Here it is: I love going out to eat.

But dining out can be tough on the pocketbook—especially during these current times. So I have found myself turning more than ever to that wonderful invention: happy hour. But instead of filling my head with college happy hour images of stale popcorn and big mugs of beer (although a pint of beer for $2 can still make me smile), many of today's happy hours instead bring about pictures of high-end food and cocktails in settings that are more like my parents' night out than my parents' basement.

There are many great choices around town—more than I know about to be sure—but here are just a few of my favorites, chosen for deals and atmosphere.

The Madmen Happy Hour
Where: Ike's
When: M-F: 3:00–6:00
Why I like it: This old school steakhouse will send you off with cocktails that will make you want to wear a suit and start smoking, but you can also grab $3 glasses of house wine and still feel ad-agency chic. Eat mini-burgers or roast beef sandwiches for $3, or, if that doesn't do it for you, appetizers are half off.
Bummer: Vegetarians (ahem, me) do not have many options on the menu.

The Late Night Happy Hour
Where: Scusi
When: Everyday 4:00–6:00 and 9:00 to close
Why I like it: Scusi's half priced individual pizzas and $4 house red (Astoria Pinot Noir) make this a great steal for a more midscale experience, and I especially like going here for the after-the-kids-are-in-bed happy hour. The atmosphere is a mix of old-school Italian and modern cool, with complimentary rosemary crackers and spread brought out alongside your water service. And each glass pour is 1/3 a bottle of wine, so no skimping there.
Bummer: Limited seating can make it tough to get in on the action.

The You'll Be Cool Happy Hour
Where: Il Gatto
When: M-F: 4:00–6:00; M-Th: 10:00pm–midnight
Why I like it: Nothing says "cool" like Uptown. And since I'm far from cool, I have to rely on such tricks as geographical proximity to cool. With a fun menu of $3, $5, and $7 appetizers, you can indulge on items like meatball sliders with smoked mozzarella or fire roasted clams while you sip on big glasses of house Chardonnay or Cabernet for $5 a glass.
Bummer: It can get quite crowded, plus there's the painful reminder when you leave: oh yeah, I'm not really cool, I was just pretending

The Food Food Food Happy Hour
Where: Downtowner Woodfire Grill
When: M-F: 3:00–6:00 (when no events are scheduled at the Xcel Center)
Why I like it: Free food. Make that free good food. This is a cheat, really, because wine isn't on the happy hour menu. But I have to let you in on this secret if you're unaware … They have happy hour Monday through Friday, 3-6, but on Thursdays and Fridays—if there isn't an event at the Xcel Center—they put out free wings, breaded Persian cauliflower that's to die for, and woodfire pizzas to nosh on while you drink $3 martinis or $2 well drinks or pints. The rest of the week you can still enjoy those great drink specials along with ½ price appetizers, but I'm telling you, Thursdays and Fridays rock.
Bummer: I never realized how many days the Xcel Center has events.

What are some of your favorite happy hours? Come on … let me in on the scoop!