Il Bistro offers spirit-forward drinks and about a dozen happy-hour noshes under $5.

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At Il Bistro’s happy hour recently, I combed barman David Nelson’s menu but found no splashy grapefruit-and-lemon foam cocktails like those he once served at Spur Gastropub. Nor is this drink menu as extensive as the list he put together for Tavern Law soon after.

Nelson, the bartender who worked behind two of the most acclaimed cocktail bars in Seattle, now holds court at one of the city’s oldest haunts, absent all that molecular mixology he once dabbled in.

It’s a mostly three-to-four ingredient drink menu, more spirit-forward, the kind of dry and bitter drinks cocktail connoisseurs love.

Il Bistro has become a popular drink spot, partly because of Nelson and also because of the long lines and buzz surrounding Zig Zag Café nearby. The cocktail geeks want a good drink without the crowd hoopla. Il Bistro has become that place.

Even before Nelson’s arrival, Il Bistro served a good happy hour — about a dozen noshes under $5, including the spicy grilled Italian sausage crostini and the aromatic mushroom ravioli in creamy hazelnut sauce.

Now it’s also a hotbed for cocktail fans Tuesdays through Fridays, when Nelson works behind the bar.

It’s a drink menu similar to the historic Vito’s lounge on First Hill — lots of classic and dry cocktails that pay homage to the past, when drinks were less fruity and not dominated by vodka.

Nelson said he wanted “to go old school” to fit this bar’s history. What a history. Il Bistro has been serving craft cocktails since 1975 with a long list of luminaries behind the bar, including Murray Stenson, Charlie Joy, Jeff Rosen, Jim German and the late Richard Young. It’s a handsome bar, with a marble top and a mahogany armrest.

The latest barman to carry on that rich tradition knows how to throw a nice change up, too. In his Guido Contini gin drink, with Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, crème de cacao, Laphroaig and dashes of bitters, you’ll get a burst of chocolate and think candy cocktail. But Nelson gives the drink a wink with a bitter and smoky finish.

Il Bistro, 93A Pike St., offers happy hour daily 5-6:30 p.m. and again 10-midnight Sundays-Thursdays and on Saturdays 11 p.m.- 1 a.m., with food specials from $2.95-$4.95 and a $3-$5 wine-by-the-glass special during the early happy hour (206-682-3049 or www.ilbistro.net).

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com