The nostalgia fuels outsized disappointment as I recall the Way Back's bar menu — one of the best drink-snack experiences in the Highland area at the time. While you can still stroll down Tennyson’s bougie strip to the eatery's newer location, I always liked the sense of cheeky discovery that gave it a kind of neighborhood magic. Would American Elm live up to its predecessor?
The good news is that American Elm maintains a similar vibe as the old Way Back, with dim lighting, a ten-seat bar at the center of the action, a scattering of high-tops, and a chic dining area with a banquette spanning one side. It's surprisingly quiet at nearly 6 p.m. on a Friday evening, with just a handful of customers at the bar and a couple or two seated in the dining area. But this allows my happy-hour companion and me to grab a high-top next to the glass-paneled garage door leading to the patio.
American Elm’s happy hour is short, from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4 to 6 p.m. on Fridays. The straightforward menu covers five small plates, two specialty cocktails and select beers and wines, all for just $5 each. The menu also advertises $2 oysters, implying a happy-hour discount, but the price turns out to be good all night. I order a half-dozen anyway, because I can’t help myself, along with a $5 cocktail called the Bobby Lee Swagger, a light and refreshing tequila, lime and grenadine drink. Then we turn our attention to the actual happy-hour food, a list short and cheap enough that we order the whole lot.
Our oysters arrive as happy hour comes to a close; the place has livened up considerably with newly arrived guests, an older crowd I rarely see clustered in one Highland location. (I imagine the non-happy-hour menu prices might keep younger neighbors away.) The oysters, half East Coast and half West, are divine and worth the $2 price, even if I do find a few shell flakes. The Atlantic/Pacific split shows off each oyster's distinct coastal qualities (a marked salinity vs. a bright tang), making both shine. Finally, we move on to the 100 percent passable deviled eggs, each garnished with a small cube of pork belly fried to a hard crunch, leaving me craving bacon bits.
Lingering over meaty olives, so-so spiced nuts and the last of my cocktail, I consider my earlier nostalgia and realize it was just that: wishing for the days of yore. But nostalgia doesn't come with $5 cocktails, so I'll stick with the here and now at American Elm.
American Elm is located at 4132 West 38th Avenue and serves happy hour from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4 to 6 p.m. on Fridays. Call 720-749-3186 or visit the restaurant's website for more information.