Watching your wallet doesn't mean subsisting on a diet of happy hour wings and frozen entrees from Trader Joe's. It's possible to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants and hot spots by taking advantage of these happy hours and special menus.
Happy hour at DBGB
Ordering wine at many happy hours gets you a goblet of an anonymous chardonnay. At DBGB, whatever you order — a sparkler from Alsace, an engaging red blend from the Rhone — is presented as a splash in the bottom of the glass, for you to sip and approve as if it was from a high-end bottle, not a selection on the $7 drink menu.
Little details like that make coming to Daniel Boulud's City Center bistro a treat, especially when happy hour is offered on weekends (3 to 6 p.m.) as well as weekdays (2:30 to 6 p.m.). Choose from Maryland-style crab cakes or a half-dozen oysters for $12, or pick a Thai sausage laced with lemon grass and red curry and served with fries for $11. If you're in a sharing mood, pick Flammkuchen, a crispy Alsatian flatbread topped with bacon, onions and a rich, decadent fromage blanc, or keep it casual with a trio of cheeses ($10), with raw cow's milk varieties from France and the Netherlands. The seating at the bar includes benches for two instead of individual stools, making this a fun date spot. 931 H St. NW.
There are many ways to indulge at Fabio and Maria Trabocchi's trio of restaurants, including lobster ravioli ($60) at Fiola Mare, or a whole grilled branzino fish ($70) at Del Mar. But amid all the luxury, there's also the daily Maria Menu, a three-course, $25 lunchtime offering that promises “Mediterranean-style health conscious selections,” with lean proteins, healthy fats and low sodium.
The Maria Menu goes out of its way to prove that “healthy” doesn't have to mean “dull”: Selections on a recent Fiola Mare menu included a silky heirloom tomato gazpacho with peaches and basil; a creamy and dreamy ricotta cavatelli pasta with pesto, summer squash and the sweet nip of meyer lemon; and for dessert, a custard-like budino with blueberry compote and a buttermilk sorbet. If you've wanted to sample Trabocchi's Michelin-starred cuisine but worried about the price tag, the Maria Menu is an invitation to sample some of Washington's finest cooking. Del Mar: 791 Wharf St. SW; Fiola: 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; Fiola Mare: 3050 K St. NW.
The bar menu at Masseria
Nicholas Stefanelli's Michelin-starred Masseria offers three prix fixe menus, from $98 for four courses to $143 for six. But if you don't want to splurge, there's an easier way to enjoy Stefanelli's Italian cuisine: Ask for a bar stool or a seat on the patio.
The bar menu doesn't include the much-raved-about tortellini or risotto, but it's a welcoming and delicious exploration of Italian small bites: veal and pork meatballs topped with a seasonal vegetarian ragout; breadcrumb-crusted salted cod fritters; a savory, spicy pickled giardiniera; the wondrously fragrant housemade focaccia. Unlike the main menu, the price doesn't say “special occasion”: 10 of the dozen items on the menu are less than $10, starting at $2 per arancini. Pick a few items to share, order a glass of wine or one of Julien-Pierre Bourgon's outstanding cocktails, and get going. 1340 Fourth St. NE.
Happy hour at O-Ku
Washington sushi lovers are always on the hunt for a new sushi-centric happy hour — who wants to wait in line at Sushi Taro again? — and O-Ku can be worth the trip to Union Market. Happy hour is limited to Monday and Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. But if you can make it during those hours, you'll find that all 10 of the Makimono rolls, regularly $9 to $17, are half price, and selected cocktails are $10.
Just as welcome: The specials are extended anywhere in the handsome building, including the two bars, the upstairs lounge or the rooftop deck. The soft-shell crab roll, with crunchy fried crab and cool avocado, is a winner, as is the Spicy Tuna, where bigeye tuna meets citrus-herbal shiso leaf and spicy mentaiko aioli. For a palate cleanser, my bartender recommended the Wasabi roll, which is marinated wasabi stem, fresh wasabi, and shiso wrapped with cucumber and rice dusted with black wasabi salt. It's sushi for true heat-seekers. 1274 Fifth St. NE.