“Happy Hour.” What is it about these two simple words that are immediately symbolic and never fail to produce a smile? How did it come to be synonymous with time spent unwinding at the conclusion of the workday and/or work week? Out of curiosity, I conducted a quick bit of unscholarly Internet research to discover that the term’s origin can allegedly be traced back to a 1959 article in the Saturday Evening Post regarding military life. It spoke of the happy hour around naval bases in California at the end of the day. With the Monterey Bay’s long history with the Navy, Army and Coast Guard, this seemed particularly apropos.
Regardless of its genesis, happy hour has become tantamount to time with friends and colleagues over food and drink. It perhaps represents that brief moment between departing from our professional lives and returning to our personal lives. What’s not to love about that?
While the majority of restaurants typically offer some sort of happy hour menu, they are, like most things in life, most definitely not all created equal. So, what makes for a great happy hour? Is it the food, the drinks, the atmosphere, the prices…or will anything do? Putting aside those occasions where one simply requires a drink and a quick bite, my wife and I set out in search of a handful of outstanding happy hour locations along the Monterey Bay.
It took several months of dedicated research and analysis—someone had to do it—but ultimately it came down to five standout locales. Each is unique in and of themselves, and each was selected for different reasons. While we continue to explore new possibilities, it is always nice to have a handful of tried and true spots you can count on for an enjoyable evening.
Montrio Bistro on Franklin Street in Old Monterey ranks perhaps the highest—in our humble opinion—for a combination of amazing drinks, great small plates and a bartender who works with such speed and skill that it’s like watching a Cirque du Soleil show. There’s a small “cozy” bar, offering only about eight seats for “the show,” so it is highly suggested getting there early to grab a seat or two. There are a handful of small tables within the bar area as well. This is the place for those evenings we want to be a bit fancy on our evening out. Like the main restaurant, the drink and food offerings change frequently while still offering some old favorites. With cocktails such as the Rusty Bolt—an Islay scotch based drink—and the Wag the Dog being personal favorites, and food such as the daily fresh hearty soup and the oatmeal crusted Brie, you are practically guaranteed not to be disappointed.
Sur restaurant, tucked into Carmel’s charming Barnyard Shopping Village, is another gem by longtime Chef/owner Billy Quon. The vibe during the happy hours could be straight out of “Cheers.” It is where one can catch some sport events on the television while conversing with some of the seasoned regulars. The space is open and airy with a beautiful long bar top. The drinks are very good, with the handmade margarita being a stand out, but beware, it can pack a wallop. The small plates however, are where this place really shines. The bacon and bread, aka “B&B,” the filet mignon (previously prime rib) sliders and the sand dabs in a cone are each as unique as they are amazingly delicious. This is the place to go when casually dressed—yet still put together—and in no rush to be anywhere but there.
Hula’s on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey is Hawaii in a bottle. Where else can you get Tiki drinks such as the Tropical Itch, Painkiller, One Eyed Pyrat, or Hawaii 5-0 done right? The food is as tasty as it is filling with small plates such as seaweed and seared Ahi or crispy coconut shrimp rolls. One of the tasty marvels is the jalapeno bacon mac and cheese. Served in a small cast iron bowl; it can only be described as molten goodness. Get there early, as there are only about eight stools abutting the bar top that is reminiscent of a long wooden surfboard. As one might expect, this is the spot on those evenings where you are dressed in shorts, skirts, easy shirt or blouse, and sandals. In other words, “comfortable.” The staff are very friendly and accommodating. A word of caution, the Tiki drinks are sneakily strong, so be careful, especially with the doubles.
The Haute Enchilada is the “secret” place that nearly everyone says they know of until they realize they are thinking of its sister. While owned by the same family that runs the Whole Enchilada located on Highway 1 in Moss Landing, the Haute is sort of off the grid, tucked inside the small community. While perhaps a bit of a drive from Carmel or Monterey, it is well worth a visit. Stepping inside is akin to journeying back into the Caribbean or Cuba of the 1950s, with eclectically painted walls and a scattering of nautical remnants mixed with Mayan bas-reliefs, an oil painting of Frida Kahlo and a copy of Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn.” It is the rare place where one can pair a Brazilian caipirinha with a roasted Chile Poblano bisque. It is where you can enjoy a Cuban sandwich with a nopales salad, washed down with Spanish beer from Barcelona, or a squash blossom flauta and a glass of sangria made with Spanish cava. One could easily imagine writer Ernest Hemingway sitting in a corner, drinking and typing away on his next story.
Vesuvio restaurant, located at the corner of 6th and Junipero Street in Carmel, is well known to locals, and for good reason. While the happy hour at the downstairs bar is certainly enjoyable, it is the roof top lounge that is the real jewel. Concealed within the cozy walls are fire pits and heat lamps each surrounded by comfortable chairs. It is a place to relax with friends, or a perhaps a lover, under the stars while sipping one of the barrel-aged cocktails, of which they do so very well, or perhaps a glass of wine. The actual bar top is small, with only about six stools, but that matters not as it is the entire roof top that makes this such a memorable place. The food? Well, is Italian food ever disappointing? With dishes like boar Bolognese amongst many others, it would be difficult indeed to leave unsatiated.
Whether these five locations have the best happy hours or not is completely subjective. Each has something unique to offer that differentiates it from the others. In the end, only you can be the judge. This of course requires some effort on your part, but hey, wouldn’t it be grand if all work was this pleasurable! In fact, for us, the hunt begins anew for another handful of happy hour destinations to try.