Not-So-Happy Hour 

Swerving all over the nation, the anti-DUI crowd has mowed down cheap post-work drinks and buffets.

It may be the era of the treat (see Food review), but in some circles the treats are quickly getting scarcer and scarcer. Twenty years ago, happy hour was a late-afternoon institution at bars and restaurants all over the East Bay, where cut-price drinks went down easier with free all-you-can-eat snack buffets. Generations of students took advantage, as soon as they turned 21, of these make-your-own-taco spreads, bottomless bins of cocktail meatballs, and buck-fifty margaritas. And talk about cheap dates.

You don't know what you've got till it's gone.

Look for East Bay happy hours these days and you'll end up pretty dry. It's not just the economy, stupid, though that's part of it. The other part is that happy hours, despite their cheery name, are slowly but surely becoming illegal. Backed forthrightly by Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- on the premise that low prices encourage impulsive, why-the-hell-not drinking among many who would otherwise just drive past the local bar and go home -- anti-happy-hour legislation has already been passed in 22 states. Under these laws, retail establishments cannot offer two drinks for the price of one, cannot change the price of drinks within a given day, cannot offer unlimited drinks for a given price, or other similar promotions, without risk of having their licenses yanked. Similar laws were passed in Ireland last year in hopes of suppressing violence outside pubs. Scotland is considering this strategy as well.

California doesn't have an anti-happy-hour law -- yet -- but industry insiders feel it's just a matter of time. So those free spreads and stuff to wash them down with have mainly gone the way of the mastodon. Rare exceptions are Francesco's (8520 Pardee Dr., Oakland, 510-569-0653), which sets out free snacks from 5 to 7 p.m., and H's Lordship's (199 Seawall Dr., Berkeley, 510-843-2733), which does it from 4:30 to 6:30.

Other places offer drink and appetizer discounts -- Spenger's and the White Horse, for instance, and Giovanni's (2420 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-843-6678), which matches $2.50 beers and well drinks with a range of $3.95 antipasti and pastas. Pyramid Alehouse (901 Gilman St., Berkeley, 510-528-9880; 1410 Locust Ave., Walnut Creek, 925-946-1520) serves a great-deal "brewer's rack" -- a tray of five different five-ounce samplers, $3.50 for the whole array -- on weekdays from 3:30 to 6:30, and a selection of discounted savories such as mountainous multicolored nachos ($6.50) and meaty bruschetta ($4.30). But Pyramid knows better than to call this interlude by the H-word. It's called Beer:30. Seriously.


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