Denver residents once had to be really selective if they wanted fresh fish, good sashimi or a well-shucked oyster. But today, chefs and restaurants throughout our landlocked city fly in fresh-caught creatures on the regular, many of them meticulously inspecting their options and adjusting menus according to freshness, sustainability and season. So I was excited to see what Fish N Beer, a proponent of such practices since opening in RiNo three years ago, would have to offer during happy hour. Not only would there be $1 oysters, my one true love, but the little eatery's happy hour also extended until the achievable post-work hour of 7 p.m., earning automatic bonus points.
Fish N Beer occupies a strip of Larimer Street that just might still be considered sleepy by today’s city standards, especially on a weekday. Finding curbside parking is an easy feat, and some of the streets leading into the neighborhood sport fantastic bike lanes (when Uber drivers aren’t hogging them) for non-motorized commuting from work. Arriving around 6:15 on a Tuesday, I found the narrow restaurant with its elevated booths surprisingly empty. And while I knew from previous experience that Fish N Beer doesn't seat incomplete parties, it felt strange to be shuffled over to the standing bar in a relatively unoccupied restaurant while awaiting my friends. I perused the menu for a while, took out a book for another few minutes, and finally decided to flag down a server and request a glass of water.
My server apologized and briskly delivered my water and some wine and oysters I couldn't resist while waiting, at which point the host kindly offered to move me to a booth of my choice, despite my inadequate party status. There’s something comforting about sitting up high in the restaurant's thoughtfully designed booths; you get a lay of the land and overview of the action while being insulated from the bustle on the restaurant floor. Meanwhile, the floor-level corner booth offers space and intimacy for larger parties. The narrow bar rail down the middle places diners’ backs to the kitchen, which can feel awkward, particularly for the unpaired, but it's nevertheless a smart use of space for the tiny dining room.
FNB’s happy-hour menu is glorious at first glance. Three wine options at $8, a “dad beer” and a shot for $6, and happy-hour mules concocted with house-infused tequila, vodka, or gin for $6 feel like decent deals (at about $2 off regular menu prices). Sparkling wines are, however, disappointingly missing from a happy hour that includes $1 oysters.
The discounted food slate is expansive, including options for the seafood-averse. When my companions arrived, everything was so alluring that we just ordered one of each dish. Much like my first round, once ordered our plate of raw oysters arrived in expedited fashion — though too quickly to believe they'd been shucked to order. And although these held more of their liquor than the previous batch, their taste and texture implied that they had been pre-shucked (and rather poorly). As an oyster fiend, I don’t mind a bit of shell here and there, especially at $1 for lesser-known Madhouse oysters from Chesapeake Bay. Still, slurping their brineless, gritty bodies made me sad for what could have been.
There wasn’t much time to dwell on the oysters, however, as dishes kept arriving. First, some mini shrimp po'boys, which we were warned were small, but were enticingly laden with four lightly breaded and fried shrimp. The accompanying fried bologna slider wasn’t my cup of tea, but was well executed, as far as gussied-up pork products go.
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A happy-hour-sized portion of jambalaya tasted vaguely Cajun, with an under-seasoned tomato sauce that somehow managed to be both too bland for me and too spicy for my companions. Among the hits were a surprising (for a fish house) basket of ribs, a steal at $6, and a fried fish basket (also $6) with moist white fish coated in crisp batter. The mussels ($7) felt like yet another bargain, with a sauce that begged for more ciabatta for sopping. And the grilled artichoke turned out to be a brilliant mechanism for scooping up lemon aioli. Smokey and soft, the underappreciated veg felt like a true house specialty (though we wondered who stole its heart).
With the initial service hiccup more than atoned for with great variety, Fish N Beer turned out to be a warm and calm happy hour, at least on a Tuesday evening. If I find fresh, well-shucked oysters on my next visit, I can imagine becoming a happy-hour regular. Twelve Madhouses plus the artichoke, and you might find me springing for some bubbles to boot. Now, that’s a well-rounded meal.
Fish N Beer is located at 3510 Larimer Street and is open for happy hour Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. Call 303-248-3497 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.