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Oysters, tacos, sushi - at many happy hours, cheap drinks are just the beginning

Happy hour is about way more than dollar drafts. Now, $20, or even $10, buys a full meal at some of the city's hottest restaurants.

Double Knot offers a variety of affordable small plates during its happy hour.
Double Knot offers a variety of affordable small plates during its happy hour.Read moreGENEVA HEFFERNAN

Feast on fried rice, dumplings, a spicy tuna roll, and two glasses of wine. Chase fries and a dozen oysters with a beer. Treat yourself and a friend to a plate of tacos with a round of margaritas.

For $20 or less, all over Philadelphia, the world can be yours — as long as you get there before 7 p.m. and you don't mind a crowd.

As the city's food scene booms, many bars and restaurants have expanded far beyond discounted drafts for happy hour, offering impressive food deals to get you in the door. We're not talking chips and dip, or appetizers for a dollar off. At some of the city's most popular post-work destinations, anyone willing to eat early can easily cobble together a complete meal at a deep discount.

At 13th Street's Double Knot, the two-sided happy hour menu includes six-piece sushi rolls, buns, wraps, dumplings, chicken wings, cocktails, and more. From 4 to 7 p.m., it's all $4 or less.

"It was really about having a happy hour that builds some good energy going into dinnertime," said Tobias Moser, director of restaurants for the Schulson restaurant group, which includes Double Knot as well as the adjacent Graffiti Bar and Sampan (both of which offer coveted happy hours). "A lot of times, there's a line at 4 o'clock. People stay, they socialize. And that flows into later that night. If you're walking in at 7, you see a nice, busy environment."

Busy is right: the city's best happy hour scenes aren't for the faint of heart. Securing a seat might call for a few sharp elbows, or the time-honored tradition of hovering behind others as they pay the bill, lingering just uneasily close enough to make them hurry it up. If you want good bar real estate, you also have to get out of work at 5 p.m. or soon after. Fueled by cheap drinks, patrons can get boisterous — though rarely does it seem to approach the free-for-alls typical at some Center City SIPS events in recent years.

Many restaurants insist you sit at the bar for the cheap stuff, but because Double Knot has a downstairs dinner service that starts at 5 p.m., the upstairs tables are available for all bargoers, whether they're spending $10 or $75.

"We figure, if people know they're not going to get a seat, they might not even try," Moser said.

Tables are also an option during El Rey's happy hour, which is regularly packed with young professionals — as well as a few families — who flock there for $1 tacos and $2 and $3 small plates like tamales and quesadillas. On a recent weeknight, the bar was three deep. That might be enough to make the less dedicated — or more claustrophobic — bar patrons start to doubt their commitment to $4 margaritas.

At Fette Sau in Fishtown, the barbecue meats and sides are fashioned into affordable snacks: $5 burnt-end sandwiches, $4 chicken legs, and $3 deviled eggs. The atmosphere is less cutthroat, thanks to the plentiful seats, and Manhattan and old-fashioned cocktails are $5.

In recent years, some restaurants have also added late-night and weekend happy hours, ensuring that it's always 5 o'clock somewhere. The Oyster House on Sansom Street and Pinefish offer buck-a-shuck oysters seven days a week, which draws in pre-theater and older crowds, along with millennials looking for bargains. Dollar oysters are also a daily special at the Olde Bar on Walnut Street, where the happy hour menu also includes $5 small plates like thick-cut fries, batter-fried shrimp, and sauteed mussels.

One of the city's most under-the-radar happy hours unfolds each evening at Ruth's Chris Steak House at 18th and Market, where for two and a half hours each weeknight a selection of entrees cost $9. The list, which includes a burger, steak sandwich with fries, and seared tuna, is accompanied by a list of cocktails that also go for $9 during happy hour. Beer and wine start at $3.

"It's been very popular," said general manager Paul Hawkins. "We're full pretty much every night during those hours."

Though the restaurant is tucked into the ground floor of the Sonesta hotel, Hawkins said most customers come from the businesses in the area. Often, he said, the bar draws a crowd that likely wouldn't have stopped there if it were not for the nightly discounts.

Therein lies the genius of happy hour, said Moser of Double Knot. It gets people in the door, maybe gives them an opportunity to try a few new things, and primes them for a return visit.

Becca Miller, who works at a Philadelphia bank, said Double Knot's full menu isn't normally in her budget for weeknight visits. But on days when she gets out early enough, it's one of her favorite post-work spots.

"A lot of times I'll meet friends here and end up eating basically a whole dinner," she said. "You get the check and you're like, 'Really? That's it?' "