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The Best Time: Great Happy Hour Deals in San Francisco? They’re Few and Far Between, But They Exist. 

Wednesday, Mar 11 2015
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If you sit down and think too much about it, "happy hour" starts to seem like an absurd concept, promoting binge drinking and alcohol dependency, and certainly not something any self-respecting adult should say with a straight face. The term wasn't cooked up by a bartender or booze marketer, however — it comes from early 20th century naval slang for unsupervised hours on the ship when sailors could make their own entertainment, and is thought to have been applied to pre-dinner drinks during Prohibition. Drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea, and in response, a few states have restricted or outright banned the practice of offering discount drinks at quitting time.

Happy hour doesn't just have to be about getting drunk — some cities, like Portland and New Orleans, have a robust happy hour food culture. When I was coming of drinking age in Seattle after college, happy hour was my only opportunity to try the food or check out the view at restaurants that I couldn't otherwise afford. As the menu prices at new San Francisco restaurants continue to climb, along with the cost of everything else in the city, I wondered: Why don't more restaurants serve discount food along with drinks?

For a lot of good reasons, says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. Some are obvious: San Francisco restaurants are crowded enough as it is, and don't need to offer promotions to get people in the door. Others are financial: Operating a restaurant is more expensive here, with the high local minimum wage, no tip credit, required paid health care, sick leave, high rents, and the cost of sourcing local, sustainable ingredients. And some are cultural, like the fact that neighborhood restaurants thrive in the city and don't need to lure workers back from downtown, and tech companies offer employees free happy hour in their offices.

Despite all that, there are some great restaurants where you can get a drink, fill up, check out the chef's cooking philosophy, and rent a bar stool for $15 or less.


It's not called "happy hour" per se, but $5 to $6 bar snacks at the soaring Divisadero restaurant are offered at the bar from 5 to 6 p.m. every day. One afternoon brought a small-sized grilled ham and cheese paired with a thoughtful side salad and a scaled-down fish and chips featuring meaty hunks of cod in a light, tempura-like shell. The dishes are substantial enough to make a small meal out of one or two, and though drinks aren't discounted, Moonlight Brewing beers are on tap for $6. The best part may be the opportunity to experience Nopa without the crowds and chaos; at 5 p.m., the restaurant is just waking up before another long night.

560 Divisadero, 864-8643,

Bar Agricole

This SOMA restaurant's expertly crafted cocktails and California fare will set you back more than a few dollars, but every weekday from 5 to 6 p.m., and all day Sunday, the bar offers housemade sausages for $2.50 each. They're more like half-sausages, so you'll probably want to order two, but they're as juicy and judiciously seasoned as you'd expect from a restaurant group that opened the charcuterie-focused Trou Normand last year. Glasses of Stiegl and a zippy German Riesling are on special for $6, all the better to pair with the elegant, industrial-chic atmosphere as you watch the day fade through the large windows next to the bar.

355 11th St., 355-9400,

ICHI Sushi

There's no sushi on the happy hour menu at the much-beloved Bernal sushi spot, but you can console yourself with the restaurant's famous yuzu-marinated chicken wings ($6), which are crisp and juicy thanks to a cooking process that includes sous vide. You'll also find an assortment of fun and weird fish items, from light trout chicharróns dusted with housemade furikake ($3) to an assortment of grilled fish collars, from a luscious black cod to a flaky kampachi ($6). Cold sake and white and red wine are $6, Sapporo is $4, and the discounts keep flowing until 7 p.m. on weekdays.

3282 Mission, 525-4750,

El Techo de Lolinda

San Francisco has a criminal lack of rooftop bars, but at least there's El Techo, the Mission bar attached to Lolinda that offers high-end Latin food and gorgeous views from behind a protected windscreen. Most of the bro-heavy crowd at the 4-6 p.m. happy hour are there for the $6 margaritas and $4 cervezas, but there's actual food to be had besides chips and guacamole: zingy, lightly fried chicken thighs on a bed of jalapenos; a beef empanada with a kicky chimichurri; and a fried plantain patty with black beans and queso fresco. All food is $5; the view of the sun setting over downtown and the Oakland Hills is free.

2518 Mission, 550-6970,

Namu Gaji

Most plates at the Lee brothers' Cal-Korean restaurant near Dolores Park are in the double digits, but from 5 to 6:30 p.m, Tuesday through Sunday, you can sample chef Dennis Lee's food at a discount. The Korean tacos don't look like they'll fill you up, but come with a generous pile of rice and protein along with kimchee salsa and remoulade, all atop a toasted seaweed wrapper. ($3-$5.50, depending on if you order chicken, tofu, or bulgogi beef.) Bring a friend to split the poutine-like Gamja fries ($11), thick-cut potato fries loaded with Korean chili sauce, kewpie mayo, teriyaki sauce, kimchee relish, and ropes of bulgogi beef. And with $2 soju shots, $3 beers, and $6 glasses of lightly effervescent rose, you'll also be able to drink your fill.

499 Dolores, 431-6268,


About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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