I’m checking out a new happy hour in Madison each week along with my girlfriend, Abby. I’ll report on the hits, misses and best deals. Suggest your favorite happy hour via email.
Since opening just off the Square in 2011, Merchant has acted as a multipurpose place of food and drink. In addition to functioning as a restaurant and high-end bar, it’s a bottle shop and small deli with gourmet groceries.
On a cold, clear afternoon, Abby and I ducked into Merchant for a couple of drinks. We discovered an intimate space with an open kitchen, ornate wallpaper, wood paneling, and vintage-looking orb lanterns suspended from the ceiling over an ultra-cool backlit bar. In the late afternoon, during the relative quiet before the dinner rush, it’s the sort of low-lit place that encourages discreet conversation with your dining partner — especially if you’re on a date — but it does get loud when it’s packed.
The spot boasts 40-something kinds of bourbon and more than 100 cocktails, all of which can be intimidating to people like Abby and I, who know very little about spirits and the fancy ways of dressing them up. But our server, who seemed to sense our indecision, walked us through the menu and made recommendations based on what we liked. She explained that, for happy hour, all drafts and classic cocktails are $2 off (but food isn’t discounted, so we decided to stick with the drinks).
I ordered a gin cocktail called The Regret for $8. The rosemary and lime flavors were present but not overpowering and it was indeed “spirit-forward,” as our server described it. Abby ordered a whiskey sour for $8, which I sipped. It was strong up front but smooth at the end. She boldly declared she would have “ordered four more” if that wasn’t socially frowned upon. We agreed that our server’s recommendations had been spot on. You can put that skill to the test on Sunday nights after 5 p.m., when dealer’s choice cocktails are just $6.
The big takeaway: Merchant seems to offer something for everyone, but definitely makes killer cocktails. (Expand your drink horizons with dealer’s choice Sundays.) It’s as much a place to hang out as it is to dine, and as much a fancy bottle shop as it is a restaurant. Above all, it’s an intimate space that’s perfect for date night.
Happy hour: 3–6 p.m. everyday