As the bars of your parents and grandparents slowly atrophy, the layers of paint and smoke are peeled off and the floorboards ripped up, no one is quite sure how to replace these one-time classics while maintaining their old-fashioned spirit. But Frank Bonnanno's Vesper Lounge found a way.
The former Lancer Lounge on Capitol Hill was mourned by many when it closed in 2012, but happy hour revelers have embraced it over the past two years. Turns out it doesn't take much to update the watering holes of yesterday -- except cheap drinks and really good food. See also: Happy Hour at Charcoal: Cut-Rate Yet Refined
The bar retains much of the faded allure of the old Lancer, only with Mexican candles, local art and other ephemera -- especially a crooked, signed photo of Sammy Davis Jr. behind the bar. It's also the reason why the only figures to appear on Vesper's menus are the jolly Buddha and John Belushi.
The menu takes the same tack: bar food with a smear of modern flavor, imported here from the Middle East. A falafel wrap ($6.50) shares space with the Juicy D ($14), a gargantuan mess of a burger, with a patty stuffed with cheddar cheese and a pile of grilled onions. For my money, the Greek burger ($12) with Colorado lamb and gyros meat is the winner of the menu, but at happy hour -- served from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and all day Monday -- good things come in smaller packages.
In the BLT slider ($2.50), all three initials are crisp and satisfying, even with the addition of preserved lemon aioli. Not exactly how Ma used to make 'em, but this unexpected flavor smooths out a simple dish with a touch of class -- like a Rolls Royce hood ornament on a sturdy El Camino. The burger slider ($2.50) has the same philosophy: a slab of cheddar, some pickles, and Vesper's genius harissa aioli to tie it together.
Famous for its cocktails on tap, Vesper's happy hour instead pairs off two tipples for one price. The Blue Horse of Death is one draft beer and one shot of Stranahan's for $12. On the other end of the spectrum there's the Bloodhound, a can of Utica Club -- a Vesper signature -- and a shot of Jim Beam. I settled on the Glitter ($7): a lemondrop martini and a kalmikaze shot. Bracing for Mariah Carey sugar, I found that the martini was fresh and excellently balanced. Good thing too, since I needed to wash down the Moroccan bar nuts ($2): fried chickpeas that are great with a group but a dry slog to polish off solo.
Bite by bite and sip by sip, Vesper Lounge's happy hour re-affirmed my faith that the former Lancer could combine its storied past with the kind of fare that can move jaded happy-hour diners like me. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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