Best bars in Austin
Co-owners and operators Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis have created something both impressive and accessible with Roosevelt Room. The giant chalkboard above the bar reads as the history of cocktails with drinks categorized by era from Early Years (pre-1880) to Modern Classics (2000s-present). In addition, there's a signature cocktail menu with a selection of noteworthy concoctions such as the aromatic Cigar Box (mescal, smoked black tea syrup, lavender bitters, tobacco bitters, flamed cinnamon stick). It's about to go through a major revamp, and you can bet that their new libations will be just as inventive as the ones on their first menu.
The original ‘Midnight Cowboy Modeling & Oriental Massage’ sign has been taken down, but a single red bulb still lets you know where to find this hidden bar, a beacon of refuge amongst Dirty Sixth’s bush-league. Guaranteed entry requires a reservation (done on their website)—upon arrival, buzz the button labeled “Harry Craddock” and a host will seat you. Bar manager Tacy Rowland's menu changes seasonally, but you'll always find inventive cocktails like The Icebreaker made with gin, St. Germain, saffron rice syrup, green tea and basil.
Garage exists in the category of Austin’s kind-of hidden bars—it’s the former parking attendant booth tucked in the garage on Colorado Street between 5th and 6th. The raw concrete interior with soaring ceilings and structural columns is lit solely by candles and the glow of a circular bar. The menu is organized in clever car terms: in the “custom” section, you’ll find Garage’s signature drinks; “vintage” is where the classic cocktails are; “refurbished” features modern takes on classics and “GTO” are the $25 upper-echelon cocktails. Go with the Indian Paintbrush (vodka, grapefruit juice, lime, rosemary) for a light herbal option and the Penicillin (Earl Grey Scotch, lemon, ginger, honey) for something a little more brooding (but still appropriate for warmer weather)—both were created by Chauncy James, who also designed the cocktail menu. Also, don’t miss their impressive selection of Japanese whiskey.
The former Longbranch Inn has been transformed into Nickel City, a refreshingly unpretentious cocktail bar with classic cocktails, inventive variations and a legit Detroit-inspired food truck out back. You'll find everything here from $4 local beers to NOLA-inspired frozen drinks on the menu, like the Frozen Irish Coffee, a frosty blend of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, coffee liqueur and cream. At the tiny Cash Only bar in the back, talented industry friends post up shop to test out new creations, and weekly events like trivia and whiskey flight nights means there's always something going on at the Nickel.
The Townsend is a dark, swanky haven for people having a drink before a show at the Paramount Theater across the street, or those of us who eagerly seek out primo watering holes all the time. The Thompson-Townsend building the bar occupies was built in 1875 and boasts a beautifully-preserved facade; equally elegant, the interior boasts satin-y black walls, dimmed chandeliers and classic pintucked seating that extends the length of the long, narrow space. The outstanding bar program was designed by Justin Elliott, whose resume includes Midnight Cowboy, Volstead and Qui. One of many menu standouts: the Herringbone (Old Grand-Dad bonded bourbon, Metaxa 5-star, cardamaro, Cointreau Guignolet, and aromatic bitters). The Townsend also offers cheese and charcuterie in addition to other thoughtful small plates.
In 2011, the iconic Rabbit’s Lounge closed its doors forever—for 40 years, Rosalio “Rabbit” Duran’s humble bar had been the meeting place for Austin’s Chicano politicos. Veteran Austin bartender Scranton Twohey purchased the building from Duran and in the summer of 2013 opened Whisler’s. Twohey’s renovation highlights the space’s raw feel—the archaic stone walls are lit by flickering religious candles—and he added a stunning cocktail program which includes both classic cocktails and those with a modern spin. In addition to the main inside bar and a large open patio, upstairs is Mezcaleria Tobala—a speakeasy-style one room bar with a large selection of the agave-based spirit. Nationally acclaimed food truck, Thai-Kun, has a permanent spot on the back patio as well.
Cheer Up Charlie’s has served as the east side's go-to LGBT bar and music venue, welcoming a diverse crowd with the common goal of just having a good time. Some of the best local and national musical acts and performance artists can be found performing on Cheer Up Charlie’s stage (which backs up to a spectacularly illuminated rock wall) or in the more intimate indoor space. The bar offers signature cocktails like the Golden Ticket (whisky, kombucha, lavender bitters, candied ginger) and the Spicy Cuban (rum, mango juice, elderflower liqueur, and habanero), but you can always find a solid beer collection as well.
King Bee Lounge was formerly the home of blues bar Legendary White Swan, before it was taken over by Billy Hankey (former bar manager at Bar Congress) and Colette Dein (former operations manager of Second Bar + Kitchen). They have a rotating selection of signature drinks that includes classics like the Boulevardier (rye bourbon, campari, sweet vermouth) and frozen drinks like the Bee’s Knees (gin, local honey, lemon juice, served with edible flowers). Because they make decadently topped pizzas in-house, the aroma of baking pizza always lingers in the air—we love the ‘cheezilla.’ Live music, stand-up comedy and theme parties (tiki, Halloween) bring in both old and new faces, but the cocktails, pizza and hospitality keep them coming back.
You’ll find Half Step in a small renovated house like many other Rainey Street bars, but the concept and bar talent sets it far apart from the neighbors. The previously run-down, sketchy structure was gutted, restored, and is now decked out in tea-stained wallpaper and church pew-like booths. Founder Chris Bostick has used his experience in the beverage industry—he was formerly the general manager of Los Angeles’s covert cocktail den the Varnish—to create a stunning bar program with meticulously crafted offerings such as the Prescription Julep (cognac, rye, mint, sugar). The easiest way to find Half Step is to look for the baby blue house emblazoned with the motto, “you earned it.”
Small Victory is a very small bar with very big appeal. Cocktail veteran Josh Loving and business partner Brian Stubbs have transformed the shuttered Mike’s Pub into a dark, cozy drinking den. The 800-square-foot space has a circular table for a group, and a plush banquette that runs the length of the room. The menu of classic cocktails is minimal but thoughtfully curated; each drink is illustrated, and accompanied by an excerpt from the vintage publication in which it originally featured. We love the Daisy de Santiago (Dominican rum, lime juice, sugar syrup, soda, yellow chartreuse float), adapted from the 1939’s The Gentleman’s Companion.
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Classic cocktail culture has been resurrected in Austin.