Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps, please. Ah, those were the days. Unfortunately for bars around the city, it now takes a lot more to attract the discerning Hong Kong worker after a day at the office. So, in the battle to stand out from the crowded field of watering holes, customers are being lured with a new gimmick: the free fancy bar snack. An increasing number of bars and restaurants have caught on to the fact that better-than-average snacks served throughout the evening can attract and keep new clientele. 'It encourages people to stay longer and perhaps have dinner,' says Michele Senigaglia, corporate chef at Italian wine bar and restaurant Di Vino. 'Sometimes, they'll sample a pasta portion then order it as a meal. I allocate money every month to do this kind of food. It's not cheap, but it's become our signature way. It brings something new that nobody did before.' From Central to Causeway Bay and beyond, the city's bars are serving mouth-watering free snacks, ranging from steak sandwiches and pizza slices to roast meat platters and California sushi rolls. Owners and managers have realised that offering discounted alcoholic drinks for a couple of hours during the evening is no guarantee of patronage. Besides, not everyone visiting a restaurant wants to drink alcohol. In fact, many of those offering the nicer nibbles maintain a regular-hour bar price, which doesn't seem to deter patrons. For the venues that serve free food it's also a way to introduce diners to the a la carte menu, and that means more money in the till. For the after-work diner it's the perception that a restaurant is making that extra effort to attract your custom, rather than just discounting the price of a beer for a couple of hours. 'That's the reason we came here,' says recruitment consultant Mala Neary, indicating the buffet of a dozen or so dishes laid out on the bar in Di Vino. Out for the evening with three female friends, she says tasty bar snacks invariably lead to selecting from the main menu. 'If I want beer nuts I can go anywhere and this definitely makes it more of an experience,' she says. Morton's of Chicago, at the Sheraton Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, uses the same filet mignon on its entree menu for the 550 or so free steak sandwiches it serves every week during happy hour. Bar and restaurant Tivo on Wyndham Street delivers 10 to 15 trays of snacks per evening to diners and drinkers to highlight its contemporary Italian menu, while Lotus on Pottinger Street has a weekly sampler night. 'We've always had a bar-grazing menu, but we did it to help promote the menu and our cocktails,' says bartender Liz Mudd. Most customers are happy to sample the snacks and linger for an extra glass of wine or move to the main menu for something more substantial, but there are those who view this trend as a free meal. Until recently, Shambles in Wan Chai served an extensive happy hour buffet, complete with fresh salmon, Parma ham and chocolate fountain. But after some patrons spent the evening nursing one drink while tucking into the food, the buffet was replaced with slices of roast meat, bread and condiments. 'Not everybody was doing it,' says manager Albert Zuniga. 'But now we get people coming in just for drinks even though the food is complimentary.' A short walk away Finds on Wyndham Street dishes up Scandinavian tapas, or scapas. General manager Michel Hadorn says the Scandinavian bar and restaurant was having something of an identity crisis until six months ago when it started serving small portions of the menu during the early evening. It was a popular late night lounge bar, but many customers didn't know about the food. Serving scapas during happy hour is changing that perception, says Hadorn. Rather than a buffet, staff deliver small sampler dishes to patrons' tables, encouraging them to order off the menu. Hadorn says the concept of happy hour has become dated and bars are going to have to discover more innovative ideas beyond food and drink to attract customers. 'Restaurants are trying to attract people in many different ways, but happy hour is getting boring. I don't even like the word,' he says. 'There has to be a new way of getting people in. Someone will have an idea and people will follow.' However, Giacomo Pani, general manager at Di Vino, says he doesn't regard bar snacks as merely a marketing tool. In his home country of Italy, it's traditional to have free nibbles on the bar. 'It's our way of thanking [customers] for being here,' he says. 'That's a completely different message from happy hour.'