These days when I go out, whether on a friend date or a date date, I take one thing into serious consideration: Will we be able to communicate intimately? A crowded dance floor isn't exactly the best place to catch up on all the haps, and going to the movies is not an ideal first (or even fourth) date with someone you're trying to get to know. A trip into Downtown Austin on a weekend normally conjures crowded sidewalks, frenzied club atmospheres, and overbearing aural stimuli. But last Friday night, I exacted my idea of a perfect date – a relaxing picnic in the park followed by remarkable drinks in a cozy, clandestine cocktail lounge – surprisingly, right in the heart of this energetic city.
Royal Blue Grocery – now boasting five locations in the Downtown area – are purveyors of local grocery products and made-in-house grab-n-go deli items. My date happened to be vegan, and as a former vegetarian with a stint in veganism myself, I welcomed the challenge to create an entirely plant-based meal from the mini-mart's offerings. Unsure about the legality of drinking wine in neighboring Republic Square Park, where we planned to picnic, we started with an Easy Tiger mini-baguette and Grandma's Humus on the RBG patio, with a bottle of Poggio Anima Sangiovese, a very drinkable summer red.
The sun was setting and the summer swelter finally began to let up. At the park, tables and chairs under a sprawling Auction oak beckoned. My date set the table with silverware and cloth napkins from home, and I laid out our feast: kale salad with a tamari-cashew dressing, roasted sweet potatoes and green beans, and falafel from Austin's artisanal Mediterranean Chef, also responsible for the addictive hummus. We cheersed our Topo Chico and enjoyed good conversation over great food, the nearly two acres of park acting as a buffer from the sounds of traffic and nightlife that permeate the city blocks.
We had leftovers, and almost forgot we had also grabbed dessert to share: a toasted almond cupcake with salted caramel buttercream from local vegan craft bakery Skull & Cakebones. Satisfied with our meal (when's the last time dinner for two – including wine and dessert – totaled less than $45?), we packed up and set out on foot in search of Garage, a speakeasy that's supposedly hidden within an actual parking garage.
Arriving at the northeast corner of Fifth and Colorado, a small group hovering around what may or may not have been the bouncer was our only clue this might be the place. Stepping into the dimly lit lounge, I still felt the urge to turn around and whisper, "This way?" Just then, we were warmly greeted by a cocktail server who advised us that patrons at a nearby banquette were about to leave, should we want to hover strategically. It wasn't long before we slid into the cozy corner and placed our order: the Girl With the Green Eyes ($12), a creamy blend of cachaça, green tea, lime, mint, and peach bitters; and a Penicillin ($11), featuring Earl Grey Scotch, more Scotch, lemon, ginger, and honey. Round two had us sharing sips of the Gin Gin Punch ($12), composed of Islay gin and house-made "Jasper" (a concoction of sugar, lime, nutmeg, and bitters), garnished with a fresh orchid blossom; and the Eavesdropper ($11): bourbon, lemon, Chartreuse, and fresh jalapeño, and an honored request to hold the honey.
The comfortable ambience could have kept us in that nook all night, but we both had early mornings. I have a feeling we left just before the bar got completely packed, as multiple parties were starting to hover over our real estate. On our next visit, I'll have to try barman Chauncy James' Indian Paintbrush – 2015's Official Drink of Austin. That is, of course, if there is a next date.
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