Uncovering the Mysteries of Austin’s Speakeasies and Secret Bars
A guide to some of the hidden (and not-so-hidden) bars around town
A wise woman once said, "People don't go to bars to drink." And that's because a bar's job is not only to provide tasty bevs, but also to offer an atmosphere more, shall we say, elevated than your kitchen table. One way to acquire immediate cachet is to literally hide your bar. As Prohibition taught us, when alcohol is clandestine, people want it more. The fun is in the secrecy, so the most exclusive venues have only the vaguest instructions on how to find them, to preserve that thrill of discovery. Through some light sleuthing, however, you can weasel your way into most. Behold your guide to some of Austin's speakeasies, in order of exclusivity.
Firehouse Lounge605 Brazos
If you're looking for a light, only slightly secret experience, the Firehouse Lounge provides a casual take on the hidden bar. When you enter the Downtown Firehouse Hostel and give the concierge a hopeful glance, she replies "bookshelf" and points to the right. The bookshelf slides open like a scene in a spy movie, and you're in a spacious red-tinted room with comfy leather booths and a small stage. The vibe is casual but not divey, and the cocktails are solid. All in all, the fun of a great bar spiced up by a good ol' secret entrance.
How to find it: To the right of the door when you enter the Firehouse Hostel, there is a bookshelf. Slide it open.
Whisler's Mezcalería Tobalá1816 E. Sixth
This Oaxacan-influenced mezcal bar is hiding in plain sight, tucked above the much more raucous Whisler's. To take a break from the packed downstairs, climb the staircase and enter a tiny, intimate space with just a bar, some wooden benches, and rustic decor. Since it's upstairs, you can look down at the street through the window of your little treehouse hideaway. If you've come specifically for the mezcal, you're in luck; they have plenty of different varietals including mexicano, madrecuixe, arroqueño, tobalá, tepextate, jabalí, pechuga, and espadín. Bask in the candlelit glow with your flame, sample the selection, and when you're ready, venture back down into the debauchery.
How to find it: When you enter Whisler's, go up the staircase to the left.
The Good Life Bar Bar201 E. Fifth, Ste. 100-B
Bringing a whole new meaning to red-light district, to find the Good Life Bar Bar you have to navigate past a reportedly fantastic barbershop (get it?) just to find this tucked-away treasure, but only if the red light is on. If it's off, try again another time and get there before the cool kids. By the way, it's entirely possible that this little underground basement bar boasts the only antique brick interior wall covered with red lipstick kisses. And if the ambience alone isn't enticing enough, they've got a BYOB(ottle) policy and a $10 setup fee. We hear they make a killer Old Fashioned.
How to find it: If the red light is on, look for the Good Life Barber Shop, head downstairs, follow the signs, and enter the black door.
Techo Mezcaleria & Agave Bar2201 Manor Rd.
Speaking of mezcal, on the rooftop above Mi Madre's on Manor Road is a delightfully romantic spot to imbibe the smoky spirit. The dark and intimate interior has a decidedly old-world charm with unique stained glass, and the outside space – because it's Austin – has a wonderful view (the only rooftop view on Manor, actually) of the street-level debauchery. Agave experts, they also feature a selection of tequilas, including a guava margarita, as well as fine vermouths and other spirits. We also hear they have a pretty spectacular happy hour, but go ahead and space out the visits, will ya?
How to find it: Enter through the School House Pub gate, though Techo is actually on the second story of Mi Madre's.
Nestled cozily on the ground floor of a parking garage, Garage is a dark, elegant, bunker-chic space with excellent cocktails. As you lounge in midcentury modern spinny chairs and gaze out the porthole windows, a real-life record player skips sweetly in the background. The circular bar, exposed light bulbs, high ceiling, and cement walls grunge up the place so that it never feels too bougie. Their Bee's Knees boasts a wonderful ratio of honey to gin to lemon, and their original drinks are equally impressive. This bar does not miss a beat, but maintains a modesty that puts patrons at ease.
How to find it: Enter the 503 Colorado St. garage on foot through the car exit (the bar is on the ground level).
Midnight Cowboy313 E. Sixth
Perhaps the most wonderful part of Midnight Cowboy is the stark contrast between its atmosphere and its location. Situated in the heart of (dirty) Sixth, this cool, lush space is serious about its drinks. Sit in shiny black booths while Fleetwood Mac serenades during your tableside service. The passport menus have a sweet travel theme, each cocktail representing a stop on the map. Unexpected flavor combinations abound, and the presentation is sophisticated (think a glass box filled with palo santo smoke aromatically infusing your drink). Style doesn't come at the expense of substance, though: The tableside cart service with drinks educates about different kinds of alcohol and their histories.
How to find it: Make a reservation online, then go to 313 E. Sixth and ring the buzzer marked Harry Craddock (a nod to the legendary English bartender who wrote The Savoy Cocktail Book).
The Milonga Room1201 E. Sixth (basement)
This place feels truly secret. Others on this list may be hard to find or require a reservation, but to access the basement nook below the Buenos Aires Cafe, you must whisper the password of the week to the bartender through an ornate metal grate. You then venture through a thick curtain into one of the coziest, classiest bars in town. If you're a big fan of Manhattans, their classic drink, the Milonguero, presents an amaro twist on one (they specialize in amaro-based cocktails) as a nod to the popularity of amaro in the milonga bars in Buenos Aires. The vintage Twenties decor is all plush reds and teal walls, lit by soft orange lamp glow. If you go between the hours of 6 and 8pm, you might have the place to yourself, but they also host events like tarot readings Wednesdays through Fridays. If you want to truly feel like you're on vacation, linger here for a while.
How to find it: Make a reservation by text to 512/886-1920 to receive the password of the week. Go around to the Buenos Aires Cafe's back door, ring the buzzer, whisper the password, and you're good to go.
Redheaded Stepchild/Floppy Disk RepairAddress: Nope
Some bars are so secret they're not meant for the general public. This is an industry hangout, a place of legend where we've heard they sometimes hand over the bottle and say, "make your own drink." When the barkeeps of Austin reach the end of the night, they're not tryin' to see the guy they just kicked out. Let's keep this hideout special for the folks behind the bar.
How to find it: By word-of-mouth invitation only.