While many people may think of fine dining establishments such as McCormick & Schmick's, Mortons - The Steakhouse and The Palm as a place to celebrate special occasions, the people running the restaurants are embracing happy hour as a time to show off to a wide mix of people.

Peggy Barker says in her four years behind the bar at McCormick & Schmick's she's seen a diverse crowd from casino visitors to local residents.

"I think some people stumble upon it, while others really know what they're doing," she says. "I had one guest who actually had a spread sheet, broken down from the marina to the Boardwalk, down to the times and dates. She was comparing us to other happy hours and she said she was actually very impressed with what we have to offer."

Even though McCormick & Schmick's is known as a seafood restaurant, executive chef Robert Rivera doesn't pack the extensive happy hour menu - available 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays and noon to 7 p.m. on weekends - with fish, preferring to showcase great cooking technique and whet guests' appetites for dinner.

"Of course we want to attract a crowd to showcase our menu, but we want to capture them with this home-style, comfort food and get them thinking, 'If they do this well, what do they have for dinner?'" he says. "I think people come for the personality and pretty faces, then realize this is a good place to relax and enjoy some great cocktails. We leave the seafood for later."

But that doesn't mean they're skimping on the offerings, a large portion of hummus with pita chips and cucumbers or sweet-potato fries start at just $2.95, while a full-size cheeseburger or chicken sliders cost $3.95. And of course, they do offer some seafood, including McCormick & Schmick's famous calamari or oyster shooters for $4.95 or baja fish tacos, and Panko shrimp skewers for $5.95.

And a lot of thought goes into those small plates. The blackened chicken quesadilla is made with a chipotle tortilla and has green, red and jalapeno peppers inside "for that Cajun spice, then the sour cream drizzled on top and pico (de gallo) help mellow out the flavor," Rivera explains.

Of course, everyone has their own recipe for happy hour. At Harry's Oyster Bar, guests can try dozens of different oysters on the half-shell for just $1 each 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays.

The Palm's focus is on highlighting the prime steaks, both at happy hour and through specials such as the three-course "Steak Your Claim" dinner available through March 31, says general manager Paul Sandler. For happy hour, regular prices on the Prime Bites menu (usually $10.90 to 12.90) are simply cut in half 5 to 7 p.m. Sundays through Fridays.

"A lot of our items are smaller versions of our regular menu, like the prime steakburger sliders, or our famous crab cakes," he says. "Then we have the Nova Scotia lobster sliders and Nova Scotia lobster and bacon fondue, which is a warm fondue infused with Sam Adams Boston lager," plus more.

But for most people, the happiest thing about the hour is relaxing after work with a cold beverage. McCormick & Schmick's offers deals on everything from draft beers to wine and specialty martinis. And at such fine dining establishments, the liqour used for well drinks is considered premium at some other restaurants, Sandler says. So that's a deal, too.

Contact Felicia Compian:

609-272-7209