The Finger-Food Fear Factor

Haute junk food and bargain libations make for unlikely but truly happy hours

I sat down in Murray's for happy hour one day, innocently enough, and asked the server what wines they had. "A chardonnay," he answered. "Everything." By which he meant, presumably, merlot. What brand of chardonnay? I asked. Was there a list? This question so completely freaked him out that he abandoned my table and refused to make eye contact or return. So I made my way to the bar, where my server was engaged in some kind of passive-aggressive shutdown-slash-panic attack and refused to deal with me, answer direct questions, or acknowledge my existence in any way. Finally, with preposterously persistent probing, the newly hired barback and I managed to discover that happy-hour wines were priced at $4, and at least one of them was Pepi pinot grigio, a pretty nice little wine that has a lot of fruit for a pinot grigio, and also a lot of acid, which makes it a nice budget-food choice, so clearly somebody chose it on purpose, and it's not even that hard to say, but who knows. They really didn't want to part with it.

Exhausted by my strange face-to-face encounter with the most wine-fearing, under-trained server in the history of happy hours, I contemplated the complimentary--if schizophrenic--finger foods on offer. There were hand-cut, house-made fresh potato chips so delicious as to be sort of overwhelming: long slices of potato curling like party ribbons in a bowl, snapping crisp, dusted with a smoky spice blend that encouraged various parties at the bar (all drinking liquor--wonder why?) to play tug-of-war with the bowl. Those chips would be a drive-across-town signature item in a better-managed bar, so let's hope one day they will be.

Nearby was a truly lovely assortment of olives--tiny brown ones, medium speckled pinkish ones, fat green ones, and many others--all tossed with a marinade of fresh lemon zest, fennel, chiles, rosemary, and such. Better olives than I see in most of our $30-a-plate restaurants--here, for free. Yet, bafflingly, next to that, was something that seemed exactly like a crock of port-wine cheese spread. And close by, a warming tray of those nondescript cheese-toasts that Murray's regulars like as well as pets like pet food, and, I'm guessing, attributable to the same causes of familiarity and learned helplessness.

I sat down and immediately listed how Murray's happy hour could be improved. Number one: The happy-hour wine offerings could be written down in some fashion, preventing the staff from hiding them. Number 604: Dear Murray's, Your core demographic, like all of us, is aging. But unlike all of us, they are also retiring to the Sun Belt in droves or being ordered by their doctors to stay the hell away from Murray's. So if you in fact do not wish to go the way of the Oldsmobile, the Whig Party, and our post-Watergate innocence, you must embrace change, on some level. Sometimes an establishment can live quite richly in the heart of a population but has to close anyway, because people stop going there, and then all you get is a nice obituary. Like, for example, the New French Restaurant. Fellow Warehouse District pioneer Chez Bananas. And clearly, sometime soon, North Dakota.

Oh, come on. We all know that in 20 years that state is going to be emptier than a Santa Claus suit in July. And then what are we going to do? How are we going to keep punk kids from filling it up with tires--or worse? I think it's about time that Canada, Montana, and we all got together to form a block association, because property values are just going to plummet when the suet hits the fan over there. I'm telling you.

Because I am not afraid to ask the hard questions. At happy hour, especially. Questions like, who, me? How am I supposed to know how my hand ended up on your knee? What am I, the Amazing Kreskin?

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