6 great food finds for Charlotte happy hour

Crave Dessert Bar’s S'Mores Platter, made by Executive Chef Andres Arboleda.
Crave Dessert Bar’s S'Mores Platter, made by Executive Chef Andres Arboleda. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

First, let’s get this out of the way: At the end of the day, there is no happiness in Charlotte bars.

Thanks to a wrinkle in the regulations, bars here can’t offer happy-hour drink specials. If they have a drink special, they have to offer it all day. But they can offer food specials for happy hour, and food is what we’re here to discuss. What you drink with it is up to you.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get happy. Between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m., you can eat well without flashing too much cash.

“I’ve always liked happy hour,” says Tonya Jameson, who writes The Observer’s Sip And Play blog. “I like the happy-hour culture in general. I was in London last year, and at happy hour it’s like the world shuts down and everybody goes to the bar. And in D.C. the bars fill up and the outdoor seating fills up with people out having a good time.

“It’s not as stuffy as dinner.”

She says she often schedules meetings at bars and restaurants with happy hours, because it lets her try new places without committing a lot of time and money.

What defines a good happy hour? Look for a good ratio of serving size to money, especially if you’re starting out early to make a longer night of it.

“For me, the food is good and the amount is good,” Jameson says. “I don’t like a happy hour where I’m paying 5, 6 dollars for bites and the portions are tiny. I love a happy-hour burger where you get a whole burger.”

Whole burger? Got it. Read on, happy people, for six great finds.

▪ The Wooden Vine: This may be the longest happy hour on the block, with a small-bites menu from 1 p.m. until closing. And while it does have pricier selections, such as the $12 cheese board, it also a great bar nosh for only $4: Duck fat popcorn. (Wait, we’ll say it again: Duck. Fat. Popcorn.) Popcorn with the faint flavor of duck cracklings, sprinkled with the Middle Eastern spice blend ras el hanout. Pair it with a $5 glass of sparkling wine and watch the busy people rush by outside.

Wooden Vine, 231 N. Tryon St., thewoodenvine.com. Small bites menu starts at 1 p.m., price range from $4 to $12; three wines for $5 each.

▪ Crave Dessert Bar: Who says you can’t have dessert first? They have a sweet list of savory things, but two $5 dessert deals are the best: The S’Mores Platter is $12 later in the night and is big enough to share. But real grown-ups want the ice cream sandwich – two chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream, a soft center of caramel bourbon sauce and a coating candied-bacon chips, served in a pool of chocolate sauce.

Crave Dessert Bar, 500 W. 5th St., cravedessertbar.com. $5 menu from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.

▪ McCormick & Schmick’s: It’s known for the daily happy-hour list in the bar, including a generous bowl of mussels in garlic butter sauce ($4.99). But go on Thursdays for the real deal: $1 shrimp and oysters. Get six fat, sweet shrimp for $6 and you’ve re-created the shrimp cocktail that costs $15.99 at dinner. Nice.

McCormick & Schmick’s, 200 S. Tryon St. and 4335 Barclay Downs Drive, SouthPark, www.mccormickandschmicks.com. Happy hour 4-7 p.m., price ranges from $2.99 to $5.99.

▪ Georges Brasserie: Like Mickey Schmick’s, you can get several seafood deals, such as $1 oysters on Fridays. But we found two other picks here: The $7 Croque Madame (a fancy grilled cheese with ham) is topped with a fried egg and served with arugula salad. And there’s a great $3 bar snack: A big bowl of Crispy Brussels Sprout Leaves. Crunchy, warm and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, so they’re salty and sweet.

Georges Brasserie, 4620 Piedmont Row Drive, SouthPark, georgesbrasserie.com. 3-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; $3 to $7.

▪ Firebirds: On a chilly afternoon, the Firebar is the place you want to be, sitting right next to the fire. “Hand-spun chicken tenders” – meaning dipped in thin batter and breaded – meets Jameson’s guideline of biggest for least. For $6, you get four moist, crispy chicken strips as long as your hand, Buffalo or plain. Definitely filling.

Firebirds, 3920 Sharon Road (also Northlake Mall and Ballantyne), www.firebirdsrestaurants.com. 4-6:30 p.m.; $5 to $7.

▪ Brio Tuscan Grille: OK, here’s that burger deal: For $4.95, you can get a full 8-ounce burger with provolone, roasted tomato mayonnaise and house chips. Throw in a basket of crispy eggplant fries with warm marinara and aioli for $3.95 and you’re set for the night.

Brio Tuscany Grill, 4720 Piedmont Road Drive., www.brioitalian.com. 3:30-6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close, Monday-Friday; $3.95-$5.95.