Even If you've been annoyed by mediocre happy hours, stingy specials, and bad drinks, take a moment and appreciate your freedom to order that $5 Moscow mule. Restrictive happy-hour laws are on the books in 26 other states, banning such beloved Colorado traditions as drink discounts and two-for-ones. Take that, Texas! Tough luck, Utah! Colorado is the true bastion of drinking and dining freedom. And I can't think of many better places to celebrate that freedom than Boulder's Arugula Bar e Ristorante, which not only about the liberty to choose how to get blitzed cheaply, but also which elegantly crafted Italian dish you should sample next.
I remember being gobsmacked at the happy hour menu for another Italian standby in Boulder, Bacco Trattoria. Compared to that place's Bacchanalian board, Arugula's happy hour menu is restrained, but still plenty generous. Served seven days a week from 5 to 6 p.m., it's piled with leafy greens, light sauces and oils, and twisty shavings of Grana Padano. Where the restaurant itself is more attuned to large entrees and strong appetizers, the happy-hour contorni keeps it simple.
I've often said that Arugula has the best Italian in Boulder, especially since the closing of Laudisio/Ristorante L down the street. A cup of tomato fennel bisque ($4) shimmers with olive oil, each bite luxuriantly rich and attentively garnished with cheese and balsamic reduction. A ramekin-sized portion of local braising greens ($5) was attentively prepared -- dotted with slivers of garlic and chili flakes, whose pleasant heat kicked in just as the last leaves disappeared.
Polenta from Georgia's famous Logan Turnpike Mill pops up on Arugula's menus, but as an appetizer it treads water, even with some red peppers and Grana Padano. I sprinkled it with salt when I was sure my attentive waitress wasn't looking. Besides bland polenta, there's just so much class and elegance here, even at happy hour. From a stellar house red ($4.50) to the table bread, Arugula impresses. And that scent you're smelling right now? That's the smell of happy hour freedom, folks.
Perfect for: Taking out-of-towners/Denverites who still believe Boulder is a gastronomic wasteland.
Don't miss: Arugula's kitchen cooks some mean veggies, but to make a dinner out of happy hour, try the Bolognese ($7) or puttanesca ($6) pastas.