Explore enough happy hours in this town, and you learn that bars frequently overpromise and underdeliver. What sounds like an easy-on-the-wallet special turns out to be watered-down vodka sodas and shriveled up chicken wings. Cheap, but you get what you pay for.
When Petworth’s pizza-and-cocktails joint Little Coco’s introduced all-you-can-eat-and-drink happy hour inspired by “the Italian love of pre-dinner aperitifs and snacks” earlier this month, we were cynical. Only $23 for unlimited food, wine and cocktails between 5 and 7 p.m.? Would that price include truly bottomless drinks? How many bites would actually show up at the table, and how often? A team of bargain-hunting reporters went to get some answers. Here’s our advice.
Tip No. 1: Get there early.
Our group of three arrived at 5 p.m. on the dot. Seven people were already in front of us. Thankfully, the deal is offered throughout the restaurant, so there’s no need to worry about the “only-offered-at-the-bar” setup. However, there were groups of four and eight not far behind us. Little Coco’s has more two-top tables than booths, so if you want to sit together with friends, make sure you’re there close to the start. Also, as the menus point out, the discount ends “promptly” at 7 p.m., and you pay the full price whether you’re seated at 5:01 or 5:20. (Be warned: Once most tables are full, they don’t empty until the deal ends, so there’s no point in waiting around if you arrive to a full house.)
Tip No. 2: Plan your orders.
Let’s cut to the chase: There’s no pizza, no pasta, no meatballs as big as your head. This menu is modeled after happy hours in Italy, where a bartender might serve a slice of ham or a small bowl of olives when you order a glass of wine. As a result, this is tapas-style grazing: a couple of slices of prosciutto or mortadella on a plate, a pair of crispy fried zeppole stuffed with green onions, a bowl of crispy baked Brussels sprouts with pork cheek.
Customers can each order two dishes at a time, which sounds like an invitation to order a few items for the table to pass around. This isn't always the case: Some, such as the cured meats, are easier to share than a crostini topped with artichokes, which requires a knife, and is really only enough for two people to have a bite.
Whatever your strategy, here’s the most important advice: Order the next round of food as soon as your server delivers your plates to the table. Over the course of two hours, our food usually arrived between 14 and 22 minutes after we ordered the dishes; by the end of the night, it was closer to a half-hour. But by then, we’d had a few cocktails. We didn’t mind as much.
A friend who dined solo at a bar stool had a different experience than our group: He got his drinks refreshed quickly. Because he was limited to ordering two snacks at a time, though, he’d get a plate with three slices of mortadella or a pair of crunchy zeppole balls, and they’d have to last 20 minutes until the next round of food arrived. (Spoiler: They didn’t.)
Tip No. 3: Focus on drinks, not the food.
Not surprisingly, our drinks came out faster and lasted much longer than the appetizers. The choices are bright and cheery for a group: a textbook Aperol spritz, a fizzing French 75, a daiquiri that was slightly on the sweet side. Our favorite might have been a rich Black Old-Fashioned, punched up with Averna. These were full-size cocktails in regular glasses.
The wine options are essentially house labels: Not terrible, but not exciting. The only one we’d order again was the dry prosecco, which felt like the perfect accompaniment for a party.
A pairing of a shot of amaro and a pint of PBR might be the least Italian thing on the menu, but it turned out to be our favorite. Inside that stemmed cordial glass is Vecchio Amaro del Capo, a mild amaro with orange and clove notes. Little Coco's co-owner Gordon Banks calls it "a good intro amaro. Not overly bitter."
There were some missteps: The basil gimlet, which we’d been anticipating, was out of action because of a problem with the draft lines, and the bartenders ran out of fresh lemon and lime juices, which meant already harried servers had to come back to tables and tell customers that daiquiris and French 75s were 86′ed, at least temporarily. (Kudos to Little Coco’s for trying to keep its craft cocktail bona fides, though.) Our server softened the blow by bringing a full glass of prosecco in lieu of their requested cocktail while a tablemate decided on a replacement drink.
Tip No. 4: This a leisurely Italian happy hour. Savor it.
We clocked every food and drink order — the time it was placed and when it was delivered. We had more fun, though, when we were laughing, gossiping and telling stories instead of stressing about how much time was left to order or if we were going to get our money's worth.
Speaking of value: Before tax and tip, we paid $69 for 14 plates of food and 13 drinks. That sounds like a deal in any language.
Little Coco’s Aperitivo Time: Offered 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday. $23 per person. 3907 14th St. NW.