"DO YOU mind if I ask you something?" the young man asked two burnettes on barstools in The Foundry one Georgedtown Friday night.
"It depends," one smiled.
The young man pointed over their drinks. "Can I taste one of the chicken wings?"
Happy Hour: After-hours, when the city unwinds, critiques the day, avoids the rush home. The time for a half-price beer and a head start on dinner. A time when the bartenders are happy, the bar owners happier, the singles of Washington working hard at being happy.
The snacks are simple -- tacos, egg rolls, meatballs -- and complimentary. Not necessarily delicious, they're more dependable at rush hour than Metro; the food may not be great, but it's there.
"It the food is something you have to have if you want to be competitive," said Betsy Osborne, day manager at Rumors.
Competition spurs variety -- Thursdays crab balls, Fridays sausage, one dish hot and two cold, and always the ubiquitous veggies and dip or cheese and crackers.
But the arena is quantity and variety rather than quality. "Restaurants can't afford to put out anything that's decent," said Steve Graul, co-owner of Restaurant Service Systems Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in bar management. "They'd have flocks of people coming there to eat dinner."
Although the idea is to offer something that patrons can munch on but not make a meal of, not everybody gets the idea. Restaurateurs say they see people refilling their plates a half dozen times.
Happy hour expenses are part of a restaurant's promotional account, so the food may be purchased just for that occasion and have nothing to do with the regular menu. But sometimes lunch leftovers are obvious: One day, a downtown restaurant featured cheddar cheese soup as a lunch special, then cheddar cheese dip as the happy hour fare. Big sandwiches at lunch may become little sandwiches at happy hour, vegetables not used to garnish lunch platters may translate into dippers on hors d'oeuvres platters.
Some spots replenish the food as it goes; others put out one spread and watch it disappear. (Caution: Bring your own toothpicks and paper plates -- some places force you to use your fingers, come meatballs or cheeseballs). In either case, the height of the happy hour spread is generally between 5:30 and 6:30. On Monday or Tuesday, potato puffs may be your only companions, Wednesdays through Fridays you might have to fight the crowd for them.
Georgetown is not as popular during happy hour as after-dinner hour, probably because few office buildings are located there. Capitol Hill has its partisan hangouts, the waterfront its three-letter regulars (FBI, DOT, HUD, FAA). And downtown everyone is a lawyer, at least for an hour or two. The flocking instinct holds firm. Thursday night at Barley Mow is a regular gathering time for the Tip-Toppers, an organization of tall folks.
As for happy hour drink prices, every establishment has its own rules. At Place Vendome, the two-for-one drink policy applies only in the bar area, not in the adjacent dining room. Flaps' two-for-one drinks include draft beer, wine and mixed drinks that use only rail liquors (the house-brand) made without fruit juices. Each person must get two, and the bartender is likely to pour them both at once. This is different from half-price deals, which are different from ladies' nights, which are different from dollar drinks. And happy hours are no bargains for non-drinkers. Club soda or Coke may cost $1; so may the beer.
But this survey was concerned with food -- more specifically, complimentary hors d'oeuvres at happy hour in D.C. bars. As there is nothing so changeable as a happy hour policy, keep in mind that this is a survey of the weeks that were, rather than the weeks that will be.
MOST SAVOIR FARE
Knickerbocker's Grill (539 8th St. SE. 546-7766. 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays). This is one place where complimentary appetizers are better than the dinners. Saute'ed chicken livers are tasty enough to convert the wary, spinach stuffed in light pastry an equal match for those who leave greens untouched. A talented piano player and comfortable step-up seating are good accompaniments.
Montpelier Lounge, Madison Hotel (15th and M streets NW. 862-1600. 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays). The quiche slivers with good-quality ham, creamy cheese and crusty browned top make you want more than a piece of the pie.
Bronco Billy's (1823 L St. NW. 887-5141. 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. weekdays). At this country-western-cum-underground-office-building-bar are some top-notch happy-hour pickin's. The kitchen knows what to do with chopped pork, making a well-seasoned barbecue. The meatballs are pretty fine too. You can two-step it all off when the live entertainment starts at 9 o'clock.
HOTTEST HOT SAUCE
Annie Oakley's (3204 M St. NW. 333-6767. 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, noon until 8 p.m. weekends). Worth stopping for a quick fix of Texas-style hot sauce and chips. But the disco beats and blond wood dance floor are not about to give Gilley's a run for its money.
WEAKEST HOT SAUCE
Baker Brown's (2524 L St. NW. 333-4550. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). You've had ketchup that was stronger. A better place for carousing or talking about football than eating.
LONGEST TACO LINE
Beefsteak Charlie's (1511 K St. NW. 659-8170. 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). Bring a cherry picker to lower yourself into place. Remember to add lots of tomatoes, cheese, onion and hot sauce to drown out poor-quality ground beef. STALEST TACO SHELLS
They all creak and fall flat.
BEST CHICKEN WINGS
The Foundry (1030 30th St. NW. 337-1500. 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday). Piles of spicy Buffalo-style chicken wings (red-hot in color as well) with a chaser of blue cheese and celery sticks. Also generous crocks of bean dip.
Flaps Rickenbacker's (1207 19th St. NW. 223-3617. 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays). Fried chicken and meatballs soaked in tomato sauce are considered finger food, so bring your own finger bowl.
American Cafe (227 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 547-8500. 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). A pretty bar, although pretty quiet at 5 p.m. A wholesome spot for unwinding with fresh veggies, creamy dip and fresh orange, carrot or apple juice mixed with something not-quite-as-nutritious.
Hawk 'n Dove (329 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 543-3300. 5 p.m. 'till whenever, weekdays) Fatty sausages with melted cheese are not the kind of food you'd want to overindulge in while drinking. But not everyone thinks so; full trays at 5 o'clock one night, empty ones at 5:30.
MOST INVISIBLE SPREAD
Yolanda's Al Campidoglio (223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-6603). Spiced shrimp, oysters and clams for 25 cents each was the promise on the phone. It was news to the bartender.
Duddington's (319 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-3500). The phone response, when asked if the establishment had happy hour food: "Yes we have TV and a jukebox."
Third Edition (1218 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-3700). The maitre d' at the door didn't know whether they had happy hour hors d'oeuvres. They don't.
Wheeler's (2512 L St. NW. 965-3333. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.). Complimentary fried conch promised on the phone sounded wonderful; upon arrival, the bartender thought so, too. It's just that the restaurant never serves it. BEST BRAND NAME
Rumors (1900 M St. NW. 466-7378. 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays). The bartender here coined it: "Prefabricated Shrimp." The clams had a similar trademark.
MOST INSCRUTABLE COMBINATION
Trudie's Ball Empress (1018 Vermont Ave. NW. 737-2324. 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays). Where else could you dunk your southern fried chicken in duck sauce?
Casa Maria (7th Street and Maine Ave. SW. 554-5302. time). This is a real happy-hour party, where you can easily fulfill your dinner requirements -- that is, if you can drink from tureen-sized margarita glasses, hold your coat, deal with social overtures and feed yourself burritos at the same time. Chips for hot sauce are as crunchy as they get. WORST EGG ROLLS
The Down Under (1001 Connecticut Ave. NW. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). You won't admit you ate these willingly.
MOST GENEROUS SPREAD
The Greenery (1716 H St. NW. 965-6111. 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays). To begin, the fruit: watermelon, canned pineapple chunks, strawberries, orange slices. The vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms. To continue: chips, pretzel sticks. The dips: russian dressing, sour cream, mustard, guacamole. The finger sandwiches: ham and cheese on rye.
Rive Gauche (1310 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-6440. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays) Sausages wrapped in pastry look prettier on silver platters and doilies than in unwarmed aluminum chafing dishes used elsewhere. EASIEST PICK-UPS
Richard's Pier 20 (1120 20th St. NW. 775-8821. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). An easy place to eat and run; as you leave, grab a shrimp fritter from the platter near the door.
Artie's Bar and Grill (1120 20th St. NW. 296-7666. 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). Crispy dark brown remnants are well-done remains of chicken wings past.
MOST FED UP
Taverna the Greek Islands (307 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 547-8360. 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays) They used to serve Middle Eastern appetizers, but according to the bartender, patrons piled their plates high, ate for two hours and drank one beer. Now it's back to greasy sausage and mealy cheese.
Fiddler's (4340 Connecticut Ave. NW. 244-0881. 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). With such an excellent salad bar here, the cocktail bar could borrow a fresh pepper or two. MOSTLY THE SAME
Pierce St. Annex, 1210 19th St. NW. 466-4040. 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. weekdays.
Runyons, 1160 20th St. NW. 659-3427. 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.
Flagship, 900 Water St. SW. 488-8515. 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.
MOST FAVORITE LINE
Q: Do you have a happy hour? Restaurant: We're always happy.
BEST UN-HAPPY HOUR
The Tune Inn (331 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 543-2725). No happy hour and no free food, but more crowded than its Pennsylvania Avenue happy hour neighbors. Great jukebox and coat hangers. Everybody orders a cheeseburger.
MOST LIKELY TO BE SUCCEEDED
Sign of the Whale (1825 M St. NW. 223-4152. 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays). Here is where the downtown sociables are this year, feeding on the crowd more than on the egg rolls and fresh veggies. The real treat is the bartender. Beware of lawyers who claim to be shoe salemen.
Maxine's (2519 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 659-8220. 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). Cozy living room atmosphere, complete with fireplace. Their basic veggies and dip are all you need.
BEST ATTITUDE ADJUSTER
Charley's Crab (1101 Connecticut Ave. NW. 785-4505. 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). This is where you're bound to leave more well-adjusted than you came. The piano player encourages frustrated performers in the crowd. In addition to free vegetables, splurge for the finger food -- particularly the smelts or squid.
Le Jardin (1113 23rd St. NW. 457-0057. 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). The staff here seem as if they need a happy hour themselves, being uneager to provide extra seats at the bar, answer questions about drink prices or distribute the potato skins, vegetables and onion dip. Intended as more a place to eat dinner than a spot to strike up a talk at the bar, it won't save you from a rainy Monday.
HARDEST-TRYING HAPPY HOUR
McGuire's (1330 Pennsylvania Ave. 544-5411. 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays). Phone conversation: Q: "Do you serve complimentary hors d'oeuvres during happy hour?" A: "We used to, but not anymore. But wait, we could get you some shrimp." R: No, that's okay. A: Are you sure? The cook could fix you some.
Beowulf (1112 20th St. NW. 296-4111. 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays). The platters of sweet and sour chicken and liver pate' on crackers come to you, rather than you to them. Here its via silver platters and kindly waitresses.
Hogate's (9th Street and Maine Avenue SW. 484-6300. 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). The most restful of the on-the-waterfront line-up, with cushy swivel chairs, front-row river view, slit-skirted waitresses and piped-in light rock. Shrimp, oysters and clams for 25 cents each were serviceable. Complimentary bean and cheese dip was addictive although tinny-tasting, taco fixings better than average.
Barley Mow (700 Water St. SW. 554-7320. 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays). The next-door neighbor of Casa Maria and very different, where "the bumpy stuff doesn't go on," as one regular put it. Renovated antique decor. Booths allow private chatter. Food is basic fruit and cheese.
It's hard to be happy long enough to check out all of Washington. Complimentary hors d'oeuvres have also been sighted at: Fairfax Hotel Bar (21st Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. 293-2100. 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays), Cagney's (1 Dupont Circle NW. 659-8820. 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays), Meeting Place (1100 17th St. NW. 293-7755. 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays). Abbey Road (2000 L St. NW. 293-2060. 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday), Samantha's (1823 L St. NW. 223-1823. 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday), RSVP (401 M St. SW. 484-8900. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays), The Royal Warrant (4201 Connecticut Ave. NW. 244-3200. 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays), Black Rooster Pub (1919 L St. NW. 659-4431. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays), Charlie's Georgetown (3223 K St. NW. 298-5985. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays), and more