I’m pretty sure I encountered my first happy hour on a family vacation with my mother and sister.  We stopped at a hotel to get some rest before the next day’s epic drive, and the bar just off the hotel lobby advertised drink specials and a free buffet.  Just off an all-day fast food bender, we jumped at the opportunity.

You know the drill.  Meatballs, chicken wings, and pigs in a blanket, all sitting in crusty chafing dishes and amped up with so much salt that a second beer was mandatory (well, not for me, not at age 7, not with my mother).  I thought I’d hit pay-dirt sitting in a tufted leather booth with a plate of salty snacks.  I ordered a Roy Rogers with extra maraschino cherries and probably wished for a pack of candy cigarettes.

Years later in college, I lived by the free happy hour buffet. My favorite was a taco bar set up on Tuesdays at a local wing joint. The same chafing dish now held a sea of ground beef saturated with a bright orange oil.  Flour tortillas, some wilted iceberg lettuce, and diced tomatoes that tasted of cotton completed the spread. I realize the food was absolute garbage, but times were tight in college and the student union wouldn’t serve me beer.  Let the others eat reconstituted ramen!  I’ll binge at the taco bar.

These days it seems that gratis offerings for post-work crowds have fallen by the wayside.  A hotel bar near my office puts out a small blue glass of crackers, pretzels, and wasabi peas, a snack mix that’s barely passable. This week in Alexandria, I was offered a basket of communal popcorn tainted by the hands of several other barflies.  Recently at a bar in Philadelphia, I encountered small dishes of olives and nuts strewn about the lounge.  I’d almost felt pampered until I bit into an olive pit some bastard had discarded amongst the cashews.

We all know you get what you pay for, so I’m left to ponder: Is the best bar food free?  And if so where does one go to get it?  I haven’t had a pleasant experience in more than a decade.

Photo by nathanmac87, via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribute License