WHEN I WAS in my 20s, I never cooked dinner. Instead, I'd go out after work with my pals and graze at various bars, slurping up half-priced drinks and munching on questionable happy-hour buffets.
The food, which was usually brown in color, consisted mostly of UFOs - unidentified fried objects - that may or may not have been poppers, chicken fingers, fried zucchini and the like. The occasional cheesy nacho was an exotic and welcome option.
I cook now, and there's no way I'm eating that stuff.
Yet I still like to throw back a discounted drink now and then, and we all know that drinking on an empty stomach is bad for your health. Fortunately, the bar is up, way up, on the caliber of snacks offered at many local eateries during happy hour.
Restaurateurs get that the better the eats, the longer a customer is likely to stay on that barstool, so the temptation to linger makes dollars and sense for everybody.
Here's a look at just a handful of favorite spots for nicely priced snacks - the list goes on and on. Play your cards right, and you may never have to cook again.
At the bar at Twenty Manning, chef Kiong Banh offers $6 mod Asian apps at not one, but two happy hours, from 5-7 p.m. seven days a week and 10 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday. This is real food - yummy bites like spicy calamari with fried hots and romaine lettuce and crispy shrimp wrapped in phyllo and served with a green papaya salad.
The $1.25 oysters on the half shell are waiting for you at Seafood Unlimited, where the $5 and $6 cheap eats menu lasts from 5 p.m. until closing and is served not just at the bar but also at the tables outside. Get a tasty spring mix salad with goat cheese for $5, or try the excellent Buffalo fried shrimp (you get six!) for $6.
Hobnob with the in crowd downstairs at Le Bec-Fin's Le Bar Lyonnais, the intimate lounge scene that serves free - that's right, free - passed hors d'ouvres weeknights after work, along with beautifully presented $5 small plates of mixed olives, imported cheeses and pommes frites.
Leave it to Georges Perrier to dream up a rillette du jour for $5. (That's pate to you and me.)
Watch your pennies al fresco at the Terrace at Thirteen, where weeknights chef Judson Branch cooks up tasty morsels like jerk chicken skewers, pork sliders and beef empanadas for $2.50. Better yet, head there Thursdays for a Before-the-Beach happy hour party with live tunes.
McCormick & Schmick's may be one of the city's best-kept happy-hour secrets. From 3:30-6 p.m. and 9:30 -11 p.m. Monday through Friday, there's an amazing $1.95-$4.95 menu that delivers bellyfillers like a half-pound cheeseburger with fries, a blackened chicken quesadilla and a Philly cheesesteak with fries.
A South Philly seafood institution since 1912, Snockey's has a weekday "clammy hour" from 4-6 p.m. (also 2-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday) that's a steal. Pay just 50 cents for raw or steamed clams, 75 cents for raw or fried oysters, and $3.99 for a Clam Mary (a Bloody Mary garnished with three littlenecks).
At Positano Coast, happy-hour munchies run $2-$5, including a menu of small plates like short rib-stuffed long hot peppers, Italian sausage sliders and grilled lamb chops. The restaurant boasts a sleek modern lounge and floor-to-ceiling photomurals offering dizzying views of Italy's Positano coastline.
Upstairs at the sexy Tank Bar at Friday Saturday Sunday, after-work nibbles are all under $5, including marinated olives, artichoke truffles, a hummus platter, wasabi deviled eggs and smoked salmon, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Get down for a soulful hang at Ms. Tootsie's RBL at the weekly Finally Friday party after work. Besides drink specials, comfort food like chicken wings, cheesy mac 'n' cheese and crispy catfish fingers are just five bucks.
Ly Michael's, which has if not the only, definitely the best, bar in Chinatown, puts out "tapa-tizers" seven days a week from 4:30-6:30 p.m., and again from 10 p.m.-midnight. Everything is $2.80 - what a bargain - and we're talking chicken satay, duck dumplings, potstickers and fried calamari.
At Ansill just off South Street, the eats are discounted from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Highlights are $1 oysters, a $5 cheese plate and a $5 sandwich of the night. Then there's the Korean Taco, a trendy Asian-Latin mix of tangy short ribs and braised pork belly seasoned with fiery chili sauce delivered in a flour tortilla for $5.
Chef Jonathan "Johnny Mac" McDonald presides over creative goings on at The Pub and Kitchen, a gastro pub at 19th and Lombard. Grab a seat at the bar and order a host of $3 bar snacks that aren't a bit ho-hum, from duck liver toast to white anchovies and hot peppers and homemade Old Bay potato crisps. You can also slurp oysters for $1.
Hungry in the 'burbs? No problem.
Head to Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor, the only place you'll be able to taste her refined Asian cuisine after her Walnut Street restaurant closes this Saturday.
Indulge in any of her handcrafted dumplings (pork, curry chicken, shrimp edamame) for half price - we're talking $3 and $4 for a regular-sized portion. It's half off on the sushi rolls too, including California roll and spicy salmon maki for just $3.
In King of Prussia at T. Burke's in the Dolce Hotel, happy-hour specials include a different beverage flight every night paired with like-minded bites for $5-$8. Options include crawfish and four tastes of bourbon (Mondays), a sampling of beers and sliders (Thursdays) and a flight of four vodkas with oysters on the half shell to kick off the weekend.
To the north in Fort Washington, Alison Barshak's second spot, Alison Two, delivers half off the entire bar menu during the Happy Hour and a Half promo, from 5-6:30 p.m. weekdays. Instead of spending $9 on a tuna slider with ginger aioli and cucumber salad, it's $4.50. And at $6.50, two crispy crawfish cakes with fried green tomatoes and andouille is a real bargain. *