The Place: Prego, 18420 Von Karman Ave., Irvine; (949) 553-1333; www.pregoristoranti.com
The Hours: 4:30 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The Deal: $4 beers, $4.50 wine, $5 well drinks, $4 appetizers.
The Scene: From the outside, it looks like the old man's house from “Up”, with tall corporate towers surrounding an ivy-covered, low-slung building. Inside, it's cavernous and open, with a working bread oven near the bar, a few diplomatically placed televisions, and plenty of tables. The crowd is mostly cubicle refugees and office dwellers, more nicely dressed than is usual for OC white collar work. This is a place for an after-work happy hour, and more than a couple of “let's go negotiate over martinis” deals were going down.
The Sauce: While the bottled beer selection is reasonable and the house wine is drinkable (it's Nathanson Creek–did you know they made wine in Madera?), the thing to order is well drinks. While most other bars' wells are a long, monotonous list of off-brand liquors, which are easy on the wallet but hard on the head, Prego's well is made of normal brands we've all heard of: Absolut vodka, Jim Beam bourbon, Jack Daniels whiskey. The well drinks are a little pricier than in the Houses of Bols and Barton, but it's worth the extra dollar or so to have a better drink.
The Food: $4 gets you some great deals. A meatball sandwich with two pairs on a piece of focaccia with red sauce (no, not from the jar) and a small arugula salad; a pretty decent-size thin pizza; small gnocchi with pesto; grilled calamari steak with more of the arugula, or just a classic antipasto of charcuterie, bread and caprese salad. You could frankly make a dinner out of one or two of these items, which is a big boon to your bank account. Even if you aren't in the market for food, you can snack on the complimentary grissini that'll be brought with your drink.
The Verdict: The South Coast business travelers' haven, and a place for the local office drones to get tipsy and catty about John in Marketing who refuses to be a team player, sure, but this is also a place you could bring the family for a quick, light dinner before an OCPAC event.
The Grade: B.