FOOD & WINE | By Ilona Saari

Happy Places Happy Faces

In Search for Ojai’s Best Happy Hour

The first time I ever heard the term “happy hour” I was a college student on spring break in Bermuda.  We breakers drank beer or over-sized rum drinks with tiny-sized umbrellas resulting in our stripping off our clothes and skinny dipping, or crashing our rented motor scooters… or both. Bermuda’s ER had a healthy business stitching coral cuts and setting broken bones. ‘Twas the unhappy hour.

A few years later while working in New York City, the term “happy hour” disappeared from my lexicon. Manhattan had “Bars” with a capital “B” and historic taverns like P. J. Clarke’s.  No happy hours. Ever! Serious, “adult” drinking went on behind those doors, as Ray Milland’s character did in the old movie “The Lost Weekend,” parts of which were actually shot in Clarke’s. But, when Boomers became “foodies” and “Wine” and “Cocktails” became capitalized, happy hours became a baby-booming business. We sipped wines, discovered Cosmos and Appletinis and scarfed down “petite plates,” often at a discount. Restaurant and bar profits rose as they lowered prices to compete for our happy hour business. Made me happy!

Recently I discovered happy hour at the Wallace Neff Heritage Bar at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa and I’m kvelling (“kvell,” a term derived from the Yiddish kveln, meaning “to be delighted”).  From 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays only, try anything on the Happy Hour menu for half-price, be it a signature cocktail, wine by the glass or a draft beer. And, don’t miss those lounge fares on the menu from Andrea Rodella’s Olivella kitchen. Enjoy a tasty crab cake or the spicy yellowfin tuna tartare. Want a juicy burger? Try the bar’s burger with fries, while listening to the beautiful sounds from Aaron Copenhaugen on guitar.

Though it’s not yet on the happy-hour drink menu Sam Gay, mixologist extraordinaire for the Neff, bar has lent his talents to fill the latest manifestation of “Rock the Glass,” an old-fashioned glass featuring Ojai photographer-artist Heather Stobo’s digitally rendered photograph of a stately Ojai oak tree. These glasses are on sale at The Porch Gallery and other retail outlets with a portion of the proceeds going to Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.  Sam’s new cocktail creation is called “50 Oak.” **   “I’ll drink to that!”

If you want to be happy on another night of the week, here are just some of the joyful joints in town.

Sea Fresh offers its ever popular happy hour menu from 2 to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday exclusively at the bar and trellis patio with discounts on all drinks, including “top shelf” cocktails (hello, Grey Goose!), beers on tap and a variety of food choices including flatbreads (only made for happy hour revelers), salmon cakes and shrimp and veggie won tons.

Stop by the Deer Lodge on Monday and you’ll be “happy” all day, or Tuesday to Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. Five-dollar food-and-drink options include select draft beers, wine, even a Mule Deer, along with seasonal soups, white truffle parmesan fried Brussels sprouts, and kale salad.

Monday to Friday, 3 to 6 p.m. Jim & Rob’s Lisa’s Cantina offers discounted draft beers and margaritas.

Also Monday to Friday, 3 to 6 p.m, JJ’s Sports Zone offers discounts on beer and wine, a buck off all appetizers and a special $5 appetizer menu. 

From 5 to 7 p.m., seven days a week (except holidays) it’s happy hour at Azu (bar only), with discounts on Pilsner beer, house red and white wine, two “ingredient” cocktails and Cosmos.

Sit anywhere during Agave Maria’s happy hour Monday to Wednesday, from 4 to 6 p.m. or all day Thursday for discounts on beer, house margaritas and some appetizers.

If one happy hour works, why not two?!  Ojai Beverage Company offers just that Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 pm with discounts on burgers, sandwiches, wine and beer.  Then again between 4 to 7 p.m. for discounts on beer and wine and 4 to 6 p.m. when most appetizers are half price.

Continuing eastward, stop in for East End Restaurant’s happy hour, week nights from 5 to 6 p.m. Beers and well drinks are just $5 if you’re perched at the bar. Though not discounted, try the yummy fried oysters to “go with.”

You don’t have to play 18 holes to tee off at Soule Park’s bar happy hour. Discounts on beer and house wines and $5 for one-shot well drinks (scotch and soda, mud in your eye). Don’t miss the happy hour menu which includes street tacos and oh, so deliciously sinful potato skins. And, during hockey season… $2 off shots during a game. Order three for a hat trick!  But have your designated driver, not putter, handy.

50 OAK recipe

  • 2 oz. aged bourbon
  • .5 oz. sweet vermouth
  • .5 oz. aperol
  • .5 oz. cinnamon syrup
  • 2 dashes each angostura and angostura orange bitters

Pour over ice and garnish with an orange twist.