The Four Seasons' ART Lounge (99 Union St.) has happy-hour deals on food, beer, wine, and selected cocktails from 5 to 7 pm, Tuesday through Sunday, plus an all-you-can-eat cheese buffet and "Northwest tapas" spread every night for $12 and $14, respectively (or $20 for both).
The chichi Fairmont (411 University St.) up the street, meanwhile, has cheap drink and food specials and "endless cheese" and "endless starters" for $12 each. Dress code at both places is "smart casual," whatever that means, but I saw an awful lot of denim and fleece, so I think they'll let violators slide.
The Four Seasons' ART Lounge, in a new building overlooking Elliott Bay, doesn't have much in the way of ambiance (generic hotel-issue leather armchairs, acres of ugly stain-resistant carpet, boring, vaguely "Northwest" art), but the view is killer, assuming you can snag one of the seats by the windows (and ignore the traffic roaring past on the Alaskan Way Viaduct), and the waiters are friendly and unfussy.
The cheese buffet is definitely the way to go here—an intriguing mix of hard and soft cheeses ranging from the pedestrian (Tillamook Cheddar) to the familiar-but-beloved (Humboldt Fog, a soft-ripened goat cheese with a crumbly exterior and a layer of edible ash, resembling fog, in the center), to the funky (a super-stinky Camembert-style runny cheese whose name, sadly, I didn't record). My favorite was the Shropshire Blue, an orange-colored cheese with dramatic blue-green veins of mold.
The appetizer buffet was less impressive. Every one of the apps on offer was cold—less than welcome on a chilly early-spring afternoon. The cheese and meat were barely perceptible in a salad billed as "arugula, pea vines, duck proscuitto, Manchego"—an unruly, overdressed tangle of six-inch-long pea vines and spicy arugula. Similarly, "Spinach noodles, muscat grapes, Guinea hen" contained only the faintest shreds of what tasted like boiled white-meat chicken, and the clammy noodles would have benefited from a toss in a hot skillet. Overall, the dishes (six total) read like an attempt to fill diners up on cheap carbs (potatoes, pasta, bread) while making empty gestures at luxury (duck proscuitto, halibut, Guinea hen).
That definitely wasn't the case at the Fairmont, a wonderfully stuffy, old-school luxury hotel with three separate dining areas (named the Garden, the Terrace, and the Georgian Room). Happy hour happens in the Terrace, a piano bar in the middle of the massive gilt lobby where, under crystal chandeliers—and well within eavesdropping distance of hordes of wealthy out-of-towners—you can enjoy happy-hour food and drinks for as little as $5.
The Dungeness crab-leg shooters were a genuine deal—huge hunks of icy crab meat on top of a tangy (not hot) red salsa, presented in two shot glasses. The ahi tuna tartare would have been fine on its own, but the "white cheddar biscuit" that sat on top of the tuna was so sweet it tasted more like a scone, and the melted Swiss cheese that topped the whole thing was gummy and lukewarm. Dungeness mac and cheese, however, was both rich and refined—an overflowing cup of gooey, piping-hot mac oozing with heavy cream and Cheddar, topped with cheesy, crunchy bread crumbs and a sliver of oven-roasted tomato. And the beef carpaccio was perfect, a tidy pile of red raw beef half-covered in a shower of salty Parmesan shavings.
Beer, wine, and selected martinis are steeply discounted; however, regular drink prices are steep (in the $12-$14 range), and even nonalcoholic drinks are anything but cheap—two club sodas set me back $8.