In my opinion, there's no better time to eat out than Happy Hour. The drinks are cheap, reservations aren't required, and best of all, the discounts on food can be substantial. Here are my current picks for the best Happy Hour food I've had in Orange County. Prices are up to date as of this writing, but check the restaurants for hours and other restrictions.
Beef Tenderloin Bites at The Winery
It is remarkable what The Winery puts out for Happy Hour. The chefs aren't content in frying up some chicken wings and calling it a day. Instead, the chefs prepare dishes such as the pork belly lollipops on white beans as though it was a casual cassoulet. Their best dish, though, has to be the beef tenderloin bites, an honest-to-goodness rustic steak-and-potatoes meal complete with a red wine reduction for $7.95, served fuming hot on a cast iron skillet.
Bleu Sliders at SeaLegs Wine Bar
It's during SeaLegs happy hour that you might find out that Chardonnay and corn dog bites are a natural match. The corn dog bites are on a modest selection of basic dishes offered for $5, along with the house wines. The corn dog bites are excellent, using not a hot dog, but a thick, meaty sausage that's probably knackwurst. But the best happy hour dish are the sliders: juice-bursting Angus beef patties with crumbles of bleu cheese, fried onions, and buns perfectly toasted in butter to crispy edges it rivals In-N-Out's.
Buffalo Chicken Dip at Holsteins
The pastel-colored atmosphere, the excellent burgers, and the even more excellent booze-spiked milkshakes makes Holsteins fun-fun-fun. But the Happy Hour menu also makes it a deal. Just four dishes are offered at the Happy Hour discount, but they're all $7. There's an exemplary poutine topped with braised beef, real cheese curds, and a stout-based gravy served on the side. And then there's the stunning baked dip concocted of cheese, chicken, and hot sauce eaten with fryer-fresh tortilla chips. It tastes as though the soul of a Buffalo chicken wing possessed a hot spinach dip.
Free Food at Gulliver's
Enjoy multiple rounds of actual burgers (cut into quarters), deviled eggs, crudites, smoked salmon dip, and a chafing dish of what tastes like Sloppy Joe meat made from chipped beef while sipping a pint in a room that will remind you of the old Cask n' Cleavers, the Whale n' Ales, and all its variants. The restaurant is decked out with copper, wood, B&W photos, and a hearth—the kind of old English pub that actually looks like it came from old England. The food is all free when you buy a discounted drink in the bar area. But come early. Gulliver's starts serving their veritable buffet of complimentary hors d'oeuvres at 4 p.m. weekdays but the supplies will dwindle down to nothing by the end of it all at 7 p.m.
"Not Your Mom's Deviled Eggs" at JT Schmid's
If you're going to have a deviled egg, you might as well have it deep-fried and discounted. That's what you'll get at JT Schmid's during Happy Hour. The whites are battered, then plunged in hot oil as though they were county fair Twinkies. The yolks are whipped, seasoned, then piped atop the now-crispy, vaguely egg-shaped platforms. All of it is then drizzled with a tangy sauce and sold for $4.
Single Trip to the Buffet at Agora
At Agora—one of the best churrascaria's in OC—there is a way to eat without spending your entire day's paycheck: the Happy Hour. Sit at the bar and ask for their $14 single-trip hot foods and salad buffet, where you can load up your plate as full as you can, one time, from the most immaculately curated buffet line in OC. You'll find clams in butter, mussels in a chunky tomato braise, and potatoes roasted in seasoned wedges or whipped to a buttery smoothness. There's good crumbly aged cheese, smoked fish, shrimp cocktail, and fluffy rice to be doused in a white-meat chicken stew. If you actually want salad, it's there too. And always included free are the cinnamon-covered baked bananas and baskets of their wonderful chewy-cheesy bread balls. If the free bread, banana, and that mountain of food you managed to fit onto your plate isn't enough, you could also ask for some churrasco, which is available during Happy Hour in controlled portions for about $6.
Panzerotti at Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana
The best time to come to Angelina's is during happy hour. This is when some of the most popular antipastis get discounted by half. The trio of self-collapsing beef-and-pork meatballs will be $8 instead of $16. Also discounted: the spicy, sliced-on-the-bias Naples-style sausages seared to a slight char and drizzled with Gorgonzola cheese sauce served on a bed of roasted peppers as sweet as fruit punch. But the best item of all is Angelina's panzerottis ($4 at Happy Hour), which are sort of like Hot Pockets since they're stuffed with meat and cheese (salami and ricotta), but also like beignets since they're puffy, bite-sized, and deep-fried.
Pizza at TAPS
TAPS's happy hour menu has things such as tempura shrimp, raw oysters with all the trimmings, and a well-constructed marinated beet salad with chicories, arugula and citrus-scented goat cheese marked down $2 from the regular menu. But the best bargain of all might be the happy hour price of $9 for the pizzas. The pies possess perfect crusts, are embellished with unusually thoughtful toppings, and reaffirm owner Joe Manzella is indeed Italian and isn't about to build a restaurant without an oven that can produce pizzas to rival Mario Batali's.
Popcorn Lobster at Ahi Ahi
Though it looks it, Ahi Ahi is not just a stereotypical suburban sushi joint; it's a great stereotypical suburban sushi joint. The best time to go is during the happy hour. On the discounted list of food are California-type rolls with actual crab meat and a seaweed salad with cucumbers that eats like an actual salad, not a side dish. The best thing to get is the fried lobster nuggets for $5.95—lacy, thin batter hiding the sweet, sweet meat of the crustacean you never thought could be this tasty unless drenched in butter.
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Wild Salmon Skewer at Bistango
Bistango's Happy Hour isn't the kind of Happy Hour you can ever be late for. On weekdays, it starts at 4 p.m. and lasts until it closes. During this time, the parking becomes free and plentiful, the food is discounted all night and the booze is slashed to about half off the regular prices. What you want are the wild salmon skewers with chile vinaigrette and cucumber salad for $8.50—where two good hunks of the fish are roasted till the outsides are crisp, but the insides are still creamy and moist.