In the 1800s, serial novels featuring people who suddenly found themselves rich were all the rage. Especially popular was the theme of the orphan child who struggles for years only to one day be recognized by a mysterious stranger and then loaded up with riches, at which point said orphan is kind to everyone who was kind to him and royally gets even with everyone who wasn't.
This theme was revived for a spell in the '80s with popular movies like "Brewster's Millions," "Trading Places" and "Annie," proving that the '80s were obsessed with the combo of money and slapstick humor; and that most of us wish we were wealthier, no matter how much money we actually have. We'd love to win the lottery. We'd all love to find out we have a distant rich relative who left us everything. We all speculate about what we'd do if we did: vacation in the Seychelles, buy a James Bond plane (or just one of his watches), hire celebrity chefs to cook for us or go to that Spanish restaurant that turns Wonder bread into clear globules and figs into foam.
But it's still recession time, and the reality is we often have to act like it. Or do we? Here are three ritzy places to spend a little and live big, at least during happy hour (or while waiting for your wealthy great-great aunt twice removed to kick the bucket and not leave everything to her blind Pomeranian).
1014 N. Lamar Blvd., Suite E. 482-8868, www.winkrestaurant.com . 5 p.m. to midnight Mondays-Saturdays.
If Wink's wine bar had a face, you'd probably try to pinch its cheeks. With only six tables, seven barstools and a playlist full of Wilco, it's cute, it's tiny and it's well-behaved. While there you can either wait for your table next door to open up or you can take advantage of their happy hour specials and stay put. If you want to bring your own wine, there's a corking fee. If you want to taste wine, they might let you, and if you want to talk about wine, they'll come back to your table again and again. Basically, everything about Wink's wine bar reveals their MO: They want good people to like good wine. To this end, they double most of their bottle prices, rather than tripling them like many other establishments.
During happy hour (5 to 7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays) their bar appetizers are half-price, and their foie gras sliders ($8) and cheese plate ($14), in particular, are worth it. Their carefully selected wine list ranges from the mid-$20s to a couple hundred dollars per bottle, and wine specials during happy hour change daily or weekly.
500 W. Sixth St. 477-2377, www.bessbistro.com . 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 5 to 11 p.m. Saturdays and 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Though there are now several restaurants around town with a trendy Parisian café theme (involving wrought iron chairs, cocktails with sugar cubes and framed prints of that little green demon slinking around an absinthe bottle), Bess was among the first. Adding to Bess' promotion of itself as a French-wine-vault-turned-watering-hole, it's actually located in a bona fide grotto of a basement, one of the few in town. With its bright brick space and low pressed-tin ceiling, Bess' cozy underground bar is a welcome sight after a long day of work - or even a short one, since happy hour there begins at 2:30 p.m.
During happy hour, their tasty fried green tomatoes over a mint-green crab salad were only $5, their fried artichokes $4.50 and their cheese plate ($8) was topped off with addictive prosciutto-shrouded dates and a honeycomb. Unlike many bar menus, Bess' is imaginative and its portions enigmatically large.
Though not reduced for happy hour, their drinks list stays at less than $10 and is full of favorites, from Sidecars to Sazeracs, as well as more whimsical concoctions, such as their Les Bon Temps ($9, made with that old Southern favorite, Fresca) and something called a Blue Stocking (also $9).
Their Hendricks basil martini ($8.50) was a little light on the basil, but their sangria ($7) was full of fruit and not too sweet. Though their draught system was broken the day I went, bottled beers averaged $4.50, and their wine list is substantial and decently priced (glasses start around $7).
Fleming's Steak House
320 E. Second St. 457-1500, www.flemings steakhouse.com/locations/tx/austin . 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays.
No restaurant category suggests dodgy dealings and sinister shenanigans quite like steakhouses. They're dark, they're expensive and they're often peopled by businesspeople in nice suits who've just had stressful days. In movies, people often get `made' in secret steakhouse booths; later, those same people get gunned down over filet mignons or at the very least threatened with a gravy boat of au jus. And at Fleming's downtown, you get that classic heady atmosphere juxtaposed with great, genuine service.
It's unclear why the staff at Fleming's is so darned cheerful and efficient. It could be that most of them have worked there for years (our server maintained that the average duration of stay for servers there is eight years, and that everyone gets a watch after five - Fleming's version of being made, perhaps). Or it could be that the customers are laid-back and undemanding for a steakhouse - most people at the bar wore suits but were watching ultimate skateboarding championships on the refreshingly small bar TVs.
Or maybe it's just that their happy hour food and drinks (seven days a week, from 5 to 7 p.m.) are as much a joy to serve as they are to ingest - their sweet chile calamari, carpaccio topped with shredded egg and basil, Morse Code shiraz and a Tropical Martini were all on their 5 for $6 'til 7 menu, helpfully named so you don't forget times and prices. Their prime cheeseburger, with bacon and smoky mayo on a sweet challah bun, is also $6 and a contender for best in town.
Pretty much the only thing wrong with Fleming's is the parking situation, made worse by incessant downtown construction, but they do have valet service.