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Taking On The $1.95 Menu

Cheap eats aren't always what you bargain for.
Monday Jul 10, 2006.     By Erin Brereton
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Drinking that two-glass minimum.
Why is it that so many happy hours start during a decidedly unhappy time period? I don't know about you, but 3 to 5 p.m. for me is typically anything but joyous—it's when I'm trying to wrap up my work for the day and stop my daily caffeine ingestion so I'll be able to sleep at night. Usually, on top of it all, I want a snack.

Sadly, today's employers aren't too fond of people shutting down their computers and slapping up a "Gone boozin'" sign. (Damn you for leaving us, 1950s!) Since I never leave work at five and have empty evening hours thanks to my insomnia, I've been looking for a late-night bargain.

And, on the Fourth of July weekend, I found it. (Nothing says patriotism like a bender!) After downing surprisingly reasonable vodka lemonades at Dublin's Pub, 1050 N. State St., and overpriced apple martinis at Whiskey Bar & Grill, 1015 N Rush St., my friends ambled into a rather large establishment called McCormick & Schmick's, 41 E. Chestnut St. It's apparently some kind of chain—there are locations all over the country—but I had never heard of it, though I'm sure I've walked by it a dozen times.

First, the bad: It is not unlike a Bennigan's in appearance. Now, the good: The tables were littered with green handouts advertising McCormick & Schmick's $1.95 bar menu, available 3:30 to 6 p.m. Monday to Sunday but also 10 p.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday, and Sunday from 9 to 11 p.m.

Since it happened to be none of these times, one friend and I vowed to revisit the following Thursday. And we did, after first stalling at the Blue Agave (turns out 10 p.m. can come kinda slowly when you're waiting for it). At 9:45, we excitedly rolled down the street and ambled up onto the tall chairs, grasping the $1.95 menu list.

Its offerings are diverse: pecan catfish nuggets, a quarter-pound hotdog with fries, a half-pound cheeseburger with fries, blackened fish tacos with rice and more. But sadly, they aren't so good. I was excited to test out the spinach and artichoke dip and steamed mussels with white wine tomato sauce, but when the dip arrived, it came with too few chips—we had to ask for more—and tasted oddly of lard, sort of like melted Crisco with some parsley thrown in for garnish. I feel like it's pretty hard to ruin a dip that has two ingredients, but then again, if something has the rough taste and feel of caulk, somebody's got some explaining to do.

The mussels didn't fare much better. And it was probably a mistake to order them—I just started eating fish after a 14-year hiatus this year for the health benefits, but I don't like it very much. And if you're going to ease back into shellfish, going for the $1.95 variety probably isn't going to make you consider hosting a Friday night fish fry anytime soon. I don't claim to be a geography expert, but the ocean is far from Chicago. Getting things here from it has to cost more than $2.

And there's a catch. We hadn't noticed the fine print before, but in order to partake in the $1.95 menu, there's a two-drink minimum. That's normally a given with me, but after such a light meal—I managed one mussel and as much dip as I could muster—two glasses of wine are not the best idea. By 11 p.m. I was in a bad state. Great, I thought. I didn't like my appetizers, and now I'm drunk.

And though I was all for staying up late, nothing is worse—not even not sleeping—than drunken sleep, the kind of sleep that, when you wake up, prompts two thoughts: 1. Where is my Advil? And 2. Where exactly am I? Oh, my room, OK, good.

I guess for $1.95, what can you expect? The prices are so low it's really more of novelty—you can't expect huge quality in a special that's offered daily (sometimes twice daily) for less than I spend on a washer load. Alas, not all happy hours turn out to make you happy. I guess timing is everything. From now on, I'm using my late-night hours the old-fashioned way—watching bad cable and drinking alone at home.

Want to check out McCormick & Schmick's happy hour for yourself? Stop by its 41 E. Chestnut St. location Monday through Sunday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. or Monday through Thursday from 10 p.m. to midnight for the specials. They're also offered on Sundays from 9 to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. However, they aren't offered on holidays.

Erin Brereton, our resident urban cowgirl in search of life-on-the-cheap.
Erin Brereton is our resident urban cowgirl on a bi-weekly search for life on the cheap. If you know of the mythic happy hour that she missed, do clue her in.


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