Lower-Calorie Choices at Happy Hour

We know how it goes, you get to happy hour and start to get hungry. Here’s how to navigate a menu of bar fare without consuming your entire daily caloric intake.

Wonderland’s Ballroom quesadilla is a menu item you should order at your next happy hour without loading up on calories. Photograph by Erik Uecke

It’s no secret that Washingtonians love bars, but we started to wonder what all those wings and drinks are doing to our health. So we asked Fredericksburg-based registered dietitian Nancy Farrell for her thoughts on the matter. Is it possible to eat at bars and stay healthy?

“Anything’s doable,” she says. “The calories can add up fast when sitting on that bar stool, but use good judgment and you’ll leave feeling comfortable rather than stuffed.”

While she likes going out, Farrell doesn’t frequent bars very often and when she does, she rarely eats there; she says that she’d be hard-pressed to find something that fits her healthy lifestyle.

“I’m a big advocate of fiber so I eat lots of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean meats,” she says, adding that for her, “a meal isn’t a meal unless there are vegetables.”

She starts every day with a run on the treadmill and a personal floor-exercise routine, and then she has a full day of moving through her several obligations. Farrell teaches health and nutrition at Germanna Community College, runs a private medical nutritional therapy practice, and conducts public presentations on proper eating habits. She has also hosted a wellness segment on 1230 AM Talk Radio, and served on the Spotsylvania County School Health Advisory Board and a few Congressional representative health councils.

We put her sharp dietary skills to the test with a handful of standard bar menu items pulled from four Washington bars:

• Wings, as served at First Down Sports Bar in Arlington,

• “Heaping Nachos,” as served at Dogwood Tavern in Falls Church,

• Quesadilla, as served at Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights,

• “Twice Baked Irish” Potato Skins, as served at Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle in Bethesda, and

• French Fries and Mozzarella Sticks, as served everywhere.

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Before we give the verdict, Farrell did have a few tips for bar-hoppers, and it all seemed to boil down to one point: Pay attention—to your appetite, the serving sizes, alternative options, and the food descriptions. Look for words such as “baked,” “grilled,” “roasted,” or “steamed,” and stay away from items that use words like “battered,” “breaded,” “buttered,” “cream,” and “scampi.”

If you remember nothing else, Farrell says, remember to drink water.

“Water keeps you hydrated and helps regulate your appetite,” she explains, adding that you should watch your alcohol intake as well. “Think about where you want to spend your calories. It’s about eating smart.”

If you find yourself faced with a menu like the one above, here’s what the dietitian on your shoulder would say.

DO ORDER . . .

Wonderland Ballroom’s Quesadilla. On average, a veggie or chicken quesadilla is 250 to 650 calories (depending on the toppings) which is within reasonable bounds. An eight-inch tortilla is appropriate.

First Down’s Wings—“but only if you watch the quantity,” Farrell cautions, and only if you get the “Bring the Heat” sauces on the side. More than three wings gives you as many calories as a square meal. If you’re not sure you have the willpower to stop, grab two friends for back-up and share First Down’s smallest size—ten wings.


Dogwood Tavern’s Heaping Nachos. “The serving size is too big. Even the tomatoes, salsa, and scallions can’t rescue this plate,” says Farrell. “Let’s face, it fried chips topped with melted cheese and sour cream can’t be the best option on this menu.”

Other menu options to try: the hummus and pita or grilled oysters at the oyster bar.

Flanagan’s Potato Skins—unless you don’t mind paying for the plate and only eating one or two. According to our expert, there are about 500 calories in a typical six-ounce serving of potato skins, and 50 percent of those calories are from fat.

Other menu options to try: the veggie wrap, or chicken avocado sandwich.

As for the fries and mozzarella sticks, ask for things that may not be on the menu, such as grilled vegetables. “Some good bar fare if you can find it on the menu: shrimp cocktail, Minestrone soup, lean meat and vegetable skewers, and bruschetta.”

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