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25-Cent Oysters, ‘30K Millionaires,’ and the Golden Age of Seattle Happy Hours

Remembering the luxury-on-the-cheap days when eating well didn’t come with a hefty price tag

Lille Allen

Bartenders rarely counted exact change during Flying Fish’s happy hour in the early 2000s. They simply listened to the clink of quarters hitting the ice bucket on the bar top. “Oh, yeah, that sounded like four,” Tyler Smith remembers thinking. “Nobody really cared.” Now the executive chef of All Water Seafood & Oyster Bar in Hotel 1000, Smith worked at Christine Keff’s renowned Belltown seafood spot in 2002, shucking for the 25-cent oyster happy hour that ran on weekday afternoons.

Diners came primed to gobble down bivalves — Smith shucked tens of dozens each night, until cuts crisscrossed his hands. On his days off, he would come and sit on the other side of the bar, downing the oysters he knew his boss took a loss on. It didn’t matter: The deal was designed to draw crowds during the slow pre-dinner hour, recoup some cash by selling drinks, and earn the servers some tips before the bigger-spending dinner seating.

All over town, similar recession-fueled deals lured in off-hours crowds. If the grunge era of the early ’90s was Seattle’s hard-partying adolescence, the first decade of the new millennium was its early adulthood, when the city traded in guitars and flannels for $3 martinis and half-price tapas.

From 2000 to 2010, Seattle’s happy hour heyday gave chefs the chance to take culinary risks, diners the opportunity to try new places, and lower-wage workers entry to spaces they couldn’t normally afford. For the cooks in those same kitchens, happy hour offered a way to find inspiration from peers, understand the views of their customers, and create community within the industry. The rising minimum wage and changes in dining culture slowed down the bargain-basement level happy hours, then the pandemic and tight labor market drove the final nails into the coffin. Today, true happy hour deals on food are few and far between: The city’s most ambitious restaurants no longer sell $1 sliders alongside $40 entrees. But the lasting effects stick around like the hangover from too many $14 happy hour bottles of wine at Barolo.

At the turn of the millennium, Seattle rode the high of a tech boom, flush with money from newly minted next-big-thing entrepreneurs with nowhere better to spend it than the city’s best restaurants. “It was like, ‘Can you hang up my skateboard while I drop hundreds and hundreds of dollars on bottles of wine?’” remembers Tamara Murphy, now the owner of Terra Plata. Brasa, her 170-seat tapas temple on Third Avenue, opened early in 1999, when corporate accounts and formal dinner times still brought strict dinner hours starting at 7 p.m.

Later that year, violent police reaction to protests against the World Trade Organization essentially closed off downtown for five days of the post-Thanksgiving week, the heart of most restaurants’ busiest season. While that was temporary and local, the dot-com crash a year later emptied the pockets of those start-up scions, evaporating their budgets for bottomless bottles of Veuve Clicquot. And by the end of 2001, there was another reason diners were staying home. “After 9/11, we had a hard time getting people out,” Murphy remembers. “People hunkered down at home. They did not want to go downtown.”

But Brasa was huge, and Murphy had a lease to pay. “Happy hour was about survival,” she says. Previously, the discounts generally applied to drinks, but, desperate for diners and saddled with a big empty bar, Murphy started charging half-price for food on the bar menu from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Brendan McGill, now chef and owner of Hitchcock Restaurant Group, showed off to his visiting dad by taking him to Brasa’s happy hour. “It was such a grand room, and then you could just sit down and order a bunch of food.” Though McGill made less than $10 an hour working the door at Queen City Grill, Brasa’s arched iron doors opened to him with duck and shellfish paella for $7 or $5 Catalan fish stew. You’re not ordering the $28 Muscovy duck breast dish, he says, “but you’re participating.”

Nearby was Kerry Sear’s groundbreaking Cascadia, which Nancy Leson described in the Seattle Times as an “audacious act of elegance and experimentation built with big money and even bigger ideas.” The seven-course Food From Here menu featured Dungeness crab ravioli in ice wine emulsion and Oregon black truffles for $80. But it was the gourmet hangar steak sliders that would “set your heart aflutter,” Leson wrote: They were just $1 each at happy hour, often washed down with the alpine martini (Absolut Citron with Douglas fir sorbet) for $4.50.

Yet nothing captured Seattle’s culture of super-steep discounts and early-millennium food culture quite like oyster happy hour. The Brooklyn served a half-dozen oysters for $4.99 and Shuckers sold them for 50 cents each, as did Elliott’s Oyster House — so long as you got there at 3 p.m., as they grew more expensive with every passing hour.

The 25-cent oyster at Flying Fish in 2000, adjusted for inflation, is about 44 cents today. For budding cooks like McGill, those absurdly small sums bought more than bivalves. He introduced himself to Keff as she grilled on the patio during happy hour one day. “She was getting James Beard attention at that time,” he says. “Then I sat down and ate two dozen oysters with a date, and I just felt like anything is possible because, it’s like, ‘Here I am, having access to all this stuff.’”

He and his friends called themselves the “$30k millionaires,” in reference to their salaries and lifestyles. Frequently after shifts at Queen City Grill, he went next door for “power hour” martinis and Caesar salads at El Gaucho. “The doorman knew us and would ask if we needed a ride somewhere, because they had a town car that they would just take their regulars to the next place they were going.” The service of industry veterans like Michael Rico (until recently at 84 Yesler) left an impression: how they take your hat, how they have your coat waiting when you stand up, or simply how they always remember your name. These habits taught industry workers how to level up their own hospitality skills. “You would get to see the way the big boys did it,” McGill says. “You’re just like, ‘Wow, all this for a kid from Alaska,’ That was the lesson.”

Now McGill puts that into practice in his own restaurants: If he sees someone looking unsure if they should be there, he says, “I just try to swarm them with that kind of genuine, attentive warmth, because of those experiences that I got.” He wants to telegraph to anyone that they belong, they get to be there, “and nobody will look down their nose at you if you don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu.”

For cooks who usually spent their time in windowless kitchens, this ability to go out to other restaurants made a difference. Eric Banh opened Monsoon with his sister Sophie in 1999, with just one beer on the menu and no bar, because he thought that cocktails didn’t go with food. But after they finished work, his sister would go home to her kids, and he went to the only classroom where he could afford tuition: Brasa’s happy hour. “Those guys were so pro, they knew what they were doing,” he says. Twice a week, he just sat there and watched, going from knowing nothing about bartending to including a bar with a strong happy hour when they opened their second restaurant, Monsoon East, in 2008. Shortly after, they added a bar at the original location, too.

These happy hours were especially important in the pre-smartphone era when the internet wasn’t yet omnipresent, because they allowed cooks to experience new flavors, dishes, and techniques without the help of Instagram. “In order for a young cook to get any kind of exposure to new ideas and ingredients and things like that, you had to go out and eat. Your inspiration wasn’t being held in your hand,” says Jason Stoneburner, who now has an eponymous Ballard restaurant. When he was chef de cuisine at Ethan Stowell’s Union, which opened in 2003, he brought in pre-dinner crowds for half-price chicken liver pate or rabbit Bolognese. Popular industry-haunt happy hours also served as pre-Twitter gossip gathering points and pre-Poached places to look for work or employees. Craigslist existed, but the best job prospects materialized over late-night amaro at Il Bistro or Monday happy hour at Zig Zag Café.

The next generation of line cooks don’t need late-night happy hours to find work, and they may not be out until dawn, either. “I’m not really seeing that same kind of interest that I had when I was younger, of going out late,” Stoneburner says of the crew of 20-somethings he works with. Banh sees the same trend on balance sheets: Ba Bar once stayed open until 4 a.m. Now it closes at midnight, but usually dies down by 11 p.m.

“The camaraderie is not what it once was,” Smith says. Like Seattle’s happy hour scene in general, he notes that the pandemic accelerated its demise, but the changes were already underway.

“The casualness shifted in dining,” Stoneburner explains. The bar, once considered a wholly different space from the dining room, often with an abbreviated menu, grew more similar to the restaurant as some of the formality faded from even higher-end places. Downtown was no longer a destination, and modest neighborhood spots forwent little luxuries like crumbing the tables. Smaller restaurants had fewer seats in need of butts. Crowds clamored for stools at 6 p.m., ready to pay full price if it meant sitting in front of Jason Stratton at Spinasse or even at 3 p.m. to secure a spot near the front of the line at the Walrus and the Carpenter. The white tablecloths came off and more entrees were ordered in the bar, because how different was it, really, anyway?

Different enough to make Murphy a bit nostalgic for the old happy hour days. “It would be awesome to be able to do that kind of thing again,” she says. The price of dining is once again exclusive, and it’s led her to muse about adding an aperitivo hour at Terra Plata. Banh plans to have at least a dozen items on Ba Bar’s happy hour menu under $8 in the near future, saying, “I hope it will come back.” Time may be on their side as the economy once again teeters on the edge of recession and customers pull back on their spending.

Today, Smith offers an oyster happy hour at All Water: $27 a dozen. Even at more than five times the inflation-adjusted cost of the ones he shucked at Flying Fish, he still takes a loss. Happy hours at restaurants around the city look more like what they always did elsewhere: little incentives to lure diners into shoulder times — dollar-off draft beers or small discounts on appetizers.

A few gems persist, like Kin Len’s $6 cocktails and Thai appetizers, Flint Creek Cattle Co.’s $10 butcher burger and $8 cocktails, and Mamma Melina’s half-price bar menu. But the battle to the bottom on oyster prices is long gone: Wallingford’s Kokkaku is about the only place still selling them under $2 these days.

The nightly bivalve bacchanals of yore have followed in the footsteps of other Seattle icons like Denny Hill, the Sonics, or the viaduct. While taking a margin hit on oysters to bring in customers once helped keep servers busy and tipped, today’s restaurateurs have inverse issues, struggling to find staff and avoid burning out their best workers. Any time a restaurant can’t fill chairs (or shifts) is a time that a restaurant closes.

But difficult circumstances spur innovation. After all, the pressures of the pandemic produced a new class of pop-up entrepreneurs and mini-businesses. For every seemingly impossible situation, Seattle’s restaurant industry will find a creative solution.

Murphy didn’t have a dollar to her name when she opened Brasa, operating solely on confidence in the restaurant. No matter how many people packed into the bar and even spilled into the dining room, Murphy says, happy hour crowds failed to bring Brasa into the black. But restaurants are a cash-flow business, and it kept cash flowing in the short term. “A lot of really good things came out of Brasa,” she says. “It was so positive and so successful in so many ways, just not financially.” By the time it closed in 2010, Murphy says she couldn’t even give the restaurant away. Still, even knowing how it ended, she would do it again.