour to an actual hour—5 to 6 pm—Sunday through Thursday. Another option isn’t technically a happy hour item, just a great deal. Quist recommends the Neapolitan wood fired pizzas at Renata’s bar ($6-7, Monday – Saturday 5 – 6pm and Thursday – Saturday 9 – 10pm and all day Sunday). Yum.

As for the trend of happy hours turning into all-day offers, Burnett is willing to give it a try: “I know it’s weird and kind of makes no sense, but hey, if the food is good and drink decent, I’d definitely give it a whirl.” Quist prefers to keep her happy hours old-school, “only after work or late night.”

Other happy hours this tippling twosome suggest include newly-opened hotspots like Century, La Moule, and Bit House Saloon, as well as legendary Portland hangouts like Driftwood Room, Produce Row Cafe and Nostrana’s sister restaurant, the pizza-friendly Oven and Shaker.

And once you’ve worked your way through Burnett’s and Quist’s Portland happy hour picks, check out Miss Jen Lane’s essential BarFly and Cindy Anderson’s Happy Hour Guide Book. The Guide presents the 500 (yes, 500!) of the best spots to get your happy hour drink (and grub) on. #DrinkLocal!

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