If you're an experienced happy-hour hustler, trolling the city for $3 wells and half-price burgers, you're used to the routine: meager pours of booze, undercooked and indifferently presented food, and the kind of service doldrums that seem to arrive with happy hour -- generally right around the end of everyone else's work day.
True to its proletarian name, The Populist doesn't indulge in any of these lowly tendencies. Simply presented and executed, the happy hour here comprises an immaculate bill of small plates and cocktails for times when discount appetizers won't cut it.
On a rainy weekday, the action at the Populist shifted from the cozy patio to the front room, stacked with community tables and two-tops hosting well-to-do lovers. Almost every male customer -- me included -- was sporting a plaid button-up and facial hair. It's not a stretch to consider the Populist a hipster's hangout; from its vintage-minded cocktail menu to its no-nonsense decor, the restaurant lands right in the sweet spot for the young crowd moving through or into RiNo.
The Populist's happy hour, running from 5 to 7 p.m. every evening, offers a pretty slim bill of fare: three cocktails and three wines, along with four small plates. The revised Old-Fashioned gets most of the glory on the full cocktail menu, but I went straight for the Pimm's Cup ($6). If I couldn't have sunshine and outdoor frolicking, I could at least drink like it was Wimbledon all over again. It tasted like the bartender brought out the good gin, to which he added a squirt of tasty house-made lemon-lime soda.
Laid out in all-caps sans-serif type, the food offerings are presented without description or adornment. One of the pleasures of a meal at the Populist is chatting with your server to discover the answer to menu riddles like "Grilled Bistro Tender." A sleeve of salt & vinegar popcorn needed no introduction, and at $2 I wished I could sneak the tangy snack into the nearest multiplex.
The duck liver mousse plate ($5) is half the price of its dinner-menu brother, but the presentation is a knockout -- a pouf of beet foam, some raspberry reduction, and a few gooseberries added color to the plate and tempered the muskiness of rich liver. What does another Lincoln get you? A dozen mussels dripping with thick saffron broth and studded with grains of rice and slices of Spanish chorizo.
You can just barely cobble a meal together from the happy-hour offerings, but it's a journey through the Populist's menu that doesn't feel like it has training wheels. Chef Jonathan Power has been vocal in his desire to keep the prices reasonable and the food accessible, and the happy-hour menu is the perfect outreach program -- something that gets people in and gets them talking.
Perfect for: A casual date after viewing art at Plus gallery.
Can't miss: Those mussels. They're the epitome of the Populist's ethos of accessible fine dining.
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