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A lone martini sits on a glass table near a dark green booth draped in shadows
Seattle happy hours used to be an integral part of the restaurant and bar culture.

Will Restaurants Be Able to Afford Happy Hours Post-Pandemic?

As Seattle restaurants and bars gradually reopen, the advantage of menu discounts becomes less appealing

Tuna poppers still haunt Seis Kamimura’s dreams. In 2012, the chef was hired to run the kitchen at RN74, a trendy French restaurant that had recently opened in downtown Seattle to rave reviews, with millions of dollars and hype behind it. But even though the restaurant was mainly conceived as a special-occasion dinner destination, the happy hour hunters descended in droves. Chef Kamimura remembers that one night, when the restaurant had been getting ready for dinner service, a large crowd arrived very early in the evening and ordered up the tuna bites (a variation on the main menu’s popular tartare), which required intricate construction on delicately fried rice cakes.

“All of a sudden we were getting hit left and right,” Kamimura says, noting that there was a concern that the staff would be playing catch-up all night long, and that he’d run out of the expensive seafood during the main dinner service. “You don’t want to 86 things and have to explain that.” Happy hour became so popular at RN74 that management reconfigured the restaurant’s layout to accommodate the demand, adding more lounge seating and pooling various stations in the kitchen to help keep up.

RN74 is temporarily closed now, Kamimura is a private chef in New York, and Seattle happy hours took a pause for much of 2020. Now that onsite dining is allowed inside again at 50 percent capacity, dozens of restaurants and bars in Seattle are bringing happy hour menus back this spring. But it’s unclear whether the discounted drinks and food scene — once so ubiquitous in the city — will ever look the same again. Budget-friendly menus were a key strategy to get people in the door ahead of prime meal times, but restaurant budgets are strained to the brink. And with many offices around town lying vacant indefinitely, it’s unclear how much restaurants and bars can rely on the post-work crowd moving forward.

Brendan McGill, who runs Bainbridge Island’s acclaimed Hitchcock, doesn’t see much room for happy hours within a struggling hospitality industry constantly in flux, even though he recognizes how deeply ingrained such menus have become in Seattle over the years. He wants diners to recognize that “in an expensive city with progressive labor laws” it is difficult to keep menu prices down. At Hitchcock, McGill embraces sourcing local ingredients but notes that it is difficult to find such fare in the city at steep discounts. “Everybody seems to romanticize local and organic agriculture, but that’s rarely reflected on a happy hour offering,” he says. “We have to decide if we want well-paid employees preparing high-quality food in a healthy environment, or if we want $4 happy hour specials, because you can’t have both.”

McGill sees an opportunity in “wiping the slate clean” post-pandemic and rebuilding certain practices in the industry more sustainably across the board, as opposed to racing “to the bottom to attract guests looking for the best deal.” That effort could meet some friction against the need to get diners in at quieter hours, no matter when a fully safe 100 percent reopening happens — if that’s even possible. If the past year of hardships has shed a light on anything, though, McGill hopes that the dining public has seen just how precarious the restaurant industry is, which could translate to a better understanding of what it takes to operate.

For diners, the appeal of happy hours won’t go away so easily. Those discounts afford an opportunity to sample the fare at a hot new restaurant without necessarily committing to a full meal. “As long as I’ve been of legal drinking age, I’ve been aware of happy hours in Seattle,” says Seattle Refined writer Frank Guanco. “Once I got into the workforce post-college, we were aware they were a thing. We’d pour over happy hour details in Seattle Weekly’s happy hour guide with a fine-tooth comb.”

Those early evening menus also align conveniently with the nightlife hours in Seattle. “In larger cities like LA and NY you will find popular restaurants packed at 10 p.m. on a weeknight, [but] I don’t know if there are any Seattle restaurants that are busy till midnight during the week, or even on weekends,” says Linda Derschang, owner of popular bars such as Linda’s Tavern, Oddfellow’s, and King’s Hardware. “Seattle is an early-to-bed city, so happy hour is the perfect way to socialize a bit and then get to be at home early for the homebody lifestyle.”

Yet the demand for post-work happy hours may not be what it once was, since the 9-to-5 life may be forever altered. Downtown Seattle’s office vacancy has hit 17 percent, and major local corporations, like Microsoft, are considering a remote-versus-in-office hybrid model indefinitely, concerning many businesses that once relied on those employees to grab a bite after work. Amazon still has a work-from-home policy in place, though it’s hinted that will eventually end by the fall.

David Nichols, the chef-owner of Greenwood’s Eight Row, once reduced prices on cocktails during pre-dinner hours but has rethought whether any type of happy hour really makes sense with what guests will want both now and in the future. “Since less people are commuting to and from work these days, it stands to reason that a spot to enjoy drinks and bites with friends between work and home doesn’t play as huge of a role as it did in the past,” he says. Downtown happy hour favorite Dragonfish Asian Cafe closed, and Chris Navarra shuttered his South Lake Union Bavarian pub Feierabend in December due to the downturn in business from a now-vacant tech hub. “How much can we charge for schnitzel and beer when everybody’s working from home for months and months?” Navarra asks.

Other restaurateurs are more optimistic about the immediate outlook, at least, and are eager to welcome happy hour specials back. “People have cabin fever and as it warms up they are going to be in the mood to meet friends and sit outside with a drink,” says Derschang. “Happy hour is the perfect time to do that. Plus, a lot of people are on budgets due to COVID, and discounted food and drinks will be appealing to just about everyone.” Echoes Super Six co-owner Kamala Saxton, “I think that people still need to see some parallels to pre-COVID life and happy hour is one of those things.”

One key factor to the future of happy hours may be the new rules regarding outdoor seating across Seattle. Last July, the city launched an initiative that allows restaurants and other retail businesses to apply for a special temporary street closure permit, creating European plaza-like seating. The relaxed regulations — due to expire in October — were meant to help restaurants find more room for outdoor service, which health experts say carries a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission than enclosed spaces. But it’s possible that there is some political will to extend such permits beyond this year, with several mayoral candidates (including Lorena González) going on the record in support of making the changes more permanent.

Restaurateur Ethan Stowell — owner of How to Cook a Wolf, Tavolàta, and Rione XIII — tells Eater Seattle that continuing to loosen the regulations could be “key” to revitalizing the downtown area. He’s already implemented happy hour at many of his spots that have outdoor seating as a part of the draw. In West Seattle, acclaimed chef Mike Easton recently reopened his Alki Homestead destination Il Nido with a new “aperitivo” hour and an outdoor patio in the hopes of making the restaurant more accessible.

Summer in Seattle may be bustling, so even restaurants struggling to make ends meet might be compelled to add happy hours to their menus if they haven’t already. COVID cases in King County are currently at a high level, but the vaccination effort is accelerating, and hospitality workers are finally eligible to receive inoculations. After more than a year of economic devastation, people within the restaurant and bar industry are no doubt looking forward to a time in the future when dining rooms will be packed without ever-looming mortal anxiety, and if they need to shave a few dollars off a dish or two as an extra enticement, so be it. Though Seattle may never fully go back to the days when tuna poppers at a fancy restaurant were a margin-shifting commodity, there does seem to be room for happy hours at a smaller scale.

“I’d imagine at some places, happy hours will be like the before times to get people in the doors, but I wonder if it might be more considered. If outdoor dining is still in place, restaurants might keep people out there to be mindful of crowding; or to save money, the dishes might be more of the churn and burn variety,” says Guanco. “But I doubt there will be as much congregating post-office hours. Maybe that means more meaningful outings like a proper dinner party at someone’s house or dinner at a new place you want to try. Personally, I’d want something more substantial than happy hour.”