A foodie searches for the perfect happy hour

It is a truth universally acknowledged that happy hour in the nation’s capital is a perfect chance to network. But for every aide, lobbyist or lawmaker who celebrates the day’s end with a low-priced libation, a pressing dilemma often arises: Does one dare order food?

Most of Washington’s bar menus rely on overpriced old standards, dishing out cheese fries and nachos that often taste indistinguishable from one another. As a result, drinks after work can strike a professional, social or even therapeutic tone — but it is a rare happy hour that makes foodies happy.

So as a public service to ravenous revelers on the Hill, I embarked on a whirlwind tour of the best spots for cheap eats to pair with a drink. I ruled out the handful of well-known deals that have long drawn a crowd, such as McCormick & Schmick’s excellent hummus and mussels for under $4 and Top of the Hill’s 10-cent buffalo wings. The goal: to uncover a sleeper hit.

I began at Il Mulino (1110 Vermont Ave. NW), the venerable New York City Italian restaurant that opened a branch just off K Street five months ago. The dining room is a perfect fit for the lobbying industry’s power-lunchers, swathed in dark wood and low lighting with silver serving trays on the sidelines.
Over at the bar, though, TVs showing sports highlights and a gregarious bartender hold more promise for happy hour, when Il Mulino gives each drinker a free plate of the day’s special house-made pasta. Anticipating a perfect pesto, I chose a glass of crisp and lovely Lunetta Prosecco, redolent with citrus.

After less than 10 seconds of relaxing while waiting for the free food, I discovered that at 6 p.m. on a cool Thursday, prime time for a packed happy hour, I was one of only five people in the place.

Noticing my dismay at the library-like atmosphere, the bartender kept up a lively patter and offered me a free glass of fruit-infused grappa, the potent Italian liquor distilled from leftover grapes and stems after winemaking is complete. No sooner did he pour than the free pasta arrived, a smallish portion of tortellini coated in cream sauce that resembled a cheap satin prom dress.

My face fell. “I do not like cream sauce either,” the bartender said sympathetically.

The tortellini was slightly less cloying that it looked, revealing a sharp burst of parmesan cheese inside and a few welcome sweet peas dispersed throughout. After a few strong drinks, the heavy pasta might have been welcome sustenance, but the empty bar and too-formal ambiance sent me running after a single glass.

I ran straight to Helix Lounge (1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW) and sighed with relief. Tucked in the outdoor patio of the mod-themed boutique hotel of the same name, the Helix offers cozy couches beneath twinkling pearl lights, and half-priced burgers and drinks every weekday from 5 to 7 p.m.

I picked the Pajama Party cocktail, raspberry vodka blended with lime juice and champagne, which was mixed so unevenly that all I could taste was artificial fruitiness. My companions soon arrived and chose more wisely, ordering cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and glasses of the superior microbrew Magic Hat No. 9.

Our cheap cheeseburger took a long time to emerge from the kitchen, but watching the servers struggle in skintight outfits straight out of an Austin Powers movie, we empathized. The burgers are juicy and well-spiced, with an ample serving of skinny fries, although anyone expecting a pink patty will have to make do with well-done.

While the weather stays warm, Helix is a slice of happy-hour heaven. For those who don’t mind paying full price, the chicken spring rolls and roasted corn quesadilla also make the grade. Just remember to keep an eye on the clock, because it’s easy to order that second Sam Adams before realizing that full prices are back in effect.

The talent search culminated at The Red and the Black (1212 H St. NE), a New Orleans-themed spot that anchors the bustling — and still gentrifying — “Atlas District” about a mile from Union Station. Bedecked in antique wallpaper and weathered artifacts, the funky spot resembles a cross between an old-school bordello and a new-school rock club.

Whichever personality you prefer, the vibe is perfect for happy hour. I settled in eagerly anticipating The Red and the Black’s protein-packed red beans and rice, which come free with any two-drink purchase. Buried in the fine print, however, were two caveats: The offer is only good on Mondays, and only while supplies last.

My companions and I pressed on, requesting the dirt-cheap and reputedly delicious Cajun-spiced pecans and peanuts. The nuts were out of stock as well, sending us ruefully to the jambalaya, the traditional Creole mélange of chicken and shrimp punched up by heaps of cayenne.

At $7 a plate, the stew proved the night’s biggest bargain buy. Served over white rice with a generous chunk of French bread, the jambalaya delivered a smoky tang that overcame the slightly syrupy texture. The chicken was surprisingly fresh for having simmered on burners at the back of the bar, and the friendly demeanor of the tattooed bartender/waitress/ owner more than made up for our lost rice and beans.

Our happy-hour quest ended with a solid two successes out of three, though it remains to be seen whether the Helix or The Red and the Black can lure hungry co-workers away from their haunts of choice on the Hill. For those still in search of the perfect food-and-drink combo, here are a few more spots to check out after work:

Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, 901 F St. NW: $3.50 glasses of sangria, $1 off American draft beers and seven-inch pizzas for $5, all from 4-7 p.m.

Toledo Lounge, 2435 18th St. NW: $3 grilled cheese sandwiches, $2 draft beers from 6-8 p.m.

Mate, 3101 K St. NW: half-price sushi rolls and $6 cocktails from 5-7 p.m.