Oakland’s roots are blue collar, and in turn its bars and restaurants once swung to the working-class end of the socioeconomic pendulum. Today, however, it’s no secret that new, hip, tony establishments — and with all sorts of farm-to-table fare and chef and bartender wizardry — dominate the food-and drink landscape. And that’s cool. But, real talk: We can’t always afford to check out these trendy spots.
Enter our guide to discounted cocktails, small plates, and appetizers, otherwise known as a “happy hour” offerings. Our writers sampled a little bit of everything — waterfront dining, afternoon tea, legit charcuterie — and came up with twenty recommendations for how to get bourgie on a budget.
Afternoon Tea and Pork-Chop Sandwiches
Shooting Star Cafe and Baby Cafe
For those who prioritize snacky Chinese food over cut-rate booze, the most enjoyable East Bay “happy hour” might not technically be a happy hour at all. Why waste your time on $5 well drinks when you can while away an exquisitely pleasant afternoon at one of Oakland Chinatown’s Hong Kong cha chaan teng-style cafes? During the slow hours between lunch and dinner, these restaurants offer “tea time” menus that boast a dizzying selection of discounted food and drink.
Shooting Star Cafe (1022 Webster St., Oakland, 510-251-9882) is probably best known for its horoscope-themed slushy drinks and outlandish decor — a Pee-wee’s Playhouse-esque combination of bejeweled plush purple armchairs and an entire galaxy’s worth of bright yellow stars. If you visit this popular teen hangout during tea time, 3–6 p.m., your server will probably hand you three or four different garishly hued laminated menus (the one for tea time is purple and pink), and the sheer enormity of the options may send you into a mild panic.
Like any proper cha chaan teng, Shooting Star serves a variety of Chinese noodle dishes and rice plates, as well as the Hong Kong-inflected Western dishes that are particular to this style of restaurant: Spam-and-egg sandwiches, spaghetti with pork chops, and things of that nature. If you’re in the mood for an afternoon snack of, say, French toast and curry fish balls, you can do that here — and it’ll only cost you around $10 total.
The best tea time item I’ve found so far is the Macau Pork Chop Roll ($5.50) — a version of Macau’s most famous sandwich, featuring a well-seasoned pan-fried pork chop, sweet mayonnaise, tomatoes, and a thick layer of crisp iceberg lettuce. Served on two slider buns, these reminded me vaguely of the kind of fried-chicken sandwich you’ll find at certain American fast-food outlets — and not in a bad way.
This is the kind of place where a dish might turn out to be wildly different from what you expect, and you’ll have a better time if you just roll with the punches. The “coconut cake,” for instance, wasn’t really a cake at all, but rather a kind of dense white gelatin that’s sometimes served at dim sum spots — cool and refreshing, like a cross between almond tofu and Jell-O. (The waffle-like mini egg puffs — the cafe’s most popular item — don’t get a tea-time discount, but that certainly shouldn’t preclude you from ordering them.)
Practically kitty-corner to Shooting Star, Baby Cafe (358 11th St., Oakland, 510-251-0888) is one of Chinatown’s newer restaurants. Despite the name, there isn’t any particular baby theme to speak of, but the place is very shiny and modern-looking as far as Oakland Chinatown eateries go. The tea time menu is available from 2–6 p.m., making it a viable late-lunch option. That’s convenient, because most of the tea-time specials are savory rather than sweet — and also because the prices are absurdly cheap, with a whole slew of options in the $2–$3 range. Similar to Shooting Star, Baby Cafe doesn’t offer any discount on its signature item, the “rice cube” — a box that’s fashioned out of crispy rice and filled with beef stew. But the rice rolls with beef stew, which will only set you back $4.50 during tea time, were low-key amazing. A substantial portion of it consisted of the soft, gelatinous tendon (the best part of any beef stew worth its salt), and the mini rice rolls soaked up some of the sauce, like chewy, tube-shaped noodles. The rest of the menu is just as appealing: Fried shishamo (aka smelt) for $2.50? Hong Kong-style milk tea for $2? Yes, please, and thank you. (L.T.)
The East Bay’s Cheapest Waterfront Dinner
You’re skeptical, and you have every right to be. Chevys is an overtly, almost-recklessly inauthentic Mexican restaurant smack-dab in a place full of genuine ones. A sprawling chain in a region and political-aesthetic climate where intimate and independent are fetishized. It’s the kind of restaurant where a piss-yellow tabletop sign kindly invites you to “Get Mashed!!” And where the industrially laminated, absolutely massive menu includes items like “Mexicampi Shrimp,” and no fewer than nineteen different margaritas, one of them skinny and two of them raspberry flavored. It’s loud and brightly lit and very, very chain-y. It is not, to be clear, cool. You’ll fucking love it.
You’ll sit out on the deck, even if it’s a little cold out. That deck is what you’re here for, after all: big and right on the bay — close enough to the water that sometimes a seagull will fly up and land on the railing, close enough that you’ll feel like you should be paying more for the privilege.
Happy hour lasts from 4 to 8 p.m. every single day, and the deals are manifold: Draft and bottled beer and well drinks are $5; house margaritas, Mexico ginger mules, and call drinks are $6; 24-ounce draft beers, “Cadillac margaritas,” wine, and sangria are $7. Capably executed bar snacks like chicharrones, chile con queso, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and barbecue carnitas sliders are also on happy-hour offer, all for $7 or less, which makes Chevys probably the Bay Area’s cheapest waterside dinner — though probably not its lowest in sodium.
You will ask your waitress what she recommends and she’ll say a margarita, obviously; her personal favorite is an off-menu mix of the strawberry and mango flavors. And you will say “What the hell, sure!” It’ll taste like an island. Happy hour comes with free unlimited chips and salsa, and as soon as you finish a bowl, new ones will appear, seamlessly and still warm from the fryer.
To your left, cars will snake slowly along the frontage road, painfully ignorant of just how close they are to a cold drink and a big deck and free unlimited chips. To your right, a big family will tuck into a special-occasion dinner, laughing. Straight out ahead, the bay and sky and the trees of the Emeryville marina, and past that Mount Tamalpais, will look like a watercolor painting.
And then the sun will start to set, pink and purple and orange streaking across blue sky, and the family will finish up and go home happy, leftovers in hand, and the little lights strung all around will come on and bathe the deck in warm light, and your waitress will come by and ask if you want another. You will, of course. 1890 Powell St., Emeryville; 510-635-8210; Chevys.com. (E.C.)
Late-Night Sushi and Drinks For Two
In Oakland, where spots for late-night munchies are few and far between, Kansai has long been a beacon. The Temescal sushi joint is big enough to accommodate large parties and is open til 2 a.m. You can watch basketball games there during NBA season, and the restaurant is usually filled with the lively chatter of families and friends sharing nigiri and tall bottles of Sapporo.
Kansai has one of Oakland’s most affordable and well-timed happy hours for night owls and early birds alike: Monday through Thursday from 3–6 p.m. and 10 p.m. ’til close, and Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. ’til close. And on Sundays, it’s all day — so you can eat sushi for the low during regular lunch or dinner hours.
Kansai’s menu is vast and generous, with discounts on appetizers, specialty rolls, udon, and entrees. And, of course, booze. On my recent visit for an early Sunday dinner, I was seated almost instantly even though the restaurant was bustling with customers.
I recently converted from vegan to pescatarian, and Kansai had long been one of my go-tos for veggie-friendly cuisine. The zebra roll with steamed spinach and lightly pickled shitakes, a happy hour item, is a solid option for those who don’t eat seafood. As are the edamame, crispy vegetable tempura, and heaping bowl of vegetarian udon — all on happy hour menu, as well.
On my first visit as a non-vegan, I was eager to try the spider roll — basically a deluxe California roll with deep-fried soft-shell crab, drizzled with a tangy, salty-sweet unagi sauce and sprinkled with crunchy tobiko caviar. The five-piece roll was decadent and very filling. And the tempura roll, with shrimp, fresh avocado, and cucumber, was even better, with the shrimp battered lightly enough to give it maximum flavor. The rolls came with miso soup, a side salad with creamy ginger dressing, and a bowl of edamame.
I paired my sushi selections with a small sake bomb, which consisted of a bottle of Hite, a crisp, light Korean beer, and carafe of hot sake (it was too early for the large sake bomb, which is also on the happy hour menu).
My dinner companion and I left tipsy and full with leftovers in tow — and had only spent about $30 on four rolls and an immodest amount of alcohol. Kansai might not be the spot for top-shelf seafood, but with its efficient service, generous portions, and cheap booze, it’s definitely the move for late-night eats. 4345 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; 510-658-7273. (N.V.)
Staycation in a Glass
They say that tiki is making a comeback, but for some people it never left.
Those people are fans of Trader Vic’s, an iconic tiki bar and restaurant that was started in the Bay Area in 1934. The Bay is in a period of rapid change — several regional institutions have closed their doors while new-fangled tiki bars are opening up — but Trader Vic’s remains the same. Once the place to be seen back in the Eighties and Nineties, it is now a bastion of Bay nostalgia and tiki kitsch quietly nestled in the Emeryville marina.
Trader Vic’s is far from the beaten path of downtown watering holes, but it’s worth the trip. Stepping inside Trader Vic’s is like stepping back in time and into an island mirage: bamboo walls, taxidermy reptiles, and breezy beach music. As the original local tiki hangout, this is the place that set the bar to which all other tiki spots aspire.
Trader Vic’s is most famous for being the place where the Mai Tai was invented, which is why happy hour is the perfect time to try a discounted house version. It tastes like a staycation in a glass, and is also available in mango, guava or Maui flavors.
But be careful — this drink is strong and goes down easy. It’s best to balance the booze and sweetness with some deep fried, salty snacks, like pork crackling and crab rangoon. After a couple hours of sipping Mai Tais, enjoying the beautiful marina view, and feeling slightly like you’re in a 1960s Disneyland hotel bar, you’ll be ready to return to reality feeling, well, happy. Because isn’t that what happy hour is all about: forgetting your problems while taking a quiet, relaxing, booze-filled two-hour vacation away from the rest of the world? Don’t forget to wear a Hawaiian shirt and tip your valet! Happy hour is Tue., 4 p.m. to close; Wed.–Fri., 4–6 p.m. and 9–close. 9 Anchor Dr., Emeryville; 510-653-3400; TraderVicsEmeryville.com. (P.R.)
A Futuristic and Underground Oasis
It felt like the hottest day of the year — one of those summer afternoons where everything is sweaty and it hurts to move your limbs. On those days, there’s only one antidote: As my roommate proclaimed, springing off the couch: “Dollar Oysters! Blind Tiger!”
For the unacquainted: Blind Tiger is the bar next to Gogi Time on Telegraph Avenue and 27th Street that opened this past spring. The front entrance is dark, besides the gleaming, silver tiger head that guards the front doors. Inside, a staircase leads to a huge basement oasis that feels a little bit like a life-size diorama of an Asian marketplace — except underground. An array of Chinese lanterns floats along the ceiling above rows of picnic tables, and projections of cult-classic movies light up the walls. There’s a futuristic air to the room, too — like this might be where people who live on spaceships go instead of the beach.
But the cooling atmosphere is only the second-best reason to go there. No. 1: During happy hour, which is every day from 5–7 p.m., the raw bar is half off — and the featured oyster of the day costs only a buck each. Drinks — house cocktails, beer, wine, and champagne — are a dollar off.
And these aren’t some cheapo oysters that will make you sick. They’re elegantly presented on a bed of ice with all the proper toppings, perfectly cooled. And no matter what oyster is $1 that day, it’s always super fresh.
Other raw-bar selections include yellow tail sashimi ($15), ahi tuna poke ($12), and rock cod ceviche ($11). But I advise sticking to the oysters.
Spend your extra cash on a tropical cocktail. On a recent sweltering afternoon, I chose the Chango Tranquillo: a mix of mezcal, guava puree, grenadine, and lime juice. It was smoky and fruity and not too sweet. I sipped on my cocktail as the bartender placed a dozen oysters in front of me and I forgot entirely that I had been melting just twenty minutes earlier. Even on a day with reasonable weather, it can be difficult to ascend back into the regular world. 2600B Telegraph Ave., Oakland; 510-899-9694; BlindTigerOakland.org. (S.B.)
Fernet and Free Bites
Adesso’s aperitivo hours (Tue.–Thu., 5–6 p.m. and 10:30–11:30 p.m.; and Fri. and Sat. from 5–6 p.m. and 11 p.m.–midnight) are relaxed and low-key, just like the bar itself.
For the early evening happy-hour, martinis (both gin and vodka) are $7. And for the late-night happy hour, you can get $5 Lambrusco and Fernet. At both times, plates of snacks will come out from the kitchen for you to munch while you drink. Recently, these free bites were crostini with ricotta and honey, slices of house-made salumi, and potato chips. The menu is built for snacking, with about twenty types of salumi, and a handful of pâtes to start with. I also highly recommend the arancini — perfectly fried risotto balls filled with cheese and pork ragu; the crispy and refreshing little gems salad; and, on the cheese plate, the nocciolo, a creamy and flavorful sheep, goat, and cow blend.
If you’re looking for heartier fare, Adesso has a frequently changing list of three to four panini with interesting fillings; make sure to get there before the end of tomato season to try the Early Girl tomato panini.
On the regular cocktail menu, the Billionaire (a bourbon-based drink with lemon, grenadine, and absinthe), may help you forget Donald Trump is running for president, and the Jalisco’s Burning, with tequila, lemon, and chili, has a great kick.
On a recent Thursday, the bar was only half-full, which makes this the perfect spot to meet up with a friend you want to actually have a conversation with, or for a date with someone you already know you like. 4395 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; DopoAdesso.com. (J.G.)
Big Like Boogie Nights
Otaez Mexican Restaurant
It’s uncommon these days to see margaritas served in traditional glassware, such as the vessels used in that scene from Boogie Nights, when Brock Landers hands Dirk Diggler a high-octane marg. But that retro cocktail glass remains de rigueur at Otaez, the down-home Mexican spot just west of the tunnel in Alameda: The gigantic margaritas in glasses probably six or seven inches in diameter.
This very brightly lit bar and dining hall, what with its towering ceilings but unremarkable vibe, is nevertheless a sort of comfort-food haven for many Alamedans. (As a side note, you can get a plate brimming with classic combination-platter fare for just nine bucks.) But this story is about the happy-hour deals, and Otaez delivers. Those flying-saucer margaritas are just $5 during the happy time, and only $18 for a pitcher. The drinks err on the sweet and boozy side — but they go straight to the gulliver. Classic street tacos are only a buck during the happy hour, as well. And other botanas, or snacks, vary from $3.95 for nachos to $12.95 for costillas asadas, or grilled short ribs.
Basically, Otaez is the place to be if you’re stuck on the west side of the island and want to get good heat going on margaritas so large they can be difficult to keep steady in your hand. Happy hour is 3–6 p.m., Mon.–Fri. 1619 Webster St., Alameda. OtaezRestaurant.com. (N.M.)
No Basic Well Drinks
Ben & Nick’s Bar & Grill
There’s always room at this bar during happy hour, where the bartenders listen if you want to tell them about your long day, or leave you alone if you want to silently commune with your alcohol.
Ben & Nick’s in bourgie Rockridge in fact boasts a surprisingly great happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Draft beers and wine are $1 off, beer pitchers are discounted, starters are also $1 off, and house cocktails are $2 off.
The starters are all solid versions of typical pub fare and include truffled deviled eggs with bacon, loaded nachos, buffalo wings, and fries (in regular, garlic, cheese, curly, and chili-cheese varieties). There’s also an ever-changing draft beer list to go along with the fried food, including lots of local options.
The discounted house cocktails aren’t just run-of-the-mill well drinks. The Hemingway Daiquri (with rum, luxardo, grapefruit juice and lime) is tart and well rounded, and the Long Goodbye (with gin, genitian liqueur, and spiced grapefruit syrup, on the rocks) is just the drink you need when you’re compelled to start up before five o’clock.
If there’s a sporting event on that day or night, it’ll be on the TVs above the bar, but only a handful of people are ever really paying attention (except during Warriors playoff games). If you want to sit with a friend and celebrate good news with a few cocktails and a bushel of French fries, this is a spot. 5612 College Ave., Oakland; 510-923-0327. (J.G.)
This happy hour feels like a bit of a secret. No signs in the bar advertise it, and there’s nothing on Dogwood’s website. But, we promise, it exists: From 4–6 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday, and all night on Monday, you can get $5 wells, drafts, and wine. And this is the best time to experience Dogwood. By 7 p.m., the bar is often four dudes deep.
During those late-afternoon/early-evening hours, you can easily get the attention of the bartenders, and you have your choice of seating. Bring your drinks to one of the tiny tables in the back and read a book, or bond with a buddy as you look out the big window onto Telegraph.
Dogwood features a short food menu, but everything is a winner. And it’s famous for grilled cheese sandwiches that make the whole bar smell like warm butter. These sandwiches all start with mozzarella and cheddar on levain bread, and there’s a variety of add-ons, including truffle oil, tomato jam, and bacon chutney.
But the meat-and-cheese plate is even better. It’s made up of rotating selections of salumi and cheese, with generous dollops of mustard and honey, salty marcona almonds, and crisp pickled vegetables.
If you want to splurge on one of the cocktails from the regular menu after you get a $5 bargain drink, they make a great Sazerac, and their Bees Knees is just the drink for a gin lover. The mostly late-twenties crowd streams in after work, when the noise level in the bar rises correspondingly, so save your serious conversations for the pre-six o’clock hours. 1644 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; 510-444-6669; BarDogwood.com. (J.G.)
Ten More (Just in Case)
Come for the classic tiki experience and well-mixed, appreciably boozy tropical drinks; stay for dinner, or a close enough approximation. From 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, and all damn day Mondays, Forbidden Island offers snacks such as crab Rangoon, coconut shrimp, and waffle fries, all for $5. A selection of well drinks is $7, and drafts beers are $4. 1304 Lincoln Ave, Alameda; 510-749-0332; ForbiddenIslandAlameda.com. (E.C.)
This cozy, upscale, Japanese-American diner doesn’t seem at first glance like the kind of place where you should be able to get a High Life ($2) and an order of spicy-salty-crispy-perfect miso chicken wings ($5) for less than the price of some Starbucks drinks. But we’re not questioning it. Happy hours runs 3–5 p.m. daily. 1915 San Pablo Ave., Oakland; 510-788-6217; HopscotchOakland.com. (E.C.)
A few pro tips for what I’m told is a classic Fruitvale-neighborhood spot. 1) Happy hour is from 2–6 p.m. on weekdays, which means half-off all appetizers (think less than $5 nachos) and $3.50 Modelos. Basically, it’s a late lunch. 2) There’s a breakfast special every damn weekday, too, with all menu items, from chilaquiles to American-style plates, under $6. 1001 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland. 510-533-7194. GuadalajaraOakland.com. (N.M.)
On a nice afternoon, there’s pretty much no better place in the East Bay to be than Lake Chalet’s sprawling, sun-warmed deck, where the happy hour runs 3–6 p.m., and then again at 9 p.m. to close, on Monday–Friday, and where beer, wine, cocktails, and a wide slate of food offerings (ceviche! seafood deviled eggs!) come at deep discount. 1520 Lakeside Dr., Oakland, 510-208-5253, TheLakeChalet.com. (E.C.)
During happy hour, every single drink purchase at this low-key, West Berkeley tapas bar comes with a free small plate — and this is far from mixed nuts and popcorn. Think crispy fried Brussels sprouts, slow-cooked octopus, patatas bravas slicked with aioli and still steaming from the fryer. Happy hour runs 4–6 p.m. and 10 p.m.–midnight Tue.–Sun. 2026 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. LaMarchaBerkeley.com. (E.C.)
Temescal’s best-kept secret might well be Marc 49’s plant-lined back patio, “chill vibe,” and oyster happy hour: From 5-7 p.m. on weekdays and 3-5 p.m. on Saturdays, oysters are $1.50, draft beers are $5, wine is $7, and gimlets, negronis, and boulevardiers are $8. 4915 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-652-2100, Marc49.com. (E.C.)
Revival Bar + Kitchen
This downtown Berkeley mainstay offers $5 wines, $8 well drinks, and $6 bar bites (think flatbreads, charcuterie, and the like) — all in a schmancy-feeling, high-ceilinged setting just stumbling distance from BART. 3:30-6 p.m. Tue.-Fri., and 8 p.m. to close Sun. 2102 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; RevivalBarAndKitchen.com. (E.C.)
If you’re looking to ball on a budget (or, ahem, impress a date despite having exactly $31.47 in your bank account), get thee to Shakewell on a Sunday afternoon for a glass of Spanish tempranillo ($6) or fruit-studded, housemade sangria ($10) — no nameless red blends here — plus half-off a rotating menu of Mediterranean-inflected bar bites like warm olives, patatas bravas, and bacon-wrapped dates. Tue.-Sun. 4-6 p.m. 3407 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland. ShakewellOakland.com. (E.C.)
As if Sliver’s happy hour wasn’t already generous enough, each drink (starting at $4 for beer) comes with, well, a “sliver” — a half-slice of whatever the day’s seasonal, vegetarian pizza is — completely free. 2132 Center St., Berkeley; 510-356-4044; SliverPizzeria.com. (E.C.)
Lost & Found
It wouldn’t be happy hour without a friggin’ beer garden. Enter Lost & Found: This oft-overlooked spot on Telegraph serves up $3 cans of craft brew and $5 drafts for two hours on weekdays, from 4 to 6 p.m. And there’s always deviled eggs for five bucks. 2040 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 510-763-2040. LostAndFound510.com. (N.M.)