Arriving midway through a restaurant's posted happy hour presents a 5:30 quandary: Limit yourself to eating off the discounted menu, or forsake the deals and indulge in a real dinner. Not everyone wants to cobble together a meal, Carl Weathers-style, but smart restaurateurs know how to satisfy everyone for a few bucks less. The decision is even tougher at a place like Solera Restaurant & Wine Bar, where a tantalizing small-plates menu elbows for space with the solid Spanish-inspired cuisine that's kept Solera running since 2002.
On-site parking, a freestanding building, paella: Eating at Solera doesn't feel like a typical dining experience in the year 2016, especially not in central Denver. No doubt chef/proprietor Goose Sorenson has kept what's worked for him in his decade-plus tenure — and design refreshes and constant menu rotation help maintain Solera as one of the best places to eat on Colfax. The happy hour here, from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, is a lovely look at what Solera does well, with clever, shareable plates and an extensive wine list.
Take a look at the bottles behind the bar (sadly, happy hour isn't offered on the pretty back patio) and pick your purple (or white) poison. Six-dollar glasses of wine come from Spain, California and Italy, squeezed from grapes like tempranillo, viura and more. There's also Estrella Damm on draft ($5) and a few basic cocktails for $8, but a mid-range glass of vino is most appropriate for the setting and the goods to follow.
Half the menu is devoted to salumi and cheese ($5), handsomely plated with housemade flatbread and fig jam or optional accompaniments like pickled veggies or hummus ($2). Thin-sliced Iberico chorizo found a friend in California-made Casiago, a sharp, semi-hard goat cheese with a hint of truffle. With the crack of flatbread and the spice of tempranillo, it was a fine combination; charcuterie fans will also appreciate appearances by Napolitana, saucisson and jamón Serrano ($7). Surprisingly enough, many of the other tapas selections resemble actual tapas, with Brussels sprouts ($4), calamari ($8) and oysters ($1.25 each), though patatas bravas ($8), the ultimate drinking snack, don't show up for happy hour.
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Moorish pork kabobs ($7) pack a meal's worth of meat on four sticks, each irregular slab of pork collar dripping with bright-red spices and ringed with crispy carcinogens (tasty, tasty carcinogens, that is). Dipped in a green mojo sauce, these babies are a pleasure more thirteenth-century Mongolian than 21st-century Mediterranean. Because it bore Chef Sorenson's name, I picked up a bowl of Goose's Mac & Cheese ($6), cavatappi in a white cheddar sauce with slivered marcona almonds, English peas and truffle oil. It's not a great idea to follow heaps of spicy meat with gobs of cheesy carbs — my mistake, exacerbated by the truffle and the thin cheddar stew, the only things that truly feel like throwbacks.
If you're at Solera, I say go for the gusto: Get those patatas bravas and the paella ($30). Pile everything Iberico on your charcuterie plate. You won't be disappointed if you stick to happy hour here, but it's worth treating yourself to a visit to Solera as a special occasion.
Don't Miss: There just aren't enough Spanish restaurants in Denver, so when you can find a good paella, the best thing to do is to put your face in it. Solera's version is adorned with clams, chorizo, mussels, shrimp and more, and Sundays bring a $60 three-course, paella-centered meal plus a bottle of wine for two.