The Austin Chronicle

Bar None

Downtown Watering Holes

March 15, 2002, Food

Please don't be offended by our assumption that you'll be spending a fair amount of time in our local bars while you're here for SXSW Music. All of the action takes place in the clubs with bars in close proximity. There are bars of every possible description in our downtown entertainment district: goth bars, a cowboy billiard parlor, fern bars, brewpubs, shot bars, saloons, Irish pubs, piano bars, you name it. Many of the bars serve food and lots of the restaurants in the area have specially priced bar food to go with their cocktail offerings. Make yourself right at home.

Since you were here last year, there've been some changes: Two of our most revered watering holes have closed, and we have one new famous contender. Last fall, Austin's first modern-day brewpub, the Waterloo Brewing Company, succumbed to a quadruple rent increase, and just last week, the venerable Texas Chili Parlor, a favorite Capitol-area political hangout for the past quarter-century, was seized for $36,000 in back taxes. Waterloo Brewing Company is gone for good, but there's some hope a new operator will buy the Parlor from the IRS and revive it soon. Meanwhile, the newest entry into our local bar sweepstakes is the 45th outlet in the international Hard Rock Cafe chain. Stop into their new location on East Sixth and congratulate them on the great job they've done of renovating the three-story historic building they've filled with Texas-themed rock memorabilia. The menu they're serving is the same one regulars will recognize from all their other locations. However, if you're willing to take a chance on some pub grub with a more uniquely Austin flair, the food staff (Rebecca Chastenet de Géry, Barbara Chisholm, Rachel Feit, MM Pack, Mick Vann, Wes Marshall, and I) has compiled the following list of suggestions. Any and all of these local joints are perfectly capable of providing you with the sustenance necessary for the week of mandatory club crawling you have ahead of you. -- Virginia B. Wood

Ranch 616

616 Nueces, 479-7616

Monday-Thursday, 11am-2:30pm; 5:30-10pm;

Friday-Saturday, 11am-2:30pm; 5:30-11pm

This addition to the West Sixth scene is a standard-bearer of one of our favorite trends: real Texas food that's real good. The food is fresh, casual, and even chic. The wild and whimsical art that adorns the walls tips you off to that. The burger is 8 ounces of Texas black Angus and is served with Tabasco and jalapeño onion rings. And the chicken is crusted in tortilla chips and sautéed with jalapeños and cilantro, topped with a cactus pear sauce. Yep, you're in Texas, honey. The bar is the place to partake of the fantastic food while sipping some of the best martinis and margaritas in the city. -- Barbara Chisholm

Casino El Camino

517 E. Sixth, 469-9330

Daily, 4pm-2am (kitchen closes at 1:30am)

Monday, March 11-Sunday, March 17, open noon-2am

The culinary operation at this funky entertainment-district goth bar is known as "Hell's Kitchen," perhaps because the food that comes out of that little window of light amid all the blackness is worth selling your soul for. It might not seem the most likely place to get a great meal downtown, but this joint uses only the finest ingredients (locally baked buns, hand-formed patties) to create what could be the very best burgers in Austin. We're partial to the Chicago (bacon and cheddar), the Amarillo (Pepper Jack cheese and roasted serrano peppers), the K.C. (grilled onions and barbecue sauce), and the L.A. (avocado and sprouts). These are juicy, two-fisted, four-napkin beauties substantial enough to sustain you through an entire evening of music venue hopping. For hot dog lovers, the chili cheese dog slathered with homemade chili and plenty of cheese should not be missed. -- Virginia B. Wood

Saba Blue Water Cafe

208-D W. Fourth, 478-7222

Monday-Friday, 4pm-2am; Saturday, 5pm-2am

At this stylish Warehouse District hotspot named for a Caribbean island, nibble (or fill up) on a variety of interesting small plates of pan-island-style food, all reasonably priced (most dishes are $7). During Happy Hour, five plates are half-price; the best bargain is the enormous platter of crispy coriander calamari. Other winners are masa-crusted fried oysters served on yucca chips, traditional mu shu pork, and spicy shrimp-and-pork potstickers. -- MM Pack

Shoal Creek Saloon

909 N. Lamar, 477-0600

Daily, 11am-midnight

Don't expect to find gunslingers at this traditional saloon on the western edge of the downtown legal ghetto, just an old-time shuffleboard table, a pool table, and sports on TV. The most unexpected element of this popular neighborhood hangout is some of the best down-home Cajun cooking you're likely to find this far west of Acadiana. Mosey in here some afternoon for a taste of Bud's duck gumbo, crawfish étouffée, fried catfish, and oyster Po'Boys. If you're hungry for genuine Texas fare, they're also mighty proud of their rendition of our national dish, chicken-fried steak. You can relax and enjoy yourself on the comfortable deck that overlooks the now tranquil trickle of Shoal Creek. Ask Bud how it turned into a raging torrent in November of 2001, forcing him to replace all his kitchen equipment overnight in order to keep cooking for his loyal clientele. -- Virginia B. Wood

Bitter End

311 Colorado, 478-2337

Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-10:30pm; Friday, 11:30am-11pm;

Saturday, 5-11pm; Sunday, 5-10:30pm

If you come away with the impression that the chow at this convivial and bustling bar is considerably more than a hastily thrown together combination of finger foods, that's because it is. The menu was designed to complement the on-site brewery, and it succeeds terrifically at just that. The blazing brick oven brings forth pizzas and focaccias that betray their origins, and the semolina-encrusted calamari is never greasy. Alas, our favorite menu item has been removed, we hope temporarily. It's a charcuterie platter that included a homemade sausage, a small heap of pork barbecue, a tiny crock of sinfully rich pate, and a hot, homemade pretzel. Mention it and maybe it'll make an encore appearance. -- Barbara Chisholm

The Clay Pit

1601 Guadalupe, 322-5131

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm; Happy Hour: Monday-Friday, 4-6pm; Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-10pm, Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm

The Clay Pit fills Austin's landmark Bertram Building at 16th & Guadalupe. It's a seductive, spacious place, with leather couches, a sprawling bar made of Longleaf yellow pine, and concrete floors stained naturally with spices like turmeric and paprika. An extensive wine list includes more than 70 selections; the bar stocks single malt scotches and other premium liquors. Two not-to-be-missed happy hour appetizers are the house's Curried Mussels ($7.50 full price) and the Coriander Calamari ($5.95 full price). Happy hour features fantastically reduced, half-price appetizers and $1 off wine, draft beers, premium liquors, and mixed drinks. -- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

Marakesh Cafe and Grill

906 Congress, 476-7735

Monday-Saturday, 11am-10pm

Marakesh is a peaceful oasis of excellent Middle Eastern cuisine, situated in a beautiful and funky 1880s stone building between Ninth and 10th Streets, on the west side of Congress. Owner Samir Saadeh has been satisfying Austin diners since 1999 at this location, and he does a huge lunch business daily. But the ideal time to hit Marakesh is at the peak of traffic drive time, when you can relax, have a beer or glass of wine, and watch the world spin along at its frenzied pace. The menu is relatively vast for the size of the restaurant, and includes choices from all corners of the Middle East, as well as Morocco and Greece. Every item on the menu is first-rate, prepared with a keen interest in authenticity, and the prices will soothe the most abused of budgets. Couple this with excellent but relaxed service and huge portions and you have a true gem of a spot. -- Mick Vann


419 Colorado, 320-8883

Sunday-Tuesday, 5:30-10pm; Wednesday-Saturday, 5:30-11pm

Sleekly packaged in black marble and gold trim, this Aspen import seems almost too glamorous for Austin. Serving some of the most innovative seafood dishes in the city, Kenichi is more than just a sushi restaurant. An appetizer of giant tender scallops ($11) floating in an explosive Thai red curry, Sesame crusted tuna ($25), or even the terrestrial five spice sika deer ($28) are what truly sets this place apart from other restaurants of its kind. Though its relentless hipness may seem a bit off-putting to down-home folks, Kenichi's excellent staff make each person who come through the doors feel like a celebrity. -- Rachel Feit

Dog and Duck Pub

406 W. 17th, 479-0598

Monday-Saturday, 11am-2am; Sunday, noon-2am

What distinguishes this bar is that it's almost indistinguishable from the genuine article across the pond. Okay, it's not housed on a narrow, quaint street, and sure, it doesn't close at 10pm or whatever the bewitching hour is in jolly old UK. And the building doesn't predate Cromwell. But take away those things and bingo! It's a real pub, complete with sustenance that includes bangers and mash, fish and chips, a hot Ploughman's lunch, and even queso. (It may have an English soul, but it's also got a Texas heart.) This is quintessential pub food; it's made strictly to be consumed between stabs at the dartboard, among a table full of friends, or while choosing from the 20-plus tap beers and innumerable bottled brews. -- Barbara Chisholm

Louie's 106

106 E. Sixth, 476-4304

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:15am-4:30pm

Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm;

Sunday, 5-9:30pm

(Bar is open later hours after kitchen closes.)

Louie's has been an Austin favorite for years and has a warm, clubby feel with an active social scene. Diners will find menu items to fit most price ranges, and many choose to partake of the extensive wine list (by the bottle or the glass) while noshing on the broad-ranging appetizer menu. Featured are such items as wild mushrooms and gnocchi with port demiglace and goat cheese ($5.50), grilled naan with smoked shrimp ($5.75), and crab-stuffed oysters on the half shell with Champagne sauce ($9). One could easily make a meal of the smaller plates in combination, and leave perfectly content. Every day you will find a ravioli special, fish specials, and the vegetarian special, all with moderate pricing. Consider Louie's an island of Mediterranean fare (complete with tapas) situated at the heart of the entertainment district, right on Sixth Street. -- Mick Vann

Malaga Wine & Tapas Bar

208 W. Fourth, 236-8020

Monday-Wednesday, 5pm-midnight; Thursday-Saturday, 5pm-2am

Malaga changes their traditional Spanish Tapas menu four or five times per year. The food is almost always well prepared and tasty, but what really sets this place apart is the list of 50 wines by the glass, each with a generous six-ounce pour and offered at prices from $5-$10. Be sure to try the Bodegas As Laxas Albariño ($7) and the 1994 Torre Oria Tempranillo ($6). -- Wes Marshall

Manuel's Downtown

310 Congress, 472-7555

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm;

Sunday, 11am-9pm

Manuel's Great Hills

10201 Jollyville Rd., 345-1042

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm;

Sunday, 10am-9pm

The half-priced happy hour appetizer deals here make these sleek, modern Interior Mexican restaurants among our perennial favorite haunts. After a long night of club hopping, may we suggest you and your posse stroll in here about 4pm to start the next evening off right. Order their signature chile con queso with warm flour tortillas, a bowl of Hongos Guisados (stewed mushrooms in a spicy sauce), some black bean nachos topped with guacamole or blue crabmeat, and the restorative Campechana (a marinated seafood cocktail garnished with avocado slices) and share them around the table. With the appetizers at half price and cheaper deals on margaritas, domestic and imported beers, you'll be full but your wallet won't be empty. Also keep these restaurants in mind for Sunday brunch. The jazz brunch has been a downtown fixture for years. -- Virginia B. Wood

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