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FREE FOR ALL : Complimentary Food Spreads Are Getting Fancier as Happy Hour Competition Heats Up

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

It is a sad fact, yet as incontrovertible as gravity, that even in the kinder, gentler America of 1989, there is still no such thing as a free lunch.

But a free dinner? That’s different. About 4 p.m. or so, if you know where to look, the cornucopia opens up and an ocean of gratis goodies comes spilling out, stretching the capacity of thousands of salad-size plates throughout the county.

The after-work happy hour buffet is the freeloader’s paradise, even if it is not specifically intended to be. Each weekday, in dozens of county restaurants and hotels, harried 9-to-5ers--to whom a couple of build-your-own tacos at the local watering hole sound a lot better than a microwave platter of Lean Cuisine at home--order an often-discounted drink at the bar and immediately speed off to the buffet to load up the little platter with everything from pasta salad to mini-quiche.

For restaurants and hotels, the happy hour buffet is a business hook, an enticement often aimed specifically at employees who work in the neighborhood who might prefer guacamole to gridlock.

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“It gives people who have a long drive the opportunity to stop for something to eat and drink,” said Mario Maldonado, general manager of the Black Angus restaurant in Santa Ana. “And once they’re here, they may decide to have dinner or stay for the entertainment later.”

Robin McElfresh, a physical therapist from Orange who works near the Black Angus, said she comes to the restaurant’s happy hour about once a week to “calm down, relax and have something to eat. They have really good food here. It’s not cheap stuff. For the price of the drinks, it’s definitely worth it.”

Occasionally, she said, she makes the happy hour her evening meal.

“That’s what it is tonight,” she said. “I’m stuffed.”

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Such a practice doesn’t bother Maldonado.

“It’s very, very common,” he said, laughing. “People sometimes will order a Coke and have a whole meal here. We don’t mind, though. They may tell someone else (about the restaurant) or buy something else while they’re here or later on. It’s worth it because we get repeat business.”

At Charley Brown’s in Anaheim, manager Dave Marshall said the happy hour he oversees each weekday is designed specifically to promote business in the bar.

“We don’t have dancing or a big facility, so we can’t use that as an enticement,” he said. “So our happy hour is our draw card. We’re hoping people will see it and come back to the bar.”

There are actually two happy hour buffets each weeknight at Charley Brown’s, one from 4 to 7 p.m. and another from 10 p.m. to closing time at 1:30 a.m., an arrangement Marshall said he believes is unique in the county.

Several county hotels, Marshall said, offer happy hour buffets of varying sizes, but restaurants are less likely to do it because of the expense involved in laying on a variety of hot and cold dishes each evening. Also, restaurants are more likely than hotels to offer happy hour discounts on drinks.

Marshall estimated that the twice-a-night happy hours at Charley Brown’s cost the restaurant about $6,000 a month.

Price, however, is no object to the dedicated happy hour buffet fan, to whom everything edible is free. To such diners variety--and often quantity--is the key to a successful apres-work feed.

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Here then are several of the county’s most appetizing--and filling--happy hour buffet destinations:

The Red Onion (101 E. Sandpointe Ave., Santa Ana; 2406 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach; 16450 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach; 1446 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton)--Probably the most extensive happy hour buffet in the county. At the Santa Ana location, for instance, the food-laden tables are arranged diagonally across the sunken dance floor and are topped with enough Plexiglas sneeze shields to make the whole affair look like a big diving bell.

Among the items: fresh fruit and vegetables, pretzels, trail mix, hot dogs, roast chicken, pasta, sauteed vegetables, seven varieties of Mexican food, potato skins, build-your-own nachos/burritos/tostadas and eight different salads, from cole slaw to seafood.

General manager Ted Zoutis said that such variety and size is unusual, but “the philosophy we’ve used for years is that each restaurant is like a house where you put out food for guests. We want people to try our food. If they think the food is good at happy hour, they might think that it’s going to be far better in the dining room. It’s a marketing technique.”

Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus (2011 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim; 7111 Beach Blvd., Buena Park; 17920 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley; 12900 Euclid St., Garden Grove; 23221 Lake Center Drive, El Toro; 205 E. Imperial Highway, Fullerton; 1350 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana)--Santa Ana manager Maldonado said his branch of the restaurant chain recently expanded its happy hour menu, but it always includes cold salads such as potato salad, cole slaw and pasta salad. A variety of hot dishes is put out, such as barbecued ribs, hot dogs, beef chunks, chicken wings and shredded beef for do-it-yourself tacos. Chips and trail mix are often included, as are Spanish rice, liver pate and an ornate cheese display.

On Friday’s, he said, a 10-foot-long, pre-sliced deli sandwich is laid on.

Charley Brown’s (1751 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim; 16160 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach)--The food is trotted out twice each weeknight, once at 4 p.m. and again at 10 p.m. at the Anaheim location (there is no late buffet at the Huntington Beach restaurant). Like many other restaurant and hotel happy hours, the one at Charley Brown’s is themed and changes each night, Marshall said. Mini-hamburgers and hot dogs with chili are served on Mondays, fajitas on Tuesdays, build-your-own miniature sandwiches on Wednesdays, pizza slices on Thursdays and such items as spicy sausage dogs, barbecued chicken wings and Reuben sandwiches on Fridays.

There is a selection of vegetables and dip, crackers, nuts and other items each day.

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The Red Lion Inn (3050 Bristol St., Costa Mesa)--Two bars in this hotel, Maxi’s Lounge and the Quiet Bar, serve after-work food. The more extensive layout is in Maxi’s Lounge, where such dishes as carved roast rack of beef, quiche, Buffalo wings, breaded zucchini and won tons are served, concierge Stephanie Cunningham said.

“It’s fairly extensive,” she said, “and there are more hot dishes than cold, usually three or four of them.”

Fresh vegetables with dip, fruit and a selection of cheeses are also served.

The Quiet Bar features vegetables and fruit and two hot items that change daily, she said.

The Irvine and Anaheim Hilton hotels (17900 Jamboree Road, Irvine; 777 W. Convention Way, Anaheim)--The buffet at the Irvine Hilton and Towers’ Zot Club bar and the adjacent Lobby Bar has recently been upgraded to include such items as chicken, yakitori and deep-fried clams on Mondays, cheese fondue with crudites on Tuesdays, a Chinese buffet on Wednesdays, pizza on Thursdays and a taco bar on Fridays, said nightclub manager Marius Donnelly.

Vegetables with dip and international cheeses are daily fixtures. The food is available in the Lobby Bar from 4:30 to 7 p.m. and in the adjacent Zot’s until about 8, Donnelly said. At the Anaheim Hilton & Towers, both the Lobby Bar and the Avenue Bar offer happy hour buffets from 4:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays. The hot dishes change each day and include such items as nachos, deep-fried jalapenos, pizza squares, deep-fried shrimp and quesadillas. Cold hors d’oeuvres include vegetable crudites and a domestic and imported cheese board.

TGI Friday’s (601 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa; 3339 City Parkway East, Orange)--Costa Mesa manager Tom Bullard said that although the buffet menu varies each night, a regular menu of items is used from week to week. Hot items--there are at least two served each weeknight from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.--include baguette pizzas, hand-cut and spiced potato chips, tacos, enchiladas and chicken wings in a variety of sauces. Either a cheese or fruit spread is put out each night.

The Beverly Heritage Hotel (3350 Avenue of the Arts, Costa Mesa)--A 4:30-to-7 p.m. buffet is served in Brandon’s Lounge each weekday, with at least two hot entrees, said Robert Lindsay, the hotel’s director of food and beverage.

“We do pretty much theme buffets,” he said, “like hot dogs at World Series time, that sort of thing.”

Mexican finger food, French crepes and other ethnic dishes are served on a rotating basis, always with fresh fruit and cheese. Carved roast beef is served every Friday.

Le Hotel Meridien (4500 MacArthur Blvd., Newport Beach)--The hotel’s Atrium Bar serves up such exotic goodies as meatballs with Dijonnaise sauce, dim sum and bite-size crepes, along with music from a combo from 5 to 7 p.m. weeknights. There are usually two or three hot items at any serving, food and beverage public relations coordinator Barbara Eidson said. The individual portions may be small, she said, but they are popular enough to tempt guests to make a meal out of them.

“We’ve seen them try that, for sure,” she said.

The Doubletree Hotel at The City (100 S. The City Drive, Orange)--Hunters Saloon serves its irregular theme buffet from 5 to 7 p.m. weeknights. Visitors may happen in on NYC Deli Night, when the buffet items include Reuben sandwiches, bagels and blintzes, bartender Mark Grant said. Or there’s Fondue Night or Wine and Cheese Night or Chinatown Night, or nights with specials on bratwurst-and-beer combinations. There is even a Lunch Box Night, he said, during which food that one might find in a typical school lunch box--such as fresh fruit, sandwiches, cookies and other items--is offered.

Vegetables, fruit, chips and crackers are always served, he said.


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