Downtown Condo Guys

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Food | Downtown

‘The King of Happy Hour’

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

Remember when alluring price breaks on wine, beer, and cocktails awaited at countless establishments at the end of our workdays? And when the grub that helped soak up those libations was also discounted—or even free at times? As a longtime authority of San Diego’s happy-hour scene, the “King of Happy Hour,” assures us that this decades-old tradition isn’t completely dead despite the punishing blow it took from the pandemic.

The “king’s” real name is Robert Esparza. He’s a former bartender who recently began rebuilding the website he launched in 2008, which has since served as a comprehensive resource for finding the latest steals in nearly every neighborhood in San Diego. Now, with significantly less listings than before because of the pandemic, the site still maintains the trust of local bar keepers, industry workers, media, and happy-hour enthusiasts.

Esparza shares with us the current state of happy hour while revealing some of his favorite places in our Downtown/Uptown areas that are slowly bringing back their deals.

Downtown Condo Guys: How has the King of Happy Hour website changed since the pandemic?

Esparza: Prior to Covid, we had over 650 listings on the site. We now have 110. It’s not that 500 places all went out of business. It’s because many bars and restaurants changed their business hours since reopening—and many of them don’t offer specials anymore. That meant all of the info in our database was incorrect, so we deleted everything earlier this year and started rebuilding from scratch.

Downtown Condo Guys: How would you rate the comeback of happy hour in metro San Diego?

Esparza: Pitifully slow. One of the reasons is that establishments are obviously trying to recoup their financial losses, which means everything is more expensive now. When I started asking for updates, a lot of places said they were no longer offering happy hour. And many aren’t even open seven days a week any more. I’m starting to wonder if that’s a business model that might stick around.

Also, there are still a lot of staff shortages. Everyone thought that when unemployment benefits ended on Sept. 4 that workers would run back to their jobs. That hasn’t been the case so far.

Downtown Condo Guys: In normal times, and even currently, would you say there is a good concentration of happy hours available in the Downtown/Uptown areas of San Diego?

Esparza: Downtown in itself has more happy hours than any other area in San Diego County. It is the second most visited page on our website next to Pacific Beach.

Downtown Condo Guys: Based on your bartending experience at places like The Brigantine and Por Favor, what is your ideal happy hour? And what common mistakes do businesses make in structuring their programs?

Esparza: I prefer early start times. One of our favorites right now is Taste & Thirst, which runs from 3 to 8p. They offer half-off on all drinks, drafts, and bottled beers. Meze Greek Fusion in the East Village also starts happy hour at 3p. The mistakes I see are starting happy hours too late, like at 5p or after, and not offering food specials. People get hungry when they’re drinking.

Downtown Condo Guys: Are the days of free food over with?

Esparza: Yes, 100 percent. It was over before the pandemic, maybe with exceptions like Casa Guadalajara in Old Town, which used to offer free tacos and burritos. Years ago, it was standard at a lot of places to serve free finger foods during happy hour.

Downtown Condo Guys: What are your favorite places, based on their specific attributes, starting with who offers the most relaxing happy hour?

Esparza: Parc-Bistro Brasserie in Bankers Hill. It’s what I call an ‘adult happy hour’ because there’s more of a focus on wine than there is on craft beer.

Downtown Condo Guys: Most festive happy hour?

Esparza: El Chingon in the Gaslamp.

Downtown Condo Guys: Best beer deal?

Esparza: That would be at Farmers Table in Little Italy. They have $5 beers from 3 to 6p Sunday through Thursday. That’s really cheap considering the state of affairs right now.

Downtown Condo Guys: Strongest margarita?

Esparza: King and Queen Cantina in Little Italy has very good ones. And the ‘Bad Ass’ margarita at El Chingon is also good.

Downtown Condo Guys: Best overall drink deals?

Esparza: Sushi 2 on Broadway because of their $4 craft beers and $4 sake bombs—and their all-day Monday happy hour. Also, Baja Betty’s in Hillcrest, which has $5.50 margaritas, wines, draft beer, sangria, and shots from 2 to 6p, Monday through Friday.

Downtown Condo Guys: Finally, how and when did you adopt the regal name ‘King of Happy Hour?’

Esparza: The nickname came from a friend who started calling me ‘king.’ From there, it transferred to my business cards. I either go by that name, or Rob, or Robert, when working with people and bar owners. I really don’t have a preference.