Happy Hour at Charlie Brown's: Cheap Drinks and Secondhand Smoke
Now, this is more like it: a real happy hour at last. The legendary Charlie Brown's in Capitol Hill is well known to the city's bar-crawlers and chain-smokers, but also to a new generation of students and hipsters who appreciate a place with cheap drinks -- and food served all night.
Even with the force of decades of history behind it, this restaurant at the foot of the former Colburn Hotel is more casual than refined. The interior gives off a vibe of tarnished glamour, but the covered patio is where much of the action happens and where most of Charlie Brown's motley crew enjoys well-priced beverages. Its two happy hours, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., are a must for bargain-seekers.
Just about everyone here is smoking, many lighting one up after another as they chat with pals over Bud Lights. It's one of the few places left where smokers can light up and not feel like outcasts; even the servers smoke between tickets. Dust off the menu and you'll find the usual trappings of an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant: burgers and steaks along with a few Mexican and Greek entrees. I swore off the crab legs and filet mignon to see if I could subsist solely on Charlie Brown's happy-hour munchies.
"Remember when we got the onion rings that could have fed six people?" my dining companions reminisced.
"Yeah. Didn't we eat them all?"
If you're not impressed by the clouds of smoke or the menu offerings, you'll at least be knocked over by Charlie Brown's portion sizes. The best value may be the quesadilla plate ($4), which nets you a heapin' helping of tortilla, cheese and fixings for less than the price of a Big Mac. For comparison, the regular quesadilla platter ($8.95) has been known to block out the sun and frighten small children.
The nachos plate ($4) is less generous, but Charlie Brown's has managed to find the perfect balance between the four main food groups of salt, cheese, salsa and pickled jalapeño. Also offered are a slider and a ground beef taco for a buck each: In this case, you get what you pay for.
Despite the cheap food, the two-for-one drink special is the real draw at happy hour. No mystery as to why; getting something extra appeals to our brain's pleasure center, as does holding a drink in each hand and cackling like a madman.
There are a number of legitimate reasons for Charlie Brown's to bring both drinks out at once: It saves time for the bartender, it keeps customers from claiming they never got a second drink, it gives oddballs the chance to drink both at the same time with a home-made crazy straw. But it's a drag to watch the second drink slowly become diluted with melting ice as you try to down the first, which is why most happy-hour patrons are fast drinkers.
I tried a simple cocktail of sweet-tea vodka and lemonade, and was impressed by the quantity, if not necessarily the quality. Still, such quibbles are puny when Charlie Brown's is about a good, cheap time more than gastronomic sophistication or dazzling mixology. This spot may just end up being my new standby.
Perfect for: Your Uncle Rod, who still smokes Viceroys and mourns the loss of the Wendy's salad bar.
Can't miss: Any two-for-one drink is a steal, but $3.50 for two Buds is especially appropriate given the surroundings and your neighbors.