When it comes to vice or virtue, Virginia hasn't been much in the leadership department. For instance, until 1968 when liquor by the drink was legalized, law-abiding citizens carried their own bottles of booze into restaurants and clubs. Don't forget the ratio rules too, wherein food must make up 45 percent of gross sales to offset the amount of alcohol sold. And until July 1, balancing food and drink sales was more challenging because stimulating alcohol sales with advertising was verboten.
A recent change in the law has opened the door for establishments to promote their bar offerings in a multitude of ways. Perhaps it was overdue, because opposition to the proposed legislation was scarce.
"There was little to no public discussion of the legislation until the General Assembly convened in January," says Thomas Lisk, a local lawyer who lobbies on behalf of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association.
The measure passed with ease, although some restaurateurs expressed distaste for the legislation for fear that advertising and promoting happy hour specifics would create unhealthy competition. "The only public opposition that I recall came from the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists," Lisk adds.
Before, hours and days were the only public acknowledgment allowed, but establishments can now promote happy hour specials using any method they please, including sidewalk sandwich boards, websites and social media.
"I believe many restaurateurs are planning to use social media to advertise a variety of existing happy hour drink specials with the allowance for expanded creativity," Lisk says. For example, "instead of only saying 'specials' for wine and beer, they will now be able to advertise Thirsty Thursdays, Martini Mondays, two-dollar Coronas rather than being limited to only days and hours of specials."
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, timing would suggest that some places have amped up their offerings with lures like tempting food or by stretching happy hours to seven days a week. For instance, with locations on the downtown riverfront and in Short Pump, Casa del Barco's happy hour seems perpetual, running from 3 to 7 p.m. every day at the bar, where margaritas cost $5.
At the Grill at Patterson and Libbie, happy hour also is a seven-day affair. While there are no plans for extraordinary measures to plump the stakes, it expects to take advantage of the new latitude in promotions.
"We have a good base clientele," says manager Mac Nunnally, "but it's a good way to attract customers. I'm not sure what our plan is yet but we'll be advertising."
For some, efforts to bump up business are overkill or redundant. Bamboo Cafe, which has held down a corner of Mulberry and Main since 1974, won't be heralding any flaming drinks or gut-filling appetizers. According to bartender Zane Wilcox, the plan is to keep doing what it's been doing lo these many years: serving up a healthy bar business to a dedicated cast of customers who wouldn't dream of a week without a visit to the Bamboo.
Without an economic impact analysis — Lisk says the legislature didn't do one — it's hard to prognosticate who will benefit or how.
"Most restaurants didn't think it would make a difference," notes Lisk, adding that some were afraid it would lead to how-low-can-you-go price wars. With creative competition being blasted in advertisements, on signs and sandwich boards and all across social media, there is one undisputed winner: the customer.
Happy Hour Sampling
Until July, it couldn't be done. Finding the right happy hour to suit your mood was a crapshoot. You never knew what the drink details were until you were seated and committed. Now that establishments can descriptively promote happy hour details, the guesswork is over. Here are a few of our favorites.
Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant
11792 W. Broad St.
3 - 6 p.m. weekdays
Save $1-$2 on cocktails and wine. Happy hour food includes several regular menu items at reduced prices, like Asian pork belly tostadas ($8) and chopped deviled eggs and toast ($9).
Casa del Barco
Short Pump Town Center
3 to 6:30 p.m. weekdays
Draft beer is $1 off, $2 off sangria, $4 for well spirits and $5 margaritas in a variety of flavors. But that's just the tip of the taco. Food specials include the expected empanadas and queso, as well as the unexpected, like a flight of three salsas.
River City Roll
939 Myers St.
Happy hour at the Scott's Addition's boutique bowling alley kicks off at 3 p.m. on weekdays, running until 9 p.m. on Thursdays and 7 p.m. each of the other days. The selection includes $5 classic cocktails, $4 select drafts, $3 wines and various snacks for $5.
3553 W. Cary St.
Short Pump Town Center
3 - 6 p.m. daily
Happy hour offers draft beers and 6-ounce wines for $5, craft cocktails for $7 and a variety of starters from $4 to $7.
421 N. Strawberry St.
4:30 - 6:30 p.m. weekdays
Spin the roulette wheel — literally, they bring it to you — to score any of the 38 classic cocktails ($6) or go for the half-price beer or wine by the glass.
The Circuit Arcade Bar
3121 W. Leigh St.
Tuesdays – Thursdays 5 – 8 p.m.
Three days a week, this arcade bar offers 50% off select beers, with a rotating selection. One week the specials included the new hard seltzer from Bold Rock Hard Cider, a margarita gose and of course an India pale ale, so you can expect variety.
P.F. Chang's Bistro
Stony Point Fashion Park
3 - 6 p.m. and until 7 at the bar
Served by the jar, sake comes in at $6, craft beer is $4 a bottle and cocktails are $6. Wine is available by the glass for $6 or by the pitcher for $19.95. There's also some serious snackage. Prices are tiered on the happy-hour menu from $3 tempura poppers to $6 chicken lettuce wraps, all in generous portions.