Happy Place: Earl's Chery Creek, 201 Columbine Street, 303-320-3275.
The Hours: Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m.
The Deals: $2 drafts; $3 well drinks; $4 vodka cocktails; $5 to $7 appetizers
Were we happy? Flip the page to find out.
The Digs: There are some of us, apparently, who are woefully ignorant, entirely unaware, for example, that Earl's is a restaurant chain that goes way beyond the confines of Denver. Guilty as charged. In fact, it wasn't until a recent happy hour visit to the Cherry Creek Earl's that I learned, courtesy of the bartender, that Earl's proudly operates in Arizona, Washington, Colorado (there's a second location downtown), and Canada. After we inwardly scoffed at my bar of choice for the evening, we acknowledged the fact that, for a chain, Earl's wasn't actually that bad. And while a quick look at its website made it appear far more corporate-creepy than the bar we were bellied up to -- and there was instant skepticism regarding the chain's claim that the dishes were prepared from scratch -- we later learned that our initial cynicism may have been slightly askew. But more on that later.
After braving subzero temperatures, Earl's actually provided a warm respite. The grandiose bar area features large oak tables and miles of leather booths, which makes it an unlikely spot to feel cozy and integrated -- and, yet, it is. The waitstaff is down to earth and, thank god, the company logo isn't plastered all over everything in sight. It should also be noted that the crowds are surprisingly unpretentious given the 'hood. The gargantuan flat-screen televisions that wallpaper the back of the bar and extend throughout the restaurant are slightly obnoxious, but when you watch to catch a game over beers with friends, this is as good as anywhere else.
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The Verdict: While cheap booze always float our boats, the drink specials at Earl's are comparable to your average happy hour. The calamari is average, too, even though the kitchen tries to impress by tossing in some raw red onion scraps. And, well, the chicken tacos suck. The artichoke dip, on the other hand, doesn't. It was this dish that tripped our bullshit radar while reading the company's claim of preparing fresh food, because, let's face it: It's virtually impossible to see the words "spinach artichoke dip" without thinking of a frozen brick of plastic-wrapped cheese and greens waiting for their time in the microwave. But the Earl's dip is the real deal, all dolled up with wilted spinach still in its leaf form, plump and juicy artichoke hearts and water chestnuts to give it texture. The cheese isn't overbearing, either, and while the dish is definitely creamy, the flavors really shine through. But while the dip was superb, the accompanying baguette was a bit of a disappointment, and we found ourselves longing for some type of sourdough vehicle to lap up the last of our savory treat.
Overall Grade: B-