The Anatomy of a Good Happy Hour Bar

Sometimes, all you need is dim lighting
Sometimes, all you need is dim lighting
Photo by Charles Lam

There's an adjustment period when you go from a freelance work schedule to an 8-hour daily plan to a fixed-hour workweek.

As a full-time freelancer, my days were, well, whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Then landing a full-time reporting gig two years ago meant I worked eight hours a day. Luckily my editor was cool. I came in at 11 a.m. and, if I wanted, worked a swing shift (Covering entertainment, food and beverage meant sometimes working a late concert or meeting bartenders when they started the last shift of the evening). Now, as a slave to the corporate, conservative work grind, I am fixed to working the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., which means no midday naps and certainly not the occasional afternoon cocktail.

So, come 5 o'clock, I am ready to grab a beer -- but not entirely up for a crazy night out, since, well, work starts up at 8 the next morning. It's made me extremely picky about where I want to spend my happy hour, and I have no shame walking into a place and bailing five seconds later.

Where would I stay for a beer or two? These are a few things I look for in a good after work, happy hour bar:

Location The bars I've been gravitating to are either close to work or close to home. Now, there's really only one reason to visit a bar close to work, even if you work in Rancho Santa Margarita like I do: quick access. But ultimately, walking distance from the house is best because after years of driving hours to and from bars in L.A. or San Diego, you learn: That's just stupid. Everyone's got that friend with multiple DUIs, huge fines and a breathalyzer installed in his car. And no one wants to be that friend. At some point, we all grow up.

Happy Hour Deals Cheap drinks, like cheap drinks. Not the $10 "cheap," but $3-$4.50 beer at The Iron Press or the $3 sangria and $5 tacos à la Lola Gaspar cheap (food is a bonus). You want to make sure your happy hour spot is cheap enough not to erase those hours of work you just finished. We want a place where you can drink like a king on pauper's wages. My walking distance spot (Corner Office in Costa Mesa) has $3.75 house cocktails. I might even opt for the $5 martinis at BRIO in Irvine on Wednesdays if I'm feeling fancy. But remember, we want cheaaappp not oh-well-that's-good-for-Charlie-Palmer-at-Bloomingdale's cheap. Did I mention I was a journalist?

The Vibes If you have a desk job, you know sitting 8 hours in front of a computer screen is actually tiring. Sometimes, I leave work feeling like a zombie and I just don't want to deal with ... well, people. Other patrons pushing and smashing you against the bar is not the business. People talking so loudly that you can't hear anything is not cool. And then there's the people hitting on you because "you look like you could use a drink."

Really? Why do you think I'm at a bar?

No, just no. All the interaction I need some days is a bartender asking me for my order.

Parking You need to have free and easy access parking because if you don't want to fight a crowd for a drink, you don't want to look for parking (here's looking at you Santa Ana, although sometimes a lot will just be open for free). And if I'm too cheap to buy drinks at full price, I'm too cheap to pay to put my car somewhere. Hint: Walking is free and safe with the added bonus of burning off calories from all those happy hour snacks.

A Spot at the Bar Because sometimes the bartender doubles as a therapist. Shout out to the random beertender at Cismontane in RSM. You're the best.

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