It's difficult to think of a city more defined by its bars than Austin, but choosing just which bars define the city sure ain't easy. We are a city of drinking contrasts, full of upscale dives, punk parlors, and hippie honky-tonks. The best spots are a little bit of everything, hosting lazy Sunday Fundays, college bacchanals, and professional happy hours with equal ease. To make this task easier, we did a lot of research – both talking to the hospitality community and taking a more hands-on approach. We knew we would have to strike some of our favorites off the list – bars that primarily act as venues and restaurants with world-class bar programs. We feel these 25 act as a snapshot of not only where Austin bar culture is now but of a city that embraces the past and future in equal measure. And while they may not fully solve the divide between Old Austin and New Austin, they do serve as a nice reminder that a bridge is created with each clink of the glass.
An unholy spawn of a Creamsicle and a screwdriver, Violet Crown's signature orange whips have been responsible for more than a few of our worst hangovers. On a hot Austin day, there's nothing better than walking into the cool, dark space, ordering a round of the frozen drink (with a whipped cream vodka floater if you have any sense at all), and sinking into one of the booths for some lively conversation. You might have a headache the next day, but you'll still be smiling.
Weird Austin may be more of a marketing tool than a reality these days, but you wouldn't know it when you step inside this Sixth Street mainstay. The bartenders (and clientele) are still pierced, tattooed, and dressed in black, the guys behind the burger counter are still a little bit surly, and the jukebox is still filled with the most eclectic selection in town. As the city grows, it offers a much-needed lesson: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It's not uncommon to see industry types lurking in the shadows of this Eastside favorite. The reason is clear. Recently married owners Billy and Colette Adelle-Dein Hankey have created a dive bar that capitalizes on their experience in upscale hospitality without sacrificing the neighborhood vibe. It's the kind of place where you can order from an extensive mezcal selection, but no one will look at you sideways if you chase it with a cheap beer.
This Eastside favorite may be an import from New York, but the feel is all Austin. The inside is sleek, with tobacco leather banquettes and marble tables, but the large patio sets Weather Up apart. Go early for Sunday Funday, grab one of the vintage cast-iron tables underneath the oak tree, and get a cocktail in a gold-rimmed coupe. Don't you look cute?
A hop away from the roar of Dirty Sixth and the oonce oonce of the Warehouse District, the Townsend is a place where you can actually hear your date. Sure, they may be regaling you with tales from the actuary trade, but you won't mind. The sophisticated decor and convivial atmosphere – not to mention the innovative barcraft – will make everything they say sound like sweet nothings.
Full of flickering candles and swiveling chairs, this semi-subterranean lair is the type of place James Bond would suggest if you matched with him on Tinder. We like to sit at the circular bar, so we can spy on all the femme (and homme) fatales. The cocktails – like former Official Drink of Austin winner Indian Paintbrush – have just as much intrigue.
When original owner Frances Lala sold the iconic bar to FBR Management Group in 2015, some feared the end of an era. Turns out the fretting was for nothing. The new owners made a list and checked it twice, keeping the spirit and decor largely the same. It's still Christmas every day, but with a few more presents – a Stubb's barbecue menu to pair with the cult Bloody Marys, a broader alcohol selection, and a patio.
Hidden behind a bookcase in the lobby of the Firehouse Hostel, this sorta speakeasy is one of the last places in Austin that can still be called a hidden gem. The international crowd is always changing but on any given night expect to find a couple canoodling in the candlelit booths, casting shadows on the flocked wallpaper. Ahh, love, American style.
Owners Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis put their bartenders through frequent before-shift drills to make sure they can speed through orders while recounting everything from proper builds to cocktail history. The average customer may never get to see the pre-game, but they can see the end result – a staff that effortlessly navigates one of the largest and most ambitious menus in town without ever forgetting the business of hospitality.
If you've been wondering where to show off that brand-new pair of Luccheses, channel your inner J.R. Ewing at Austin's oldest hotel. The look here is Texas chic (think Lone Stars, cowhide upholstery, and the odd bit of taxidermy), the bartenders are old-school, and the wine list will impress your snobbiest friends. It's the ideal place for sloshing a martini as you plan your next oil deal.
This former brothel is our go-to when we want to impress out-of-town guests. They may give you side eye when you ring the button labeled "Harry Craddock," but watch for their smiles when the attendant opens the door. The narrow, mirror-lined room has the elegance of a Victorian railway carriage – a world away from the "two dollar, you call it" barkers on the street. Order one of the tableside cart preparations if you want to be especially swanky.
Whisler's expansive patio is rightfully among the most popular in town. Still, we like to camp out in the main bar where the taxidermy, religious candles, milky mirrors, and slipcovered chairs give the space a slightly haunted mood. You are, after all, there to drink spirits, made into some of the most inventive cocktails around. Our current favorite are the heady punch bowls, served in whimsical containers shaped like poodles or fish, but the savory builds are just as refreshing after a long, hot day.
Race-car sleek and just a little buttoned-up, Backbeat's midcentury-inspired interior is as tasteful as an LBD. But the drink menu is full of color. Divided into three categories ranging from the assertive to the light, it has a drink to match every mood. Feeling kicky? Get something citrusy from the Upbeat section. Wanna mope? The Downbeat drinks are your friend. We won't blame you if you mix your emotions.
Better wear your dancing boots if you go to Donn's. The "depot" part is literal: The seating areas are train cars and the ladies' restroom is a caboose. But the real locomotion is on the dance floor. The affordable (and strong!) drinks will have you twirling with one of the septuagenarian regulars in no time. Donn Adelman himself is often on the piano, taking requests from his seemingly endless repertoire.
The corner watering hole caters to "bears, cubs, otters, wolves, leather, fetish, and all their admirers." And although not all of us fit into that taxonomy, we've always felt welcome. There's something new almost every night (pub trivia, show tune karaoke, poker), the bartenders are genuinely friendly, and the drinks don't cost a mint. Yes, it gets occasionally loud, but bears are supposed to roar.
We aren't encouraging infidelity, but if you are going to have an illicit affair, you can at least class it up by meeting your paramour at Josh Loving's tiny bar. Everything about the space oozes sex appeal, from the royal blue velvet banquettes to the playful New York street life damask on the wall. The history-minded drinks – enhanced by a serious ice program – are just as naughty. The Philadelphia Fish House Punch is perfect if you're into the group scene.
It's something of a local rite of passage to get up the courage to sing a few bars of Foreigner at this bar tucked in a parking garage. We aren't nearly as talented as the crooners on the stage, but we keep coming back for the friendly and diverse crowd that bridges Old Austin and new. As someone wise once said, "It doesn't matter what you wear, just as long as you are there."
We hear you when you say you want to avoid Rainey Street, but we'd brave far more obnoxious areas to drink at Half Step. With its tea-stained wallpaper, plank ceilings, and minimal church pew seating, the interior instantly calms the clamor outside. Chris Bostick's bar program makes plenty of noise on its own with the Prescription Julep (cognac, rye, mint, sugar) and a daiquiri you'll want to shout about.
The name translates to sin, but for nightcrawlers, the Warehouse District bar might as well be hallowed ground. The pre-Prohibition-influenced cocktails celebrate the main spirits, often making great use of an absinthe collection that would be right at home at Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge. The turn of the century atmosphere and the hearty bistro fare are the icing on the gâteau.
Owners Nathan Hill (The White Horse) and Will Tanner (Hole in the Wall) know how to create a good dive and this East Cesar Chavez haunt fully capitalizes on their powers. The cocktails are considered without taking themselves too seriously, the atmosphere is a little greaser and a little debutante, and the patio is always full of dozens of your new crushes. Most importantly, nobody feels like an outsider.
The giant fiberglass namesake may now be an Instagram destination on par with the "I Love You So Much" mural, and the martini-shaped Helldorado punch bowl has showed up on more than a few of our feeds, but we like Jackalope without a filter. Go for lunch and share a plate of chili waffle nachos. No one has to know you had a few shots at your lunch meeting.
We spend half the year battling the heat in Austin, so it's good we found our place in the sun. Clad in cool mints and turquoise (and the occasional flamingo print), Kitty Cohen's is dripping with Palm Springs realness – working every detail from the wading pool to the Seventies kitsch. But nothing about the interior feels forced. Vacations are supposed to feel easy.
Despite all the recent influx of mixology and local distilling, Austin will always be a town that loves its beer. Craft Pride wins our hearts because they dedicate their tap wall to Texas, showcasing local favorites like Austin Beerworks and Hops & Grain and less frequently found brands like Martin House and the Collective. And there's a Via 313 on-site, because this bar gives two fucks about your low-carb diet.
With a clientele that includes heshers, bikers, and enamel-pinned It Girls, this Eastside bar wears like a denim jacket. The ambience is a little grimy (even if you can get a charcuterie plate) with a soundtrack that ranges from death metal to outlaw country and drinks that won't cut into your vacation fund. Condos may have changed the view from the crepe myrtle lined patio, but Yellow Jacket hasn't lost any of its sting.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall at this basement bar just a stumble away from the Capitol grounds. All sorts of shenanigans and backroom deals have been rumored to take place in the dim, windowless room, but there's none of that nonsense behind the bar. Longtime bartender Beverly Pruitt might be a stickler for the rules, but someone has to keep everybody in line.
Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.