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Posted at 4:25 PM ET, 03/ 5/2008

Bethesda Happy Hour Rundown

By Fritz Hahn

Last summer, I reported on happy hours at two new Bethesda bars, Gator Alley and Vegas Bar and Grill. Cheap beer was about the only thing either had going for it, so I'm not too surprised to say they've both gone under in recent months.

Since then, new bars have opened to fill the gaps, and I went out on another happy hour expedition, scoping out Gaffney's and BlackFinn. Read what I found there, along with some of my favorite Bethesda happy hour deals, after the jump.

Gaffney's Restaurant

I was a fan of Gaffney's when it was tucked into an office building in Ballston and known as Gaffney's Oyster and Ale House. Its new location -- home of the former Vegas Bar and Grill -- is a one-room restaurant that doesn't look too impressive on first glance. The color scheme is bland, all dull oranges and muted earth tones, and while a huge bar dominates one wall, it doesn't have as many seats as it might, thanks to a raw bar and the space given over to wide, heavy barstools. Facing it is a row of old-fashioned booths that would be ideal for a tete-a-tete.

A friend and I managed to grab two seats at the bar, in front of the large flatscreen TV showing ESPN -- the other end of the room got scintillating CNN -- and dug into a very rewarding selection of specials. The 3-4-5 happy hour translates to $3 domestic bottles (Bud Lite, Miller Lite, etc.), $4 draft beers (Guinness, Smithwicks, Bass, etc.) and a short selection of $5 appetizers.

These aren't just scaled-down dishes from the main menu; the exquisitely hot Habanero Buffalo Wings, slathered in sauce and served with a pile of blue cheese, only appear at happy hour. Other options include a chicken quesadilla, Korean beef BBQ and a pair of oyster shooters served in tall shot glasses.

Away from the madness of Bethesda Row and the numerous bars along Norfolk Avenue, Gaffney's gets an older, neighborhood crowd of regulars who all seem to be on a first-name basis with the staff. When a newly arrived couple tried to commandeer a seemingly empty chair at the bar, a manager stopped them with, "No, there's someone sitting there, but I think she's going be going pretty soon." We were kind of surprised to see strollers parked at the host stand and multi-generational gatherings during happy hour, but it did lend a community feel to the place.

BlackFinn Restaurant and Saloon

In a community where restaurateur Jeff Black has created an empire of eponymously titled restaurants -- Black's Bar and Kitchen, BlackSalt, Black Market Bistro -- you'd expect a new Bethesda "restaurant and saloon" called BlackFinn to be another cog in the machine. Except it's not. It's a New York-based chain of "traditional" bars, and looks like it; the "interesting" decor -- "vintage" ads for golf clubs! random paintings of George Washington! -- is little more than a variation on T. G. I. Friday's.

Taking over from the long-gone Willie and Reed's, BlackFinn is keeping that sport's bar strength: Thirty televisions, ranging from 60-inch flatscreens mounted high on the walls to the smaller 20-inch models found in booths. The split-level space offers a downstairs restaurant and an upstairs bar/private party area in addition to the street-level space, which means the place can have a DJ on one level Thursday through Saturday while slinging beers for folks who don't want to dance. Not a bad idea, especially when the crowd I've seen varies from groups wearing jeans and "Save Darfur" T-shirts to suited-and-tied professionals.

On the other hand, for a restaurant/bar this size, it's decidedly cramped. I'd really like to know which genius decided to put a row of high tables and chairs just feet from the bar. Between folks trying to order drinks on one side and the walkway for servers and customers on the other, it leads to some of the worst congestion I've seen at a bar in the neighborhood.

Unlike most bars in Bethesda, BlackFinn doesn't generally offer drink specials after work; happy hour consists of a $3.95 bar menu, which includes appetizery specials like a pair of sliders and fries, or plates of calamari or chicken tenders.

The one exception is the Buzzer Beater reverse countdown on Thursday nights: Domestic drafts are $1 between 5 and 6, $2 from 6 to 7 and $3 from 7 to 8. Those who prefer cocktails to Budweiser can get rail and call drinks with a similar price structure: $3 from 5 to 6, $4 between 6 and 7, and then $5 from 7 to 8.

To take advantage of all the bar's screens, another seasonal special is on the way: During the NCAA tournament, Miller Lites will be $2.

Now for my top happy hours in Bethesda:

Rock Bottom Brewery: $1.50 beers on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Tommy Joe's: Half-priced appetizers and $3.50 drinks (all pints, domestic bottles, rail drinks and house wines).

Union Jack's: End-of-the-week specials, including beat the clock deals on Thursday ($1 Bud Light from 7 to 8, $1.50 from 8 to 9, $2 from 9 to 10, etc.) and the "extended happy hour" with $2 Corona bottles, $2 Bud Lights and half-price appetizers until 8 on Friday.

Juste Lounge: $3.99 premium cocktails and appetizers (5-9) and one-hour open bar (9-10) Thursday through Saturday.

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | March 5, 2008; 4:25 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Levante's is often overlooked as a happy hour place in bethesda but from 4-7pm it serves up good wine, beer and snacks. Their $3 sam's and $2 Hommos (with hot pita) and $5 Sucuk Pide are just some of the top bargains. Good TV placement at the bar as well.

Posted by: GSM | March 6, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse

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