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Caroline
Photograph: Courtesy Caroline, Roger Ho

The best bars in downtown Austin

From speakeasies to chic hotel lobbies via Japanese restaurants and more, here are the best bars in downtown Austin.

James Wong
Written by
James Wong
Contributor
Erin Kuschner
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Like many major US cities, downtown is the best place to be for bars, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment; and Austin’s certainly no different. The core of the action happens between Rainey, Lamar, the trail, and the Capitol. It also happens to be walkable—no need for a designated driver here. And because Austinites are more partial to a tipple than any Texan, there’s something for everyone in the same vicinity. Downtown you’ll find noisy dive bars just around the corner from swanky hotel bars; you’ll be able to alternate between locally brewed beer and fine imported wines, and you can sake, mezcal, gin, or rum it till your liver’s content. Whether you’re looking for a rooftop sundown party or a quiet date with wine, downtown is where to drop your pins. Here are our picks of the best places to get merry.

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Best bars in downtown Austin

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Warehouse District
  • price 2 of 4

Owners and operators Justin Lavenue, Dennis Gobis, and Matthew Korzelius continue to impress at The Roosevelt Room. The giant chalkboard above the bar reads like the history of cocktails with drinks categorized by era from Early Years (pre-1880) to Modern Classics (2000s-present). In addition, there is a signature cocktail menu with a selection of colorful concoctions such as the aromatic Cigar Box (mezcal, smoked black tea syrup, lavender bitters, tobacco bitters, flamed cinnamon stick). Roosevelt Room’s location gives it instant appeal to existing West 5th and 6th bar patrons, and on any given weekend, the bar is buzzing with conversation, laughter, and movement.

This funky little enclave beneath Moonshine Grill is one of our favorite downtown dens of 2022. The recently opened establishment has just 20 prized seats, so you’ll need to book ahead to join the very intimate party. The cocktail list features a collection of whiskey, scotch, tequila, mezcal, and all the rest. Try the Mrs. Robbins, a mezcal daiquiri-style blend of Mezcal Union El Viejo, Chairman’s Spice, clarified lime juice, and gum syrup. The menu also has gorgeous cheese from Antonelli’s, charcuterie from The Salumeria, plus chocolate and macarons.

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Upstairs at Caroline is the top rooftop bar in town and the best place to let your hair down and have fun (with a cocktail in hand). The colorful outdoor space has a bunch of games for y’all to choose from; giant Jenga, foosball, corn hole, and pool. Bring the gang, scoff some yummy brisket tacos, wash down with Blood Orange Margaritas (especially if it’s a scorching Texas summer), and let the games begin. They say that happy isn’t limited to an hour, and they’re not lying. The downstairs bar is also worth a whirl, as is their coffee counter.

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Downtown
  • price 3 of 4

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 is filled with 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 whisky.

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The modern Japanese restaurant and bar is a slice of Manhattan luxe, Tokyo taste, and Texas charm, all rolled into one. The bar has one of the most comprehensive sake selections in town, grouped into bold, refreshing, fruity, and sparkling (our fave is the very easy-to-drink Miyashita), as well as wines, beers, and cocktails that have heavy Asian influence (think Lychee Martini and Shikoku Spritz). If you’ve landed yourself a booth, make the most of the space and fill the table with bites from their sushi menu.

  • Bars
  • Greater Austin
  • price 2 of 4

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. The exterior is brown and lackluster but what lies inside is a rare feat in the city’s bar district—a legit speakeasy making some of the best classic and craft cocktails in the city. A revamp by bar manager Tacy Rowland has resulted in some phenomenal cocktails, like the Déjà Vu, made with bourbon, rye, whiskey, citrus juices, cinnamon, tiki bitters, and an absinthe flame.

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Verbena’s breezy outdoor courtyard is a local’s little secret for all-day drinks and nibbles, but on weekends brunchers in the know come and pack this place out. If you’re looking to spill the T with a friend, visit off-peak, ask for a table out in the flourishing courtyard, and spill away, whether that’s in the company of espresso or cocktail. Happy hour deals run Monday-Friday between 3pm and 5pm, and there’s no need to leave to check in on your pooch; the courtyard is dog-friendly.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Congress Ave District
  • price 2 of 4

Owner Josh Loving’s Small Victory is actually a huge victory; the bar serves cocktails borrowed from the past in a gorgeous space that still feels like a secret—despite all of the acclaim. Nestled in the corner of the parking garage behind the Stephen F. Austin Royal Sonesta Hotel, the bar is found up a flight of stairs and behind a heavy wooden door. The former dive bar has been transformed with new plush banquette seating that spans the length of the room, as well as a large, round booth in the back that you just know is the epicenter for wheelings and dealings. The Artist’s Special—adapted from a 1927 bar book—is a great example of Small Victory’s style. It’s a variation on the whiskey sour using Scotch instead of American whiskey to add smokiness to the sherry, lemon, and grenadine

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  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Congress Ave District
  • price 2 of 4

Entering Firehouse Lounge is almost like taking a trip to Hogs Head in Harry Potter. On the right of the Firehouse Hostel welcome desk—yes, Firehouse is a hostel too—a large bookcase slides open to reveal a large, sunken lounge, where live music radiates through the space filled with cozy leather booths. The cocktails are served without pretension, the crowd is always friendly, and the speakeasy-esque ambiance makes you feel like you've discovered one of Austin's best gems. 

  • Restaurants
  • Warehouse District
  • price 3 of 4

Prove to your date that you have great taste (and that you are the bon vivant you claimed to be on your Tinder profile) by treating them to an evening at Péché. Located in Austin’s Warehouse District, Péché serves classic French fare with a nod to 19th-century New Orleans via dim chandelier-lit space and a pre-Prohibition-inspired cocktail menu. If you happen to be an absinthe fan, this is your spot, as the bar offers a handful of well-curated absinthe options.

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  • Restaurants
  • Town Lake
  • price 3 of 4

Anyone who travels for work knows that hotel bars are notoriously depressing—a lame beer selection and aggressively-shaken negronis are major bummers. Geraldine’s is not only an exception to the sad hotel bar rule but has an absolute knock-out cocktail program. The Van Zandt Hotel off Rainey Street is a boutique gem, and Geraldine’s is located on the fourth floor. The spacious restaurant has an open kitchen, a stage for the many live acts who perform here, and a separate lounge for those enjoying drinks and bar food. On sweltering days, go down the frozen route—the Apple Chai-Der comes with Jack Daniel’s apple, chai, falernum, pineapple, and lemon.

 

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Congress Ave District
  • price 2 of 4

This downtown whiskey bar may be a Los Angeles transplant, but before you roll your eyes, know this: Seven Grand's 400-plus whiskey collection is nothing to mess with. Decked out in delightful cabin-inspired decor, the bar offers five classic whiskey drinks (old-fashioneds, Sazeracs, etc.) in addition to beer, wine, and other craft cocktails. Or you could put your fate into the hands of Seven Grand's knowledgeable staff, who will turn any whiskey skeptic into a fan.

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  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Downtown
  • price 2 of 4

Next door to Seven Grand is Las Perlas, a mezcaleria dedicated to the smoky spirit. Settle into the green-hued, candlelit space (a patio out back is shared with Seven Grand) and sip on copitas of top-notch mescal, or order a handcrafted cocktail like the smooth Oaxacan Negroni, the Jarritos Paloma on draft or the Spiced Daisy—a Las Perlas original given some extra oomph with fresh-pressed jalapeños. 

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Town Lake
  • price 2 of 4

You’ll find Half Step in a small renovated house like many other Rainey Street bars, but the concept and bar talent set it far apart from the neighbors. The previously run-down, sketchy structure was gutted, restored, and 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.”

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