We were hustling to meet up before 7 p.m., but we needn't have rushed. Though Avenue 5's website listed 7 as the end time of its happy hour, a sign on the door said it runs from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (though, unfortunately, the end time changes to 8 p.m. on April 1).
I'd already been to Avenue 5 for a few nice dinners, but each time, the bar and lounge area seemed buzzing in comparison with the stylish but sedate main dining room, so I wanted to grab some friends to check out the happy hour.
The restaurant's transformation was a family project, led by brothers Colin and Brian MacLaggan and Colin's childhood friend, Nick Carbonne, with design help from the MacLaggans' mom. Colin and Nick, who've both logged time in many respected restaurants, are at Avenue 5 nearly every day and night, with Colin helming the kitchen while Nick shepherds the front of the house. The restaurant, which has been open for almost two years, occupies a portion of what used to be the drag-cabaret bar Lips. I like to imagine that piles of glitter and discarded wigs sit just beyond the current restaurant's back walls.
It was my friend's first time, but he was hooked when the bartender asked him how many ice cubes he wanted in his glass of bourbon. I tried a Last Call, a specialty drink made with guava nectar, pineapple juice and vodka with a spicy sprinkle of chili powder that's $7 during happy hour. Another friend started off with a glass a wine, discounted by $2. The bar was crowded, but we found seats on a low banquette and made ourselves a cozy space with a couple of bar tables.
The bar menu, which shares a few dishes with their regular dinner menu but comes in slightly smaller portions, is all $2 off during the nightly happy hour. We shared a crab cake on Asian slaw and a mixed green salad topped with a breaded-and-fried sphere of goat cheese, both fair, though next time I'd start instead with the hand-shaped tortellini filled with wild mushrooms in a savory broth that had just a touch of sweet Madeira wine.
The best appetizer of the night was a shallow dish of shrimp, broiled simply with lemon, parsley and olive oil. We loved the herby sauce almost more than the seafood and went through much of the bread basket as we mopped up every drop.
At these prices, we could afford to keep eating, so I ordered a medium-rare burger whose patty came cooked to a uniformly juicy pink all the way through and was settled in an exceptional bun, soft on the top and bottom yet crisp where it counted. My favorite vegetable garnishes for a burger are pickles and onions, whose tang, crunch and sharpness of flavor offset the richness of the melted cheese and keep the burger from being dull. Avenue 5's came topped with the best of both worlds: pickled onions, which tasted great juxtaposed with the mild, milky brie cheese.
The burger came with a side salad, but a burger without fries makes my mouth sad, so we shared a basket of adeptly fried skinny shoestring fries. And with it came my next drink, a smooth porter from Deschutes Brewery on draft, only $2. My friends each had a small four-ounce steak (or two halves of a whole New York strip), with some simply prepared veggies.
Food that's not too fussy and pretty solid, in a place where I can be comfortable but still feel special—sometimes that's all I need to make me happy. Avenue 5, 2760 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill, 619-542-0394