First Look: Nickel City

Eastside bar returns Austin bar culture to its roots

Photo by Annalise Pasztor

What to do when Austin bar culture has hit a peak? Go back to the basics. In the case of Nickel City – a new Eastside bar from former VOX Table beverage director Travis Tober, Via 313 owners Brandon and Zane Hunt, and Javelina co-owner Craig Primozich – that means serving "drinks" instead of "cocktails."

Defying the current trends of gimmicky mixology and sleek decor, the owners hope to honor the history of their 11th Street building by maintaining the welcoming, casual feel of a timeless neighborhood joint. Nickel City is located in the former location of the Longbranch Inn, the predecessor to a line of neighborhood bars that stretches to the end of Prohibition. And it still is anchored by the original bar top built by Austin firm Nalle & Co., a hand-carved oak piece made for the Driskill Hotel bar around a century ago.

Although mindful of its Austin roots (the Longbranch's urinals have been covered in twinkle lights as a tongue-in-cheek nod), the bar pays homage to the kind of beer and whiskey neighborhood haunts that dotted the landscape of Tober's hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., and the Hunts' native Detroit. The walls are lined with vintage beer and booze signs and new high banquettes line the walls, but otherwise the space feels like a timeless dive bar.

To keep with that theme, Tober and bar manager JR Mocanu have put together a beverage program that stays as humble as it does affordable: Local drafts, cans and bottles, standard cocktails, and wines listed by color and flavor profile rather than varietal make up a bar menu that will all remain under $10, tops.

Drinks on draft, like a Pimm's Cup and an Aperol Spritz, custom boilermakers, and frozen takes on classic New Orleans cocktails will stay consistent year-round, regardless of seasonal trends, playing into the atmosphere of unpretentious watering holes where patrons are regulars and will return knowing time and again they will find the same drinks and atmosphere. The bar also holds a strong focus on whiskey and brandy, and will add a weekly Whiskey Wednesday series, with all whiskey stock priced at 25% off, and special bottle and single cask features. The first selection will include a barrel of Russell's Reserve, hand-picked by Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell and his son and brand ambassador Bruce Russell.

A second bar in the space, named Cash Only (a name meant to be taken literally), will occasionally take on the function of a pop-up bar, where celebrity bartenders, such as Nectaly Mendoza from Las Vegas' Herbs & Rye, will hold special events from which proceeds will be donated to local charities and organizations as part of the bar's effort to not only integrate itself entirely into the surrounding community, but to give back to that community.

In typical Austin style, the bar will be accompanied by a food truck from the Hunts, but if you were hoping for more pizza, you might have to look elsewhere. The Delray Cafe will focus on a selection of finger food from the brothers' childhood, like steamed bun sliders, coney dogs (topped with chili), footlongs, onion rings, and fries – along with wings made from a Tober family recipe. Rotating specials will include fish fries, goulash, and fried bologna sandwiches. The unassuming "Date Night" special will pair a bottle of Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut with two coney dogs and a small fry.

While the owners advertise the space as an "anytime bar," now may be the best time to visit: As long as the temperature is above 99 degrees, drinks are all an additional dollar off their already tempting prices.

Nickel City

1133 E. 11th, 716/393-1788
Daily, 2pm-2am

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Delray Cafe, Brandon Hunt, Travis Tober, JR Mocanu, Zane Hunt, Craig Primozich

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