It's often best to keep it casual, whether you're on a second date or introducing your parents to your polyamorous anarchist collective. There's no point in getting dressed up and worked up when you can take it easy. Since 1933, Billy's Inn has existed as a living invitation to low-stakes lounging. The hacienda-style building and red neon are iconic to anyone who's stopped in or just passed by this stretch of Lowell, and the happy hour is nearly as quintessential.
After decades of wear and countless bottles of Schlitz, Billy's Inn was bought and renovated by Larimer Associates in 2008 and startlingly flipped from dive to sports bar and legit eatery — but even that remodel seems like it was ages ago. But gone are the grime, grit, cigarette stains and other indications of the Inn's years of service — aside from charming, signed photos of Nixon-era regulars. If you came expecting to hide in a dark corner with a pint, you'll be disappointed and blinking at the brightness in the slick cantina-style decor. But Billy's isn't playing it entirely safe: The menu strikes a balance between typical bar fare, dauntingly decadent plates and Baja-ish Mexican tastes. This is indeed the home of the peanut butter burger ($11), an odd delicacy that certainly sounds like a pre-renovation legend.
Billy's happy hour doesn't offer anything so intriguing, but it does offer piles and piles of tasty bar food in large portions that make up for the relatively small discounts available Tuesday to Saturday, 3 to 6 p.m., and all day Monday. Potato skins, deviled eggs, french fries: there are nearly a dozen different snacks to gorge on — and "gorge" is the appropriate verb for tackling these monsters. Just look at the man at the bar in the sensible shirt and slacks tackling a half-pound of shrimp ($9.50) by himself. That's hard to watch, but not unreasonable. What's unreasonable are Billy's nachos deluxe ($9, plus an up-charge for pork, fish or chicken), at least when split by two adults without proper training and equipment. Regularly priced the same as a burger and made for a full squad to share, these babies are loaded with nearly every topping you'd hope for, and more. Jalapeños, shredded cheese, melted queso, black olives, guac, green onions, and a little ramekin of pico de gallo that looks pathetic next to the mountain of food. So far, so typical, but the chips holding the mass together are hardy and thick and dusted with an addictive chile seasoning, with few succumbing to sog until the bitter end.
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Just as conventional and effective are orders of wings ($7.50), available in BBQ, teriyaki, Louisiana hot or Mexican. This is not the typical meager wing sampling, some offering from the mysterious three-legged chicken. Seven or so wings slathered with tangy Buffalo is the correct amount and the correct sauce (sorry, teriyaki partisans). To complete this Sunday Ticket trifecta, we took Billy's up on some potato skins with the works ($6.50). Generally one of America's most maltreated native dishes, these skins instead were nicely done — crispy at the edges, fleshy on the inside, with bacon chunks stuffed under a ton of cheddar. They lose heat from the fryer quickly, so scoop 'em up before you drain your $3.50 draft beer. Beverages bring some of the best discounts here, as you can enjoy $3.50 wells and $4 margaritas, though $4.50 glasses of sangria arrived a little weak. But, hey — that kind of order might have gotten you kicked out of this place ten years ago.
Judging from the vintage photos around the place, the Billy's of the '60s attracted both lifelong regulars and Brando-aping hipsters, and today happy hour is populated by a swath of neighborhood folks, from the after-work crowd grabbing beers to parents and kids sitting down for a comfortable dinner. There are so many unique experiences just on this block, with Tocabe and Cafe Brazil just across the street, I can't recommend it ahead of those wonderful places. Yet Billy's Inn still holds on to what's made it special over the ages.
Perfect For: The kitchen stays open at Billy's well after sunset, with late-night bites like $1 rock-lobster tacos and small orders of nachos for $4, plus all the regular happy-hour drink specials.
Don't Miss: Outside of happy hour, there are plenty of tempting creations like a guajillo-marinated carne asada torta ($13) or potato boats con queso with poached eggs for brunch ($11), but your eye may wander to that Skippy peanut butter burger. It's worth a try, as the textures of bacon, PB and grilled meat are rather eye-opening when combined. Just get it without mayo — trust me.