Last issue we talked Dallas, which is full of food and drink surprises these days… Austin gets all the love in national press, and among many I know. As music is the first love of my life, Austin certainly gains points there (although New Orleans remains the ultimate music city in my book).
But I found all three Texas cities I returned to during my two week summer road road trip across the state — Dallas, Houston and Austin — hold their own strengths and fantastic people.
For me, Austin’s funky playfulness doesn’t outshine the larger cities to the north and south, though many I know are all about Austin. Austin is rich in young, white hipster culture — heavy on food trucks and live music clubs. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find its honky-tonk heartbeat and three of the greatest dive bars in the country.
With the front of a “oriental massage” sign, Midnight Cowboy is a full-on speakeasy and cocktail geek’s den, complete with the typical reservations-only format and no cell phones. Thankfully, the staff is chill and the vibe friendly — and it is all about the cocktails here, not about getting rowdy with friends (a vibe I continue to appreciate). The narrow space is a welcome respite from touristy, annoying, party-hard 6th Street.
Cocktails here were the most advanced I had in Austin. This is where you’re likely to see big city trends like sherry or elevated Tiki cocktails. I appreciated the savory whisper of pink peppercorns infused in Fords Gin in the Gin-Soaked Goy ($12). This drink is garden-fresh with sage gastrique and sage leaves, served over crushed ice. A playful, dessert-like (but not sweet) drink — also over crushed ice — is Haystack Charm ($12), a blend of Cabeza tequila, Strega Italian herbal liqueur, coconut cream, BrancaMenta, lemon, Angostura bitters and fresh mint. It’s simultaneously minty, bright, creamy and herbal.
Open in June, just a couple weeks before my July visit, The Townsend is in a historic, lofty building in downtown Austin, with an intimate live music venue in a back room. The elegant space glistens with chandeliers and is lined with books.
Partner/Director of Hospitality Justin Elliott crafted the menu and with bar manager Bob King, they run a place that feels both classy and relaxed.
Standout cocktails? Besides the Single Engine Plane (pictured above), Herringbone ($11) shows off Wild Turkey 101 bourbon and under-used Greek brandy Metaxa 5-star, partnering those sweet, lush notes with the cardamom kick of Cardamaro, and cherry liqueur, Cointreau Guignolet, seasoned with aromatic bitters.
Another boozy, intriguing sipper isstreet corn risotto ($11) doused in cotija cheese, jalapeno, lime, charred pepper.
Whisler’s and Mezcaleria Tobala
After tasting six of them, Whisler’s drinks are solid, if not particularly memorable (light, easy, not complex). But the space exudes an-only-in-Austin feel. Evoking an Alamo-era, Spanish mission outpost with chandeliers and candles illuminating its exposed stone walls, weathered wood imparts a sacred feel, especially at the Virgin of Guadalupe shrine in the back. The large patio outside feels like an other world: if Mexico met Spain in Texas.
Upstairs is intimate Mezcaleria Tobala, a haven for the mezcal lover, transporting me back to Oaxaca. It’s not about cocktails, but about neat pours of mezcal in all manner of agave varietals, including a number of wild mezcals. This is a place to get schooled or to talk in hushed tones with good friends or dates (so please, keep the groups and festive crowds downstairs so us mezcal geeks can enjoy it).
A laid-back gastropub in the chill, more suburban (i.e. you’ll need a car) North Loop neighborhood, Drink. Well. had me at Road House (Patrick Swayze’s so-bad-it’s-good-1989 film) playing on the flat screen above the bar. Friendly bar staff and a Tiki-influenced cocktail menu sealed the deal — as did a basket of house potato chips ($5) dipped in a warm white bean/fried garlic dip.
With two NYC bars, Weather Up opened an Austin bar in 2012. The large back garden transports me to New Orleans, reminding me a bit of bars like Bacchanal, albeit without the live music and eclectic gathering.
Still, from the chill indoor space to the large yard, Weather Up is a retreat for refreshers like Seabrooke ($13), a mix of tequila, Aperol, watermelon shrub, lime and Angostura bitters, or a slushie, La Nina ($10), an icy blend of white rum, fresh lime, vanilla strawberry shrub and mint — feeling like a savior from the relentless Texas heat.
On hip Rainey St. lined with quirky bars, Half Step is a welcome escape from the partiers wandering the street. Late-afternoon it’s downright peaceful.
Opened by Austin local Chris Bostick with powerhouse NY and LA barmen Eric Alperin, Cedd Moses, Sasha Petraske and Eric Needleman, here classic cocktails are simple and commonplace on the short menu (think a classic Daiquiri or Remember the Maine — but expertly made.)
Sitting on a wood booth with vintage, flowered wallpaper as a backdrop in the air-conditioned space, a drink here is downright restorative.
With high ceilings in a narrow space, Bar Congress (next to sister Restaurant Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen) is a chic downtown cocktail respite with a menu from Director of Bars + Beverage Jason Stevens, alongside a 16-bottle Enomatic preservation system housing rotating “shift shots” (e.g. Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc and Cynar with salt). Classics dominate the cocktail menu (like the refreshing Queen’s Park Swizzle, pictured) while savvy spirit choices highlight new elements to standard cocktails, as in a TC Negroni ($12), where the forest-garden layers of St. George Terroir Gin alongside Gran Classico Bitter and Italian sweet vermouth make for verdant Negroni.
Dive Bar & Live Music Classics
Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon
The Little Longhorn Saloon — aka Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon — is an Austin institution and a spot I’d deem # 1 for experiencing “real”, old school Austin. It’s also unlike any bar in the world, thanks to the now-retired Ginny (yes, a fellow Ginny/Virginia, so I loved her immediately), who has run the bar since the 1960’s and is now in her 80s.
In a more suburban area of Austin, the structure looks like a cross between a neighborhood church and a barn. The tiny bar and rowdy back parking lot are the backdrop for cheap Lone Star beers and excellent, live honky-tonk, especially the great Dale Watson, who is my favorite current day Texas musician, recalling some of my musical heroes, like Waylon Jennings and George Jones, whose songs he sings alongside originals.
Though he tours other cities, Austin-based Watson got his start at Ginny’s and personally revived legendary Chicken Shit Bingo. If you’re in Austin on a Sunday, run, don’t walk, to the Little Longhorn where even kids are welcome as locals dance to live music and bet hourly on which bingo number a live chicken actually will sh– on first, called by Ginny herself.
Read more about this one-of-a-kind experience and its fascinating history here. This place is a treasure. Here I felt such a sense of place, I realized the experience could be recreated nowhere else.
Another only-in-Austin place, Broken Spoke rightly deems itself “the last of the true Texas dance halls.” Owners James and Annetta White have run the bar, which looks like a honky-tonk roadhouse in the middle of nowhere but is surrounded by fancy new condo buildings and strip malls. Broken Spoke evokes a Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys country-swing era, music you are likely to hear on any random night.
As with Ginny’s, this isn’t about the drinks (cheap beer is – again – the staple), but it is all about the live music, two-stepping and watching locals of all ages show off their dance skills. The Renaissance Man and I even took to the dance floor for a few rounds ourselves. History oozes from the barn-like walls and one could picture many a film or dance scene filmed here. Legends from Ernest Tubb to George Straight (or country greats from the 1940s-50s, like Kitty Wells and Bob Wills), have played here.
Even on a random Tuesday night, music quality is high. Austinite Willie Nelson is revered here, as everywhere in Austin, and used to play at the Spoke in his young, crew-cut days — and is known to still play here from time-to-time. For classic country music fans like myself, what they deem the “tourist trap” memorabilia room is a must-see: dusty and haphazard, signed photos and artifacts line the room from all the greats that have passed through these doors. Long may the Broken Spoke live!
Oh, Whip In, I wish you were in my town. An Indian pub/brewery with mash-up dishes like South Indian Frito pie ($10), live bands inside (around a creaky, old piano) and outside (in a covered patio/garden), plus an impressive selection of craft beers, dry Rieslings and rosés to please the wine geek, makes it a place you want to linger with a group of friends. Next to gas stations off the highway, it’s a blessed anomaly for many reasons.