Forget about your prejudices. Put aside your previous bad experiences. In the ever-escalating happy-hour arms race raging all over the state, what was once an excuse for cheap drinking has become fertile ground for culinary experimentation. And while nearly every restaurant of note offers a late-afternoon happy hour, not all dishes are worthy of applause for invention, presentation, satisfaction and economy. But these ten plates — in alphabetical order by restaurant with our Best of Denver winner in the top spot — stand out for attention to detail even when served at cut-rate prices. From happy-hour legends to fresh-faced competitors, these are Denver's best happy-hour dishes.
10) Seitan wings at City, O' City
206 E. 13th Ave.
City, O' City didn't get to be Denver's Best Vegetarian Restaurant by shying away from bold, cruelty-free flavors. The seitan 'wings' ($5) have an envious cult following for their richness and tasty buffalo or BBQ sauce. Without pesky bones getting in the way, gorge until you can't take another single bite. Pairs equally well with Rockies games or feminist book club meetings, and they're also available on late nights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
9) Charcuterie & cheese plate at Guard and Grace
1801 California St.
Charcuterie boards are the new hip thing in happy hour, but leave it to Guard and Grace to present diners with a worthy sample. This steakhouse is filled with pumps and silk ties, but G&G doesn't treat happy-hour feeders like rubes. The happy-hour spread ($8) offers one of each of the house's meat and cheese selections, which are dependably interesting, along with a beautiful array of condiments. Preserves, nuts, olives, and angelic grilled bread — it's an impressive arrangement, visually and tactically.
8) Tacos at Leña
Leña was named our Best Late-Afternoon Happy Hour partially on the strength of its tacos, which put many of the city's Taco Tuesdays to shame. While they're not a bargain (at $3.50 each), Leña's meats and veggies are so on point that these tacos are the ideal port of entry to Leña's South/Central American journey. Fruity pescado tacos boast spiced sea bass with mango salsa and cream flavored with naranjilla fruit, and carnitas here means tender, slow roasted bison short rib with salsa, queso casero and jicama. Leña's tangy goat barbacoa is another standout, and another reason why the kitchen's eye for funky details and wood-fired grill hoist it above the competition.
7) Mini steak sandwich at LoHi SteakBar
3200 Tejon St.
A change in ownership and a revitalized menu brought a truly great happy hour dish to LoHi SteakBar — a halved steak sandwich ($4), suitable for packing in a workman's lunchbox or as the centerpiece of a late-night meal. Toothsome tendrils of steak are tossed on toast triangles, melted over with gruyere cheese and spread with onion jam. This is SteakBar's signature happy-hour item, a flash of what its steaks have to offer, topped with perfectly calibrated condiments.
6)Sicilian Calamari at Luca
711 Grant St.
The long-running Luca is a recent entry into the happy-hour game, but you can count on the Frank Bonanno kitchen to knock it out of the park on the first swing. Rather than seafood Funyuns, Luca's Sicillian-style calamari offers baby squid, suckers and all, among chiles, marinara and capers large and small. It's a dish with a bit of challenge to it — something not often seen on a happy-hour menu. Dull the sweet pain of Calabrian chiles with a $3 draft of Moretti lager.
5) Flatbread/Belgian Mussels at Ophelia's Electric Soapbox
1215 20th St.
It's so difficult to single out one dish from Ophelia's den of happy-hour delights. We didn't — and neither should you. The happy-hour bowl of Belgian mussels ($5) is absolutely beautiful, elegantly plated seafood on a fish-n-chips budget. It's the kind of happy hour plate that engulfs all your senses, from the fragrant saison broth rising out of the pot to the squeezable blood orange plated alongside. While not as sexy, Ophelia's flatbreads, pepperoni or mushroom ($5 each) are packed with flavor — the mushroom version with a rich and umami-licious duxelle base and smart toppings of goat cheese and pickled red onion. This young restaurant is already showing everyone how happy hour is done.
4) Deviled eggs at Steuben's Food Service
523 E. 17th Ave.
As if the rest of Steuben's menu wasn't comfort food enough, the infamous deviled eggs are especially sinful, prepared simply but beautifully, with a dusting of paprika and sliced chives. At just $.50 a pop, get a half-dozen plunked down to prepare for an evening of craft cocktails and fried delights.
3) Perro caliente at Tamayo
1400 Larimer Street
The much-needed overhaul of Richard Sandoval's Larimer Square restaurant wasn't enough to create the most compelling happy hour in town, but one standout exception is the perro caliente ($4), a Sonoran-style hot dog that hits the spot like nothing else. Bacon-wrapped frank? Check. Topped with a messy yet tasty chipotle rouille sauce? Claro. In a Mexican take on Chicagoan giardiniera, Tamayo tops these puppies with pickled and chopped chiles. The only way to turn down the heat is to sample one of the happy-hour margaritas ($5), still some of the best in town.
2) The pastas at Venice Ristorante & Wine Bar
1700 Wynkoop St.
Venice sails through the Old World cuisine of Italy, but happy hour here always feels new. Everything is just $4.50, even for fresh, vital pastas made in-house. The cappelacci de zucca is garnished with sage and tangy brown butter and packed with rich butternut, ricotta and raisins, while the tortellini alla Parmigiana is a sizable serving of spinach tortellini in a bath of thick cream sauce. Either could serve as a meal with another happy-hour dish and both are sterling examples of Venice's craft, even on the cheap.
1) House sausage plate at Old Major
3316 Tejon St.
Old Major's happy-hour menu is an ideal example of the form, and the house sausage plate ($5) is 2015's Best Happy Hour Dish, as well as a bargain-rate invitation to this temple of meat worship. Five bucks gets you a sample of a housemade sausage of the day, enough to appreciate its details: the fine grind, the balance of spices. And the presentation alone elevates this dish to art: Thoughtful sauces are daubed with care and the sausage is plated with a smattering of complementary veggies. This is a refreshingly contemplative snack even in the rush of happy hour, a reminder of why Old Major still enthralls.