In America, happy hour is a designated period of time to blow off steam after work and, in many cases, eat food for which you'd never pay full price.
But in Spain, the tapas bar serves a different purpose; prior to dinner, the Spanish seek out wine, friends and robust appetizers—a custom that speaks not only to the fact that dinner is traditionally served late but also to the culture's affection for life and its vibrant flavors, enjoyed at a pace that's a few strides slower.
Tapas Picasso bridges the ethnic gap of pre-meal merriment from 5 to 7 p.m. daily with happy-hour pricing on tapas inspired by northern Spanish cuisine. Of the 33 sharable offerings, six are $5 each, and sangria is discounted, too. Specials run all night on Monday, and Tuesday through Thursday, there are an additional three $5 items, three “premium” tapas for $10 and drink specials including bottled Spanish beers—all offered 'til closing time.
The narrow, humble space is warm with colorful art and lively patrons equally engaged in food, drink and conversation. There's a tall bar to get things started, intimate seating for couples and tables toward the front that can be pushed together to accommodate larger parties. The scene is boisterous but relaxed, loud with conversations and flamenco music and service so charming that it begs you to stay and enjoy more.
A sheet of butcher paper is placed on each table, drink orders are taken and French bread rubbed with tomato and garlic arrives gratis. The large pitcher of sangria ($20) quenched our party of three, yielding three glasses each of the refreshing fruit-punch cocktail that's light and effervescent.
I attempted to order a sausage dish, but our server insisted on the $5 special version instead. “This,” he pointed to my menu pick, “is like a Volkswagen.” Then to his: “This is like a Volkswagen with a paint job.” Fried Spanish sausages cut on a bias, with a red-wine sauce over a slice of bread plump from savory juices, proved a wonderful recommendation; it reminded me of a dish cooked in someone's countryside home, even though I've never experienced such a thing.
Tortilla Espanola, commonly referred to as a Spanish omelet, had more of a dense, cakey consistency, thanks to cubed potatoes versus the sliced ones traditionally used. It came in wedges with a pool of aioli, more garlicky and yolky-rich than most versions, and it was great.
“Dip this bread in it,” our server said, motioning to the tomato-rubbed basketful rather than the plain that was also on our table.
Five large, perfectly sautéed shrimp in white wine with mushrooms and garlic (another $5 special) left us craving more, so we decided to share a bowl of the bisque ($6.96); an order of breaded, fried artichoke hearts with a tangy dipping cream; and the Paella a la Valenciana ($10 special) whose mix of sweet seafood and moist, dark chicken meat thrilled us all.
“I wanted to serve a soup at my restaurant that didn't taste like it came from a can,” our server revealed as we wowed about our first spoonfuls. He returned to stir in some sherry. “Try it now.” The creamy soup with chunks of sweet shrimp came to life with its brandy-fortified wine accent and reinvigorated the waning feeding frenzy at our table.
Tapas Picasso marks its 20th year of business in 2012; as if to celebrate its place as a fixture in an ever-changing neighborhood, the proud owner who served us poured a complimentary round of sherry. The warm, nutty alcohol brought forth the flavors of the soup we'd long ago devoured, and even after we left, the sweet experience remained on the tips of our tongues.