Happy Hour Is the Best, So Too Bad It's Illegal in Some States

Happy hour is a privilege, not a right — so make the most of this precious window of time.

A group of people toast with beers at happy hour

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I’m a longtime fan of a restaurant happy hour, that precious sliver of day when alcoholic beverages are slightly less expensive than they are at other times. As a server I liked happy hour because it lured customers into the restaurant during a typically slow period, say 4 to 6 p.m.. As a customer, I like happy hour because I believe restaurant cocktails are wildly overpriced and a Margarita that’s two dollars cheaper is never a bad thing. I have lived my entire adult life assuming everyone knew the joy of happy hour, but my jaw fell to the floor when I learned it’s not a privilege for all. There are states in this country that make it illegal to charge less for a cocktail at a certain time of day. That’s right, if you go into a Mexican restaurant in Boston, that Margarita is going to cost the same at 4:15 p.m. as it would at 9:15 p.m. After picking up my jaw from the floor and reattaching it to my skull, I decided it was time for me to appreciate the gift that is happy hour. 

Of course, a more affordable drink is always welcome, but that’s not the only reason a happy hour can be so wonderful. Sometimes, you just want to start drinking early in the day and social norms may dissuade you from doing so. Happy hour is a positive affirmation that having a Mezcal Manhattan before dinner time is perfectly okay, just like brunch assures you that vodka is an acceptable beverage at 11 a.m. on Saturdays or Sundays as long as it’s paired with tomato juice. And happy hour doesn’t have to be before dinner. It can be with dinner if you’re willing to eat a little earlier in the day. Restaurants with both drink and food specials do exist, but finding one is like searching for a Negroni in a haystack. If you discover one of those unicorns of a restaurant, embrace the satisfaction that is eating dinner before 5 p.m., but beware. It’s a slippery slope between a happy hour food menu meant for midday fun seekers and an early bird special catered for maximum blandness.

Happy hour also gives you an opportunity to enjoy a restaurant from a new perspective. Belly up to the bar when the sun is still bright and relish the fact that you are among others not willing to pay full price for dinner and drinks a few hours later. If it’s a supremely popular happy hour, it can be busier than at any other time, which is perfect for people watching and Palomas. The value of the specials will determine the size of the crowd. The better the deal, the more crowded it will be. And here’s a reminder: if happy hour ends at 6 p.m., make sure you order another round at 5:55 p.m. Even the sweetest of cocktails tastes slightly bitter when it's ordered at 6:01 p.m. and is full price.

In an effort to console those who live in states where 4 p.m. in a restaurant isn’t especially happier, please know happy hour isn’t always a bed of rosés. All happy hours are not equally appealing. One-dollar-off draft beer and house wine should be called what it is: an adequate hour. At least it will probably allow you to have plenty of elbow room at the bar, so if slightly cheaper beer is what makes you happy, this is your moment. Remember to watch out for a bait and switch. That’s when the sign proudly proclaims “happy hour cocktails” but it’s only one or two very specific options while the others are full cost. Another possible downside to happy hour is that sometimes it’s only good while sitting at the bar. Although I believe the bar is the best seat in the house, not everyone wants to sit there. Even if the table is a few feet away from the bar, don’t be surprised if happy hour deals are not an option for you. Rules are rules. 

The next time I’m sipping a cheap frozen Margarita, I will raise a glass in celebration of the very happy hour itself. And then I will raise another one for all of those who don’t get to partake in the window of potable opportunity known as happy hour.

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