It used to be, if you wanted to get a sense of the city you were visiting, you didn’t stick around the hotel bar, which often lacked the local flavor and personality that made visits to other hangouts in the area so appealing.
But in Austin, at least, that’s no longer the case.
Now more than ever, even the locals are visiting hotel bars with friends for a happy hour drink or two, finding in these places comfort, class and a mutual appreciation for Texas-made beverages. Posh boutique hotels like Hotel Van Zandt and the South Congress Hotel are joining longer-standing institutions like Hotel San Jose and the Driskill Hotel, a historical gem since 1886 — and all of them have distinctly Austin spaces for dining and drinking.
These hotels are booked up for South by Southwest, but if you’re exploring the city for the festival next month, chances are you’ll end up at one of their watering holes for fest-fueled fun.
The Driskill Hotel
604 Brazos St. 512-439-1234, thedriskillhotel.com.
The accommodations: The low-lit, wood-paneled Driskill Bar has been updated over the years, but it hasn’t lost the warm, cozy atmosphere that has drawn celebrities — from President Lyndon B. Johnson to “Tutti Frutti” artist Little Richard — and ordinary folks alike. In fact, lounge long enough on one of the leather sofas or cowhide chairs and you’ll either strike up a conversation with a friendly stranger or lay eyes on a famous face, especially during SXSW.
If, instead, you sit around the circular bar, you’re in for a treat only the Driskill can deliver: the stories of David Highfill, who has been tending bar underneath the copper tin ceiling for 34 years. A retired drummer, he’ll regale you with tales of the people he’s met at the bar or tease you about the bumps you heard in the night in your haunted hotel room.
With the Driskill Hotel elegantly perched at the edge of the Sixth Street craziness, it’ll feel like “a jewel in the rough,” says Mark Bedford, the hotel’s food and beverage director.
The concierge recommendation: Made with locally aged rye, the Driskill Julep is one of the cocktails commemorating the hotel’s 130th anniversary later this year. Sip the sweet drink on a Wednesday evening, when a local artist paints to live music.
Hotel San Jose
1316 S. Congress Ave. 512-444-7322, sanjosehotel.com.
The accommodations: The hotel where Austin’s hippest residents relax alongside guests staying in 1930s-era motor court-style suites hasn’t changed much since local hotelier Liz Lambert transformed it in the late 1990s from a rundown motel. The rooms, decorated with vintage furniture, concrete floors and brightly colored music posters, are just one of the draws.
Another is the leafy interior courtyard that feels like a refuge from the bustle of South Congress Avenue. “It gets busy during SXSW, but it’s still quieter than the hubbub of the street. It’s like a calm little oasis,” bartender Rachel Scherr says. She serves beer, wine and champagne cocktails, along with a menu of bar snacks, in an indoor lounge just inside the courtyard.
The concierge recommendation: During one of the popular jazz brunches that are kicking off Saturdays this spring, starting on Feb. 27, wake up with Hotel San Jose’s michelada. A mixture of lime, soy, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce with the beer of your choice — such as a Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower or an Oasis, Texas’ Luchesa Lager — the “Michelada is a very special recipe, the perfect antidote for a hot day,” Scherr says.
The W Austin
200 Lavaca St. 512-542-3600, whotelaustin.com.
The accommodations: The line of W Hotels has “always emphasized a cocktail culture,” Will Rogers, the bar and restaurant general manger at the W Austin, says. That’s certainly true at the 2010-founded Austin location, where Rogers and his team of bartenders have curated their own list of cocktails, often made with local spirits.
Drink these in one of three lounge areas, separate from the hotel’s Trace restaurant. The main area is the Living Room, which has earned that name “because it’s meant to feel like your living room, like a piece of your home,” Rogers says. “You can sit and carve out your own intimate spaces throughout the whole area.” Or you can get cozy in the Record Room, where shelves are lined not with books but with vinyl records that DJs play in the evening. The Secret Bar, tucked off both, is a darkly lit, more glamorous space.
The concierge recommendation: Stop in during Primetime, the hotel’s happy hour, when cocktails like the Django — a bright and boozy tipple with Treaty Oak bourbon, kriek beer and lemon — are half-off. Primetime runs every day from 7 to 10 p.m., making it a deal hard to pass up for locals and guests alike.
110 E. Second St. 512-474-4777, jwmarriottaustin.com.
The accommodations: Less than a month after opening last year, the sophisticated downtown hotel became one of the city’s top sellers of alcohol, and its adventurous bar program is a big reason why. Although the J.W. Marriott has a variety of different dining areas, including the walk-up Burger Bar and the Italian-centric Osteria Pronto, the most alluring spot is the Patio Bar at Corner — a casual outdoor hangout that passersby notice from the street.
Along with the adjoining Corner restaurant, the covered bar offers a variety of local beers and cocktails that focus on tequila and mezcal, two of Texas’ favorite spirits. Corner’s general manager, Brian Jaymont, chose to have his bars seek out these beverages to provide something special for people who “are in a city like Austin and don’t just want a flavored vodka or a Miller Lite.”
“It’s designed more like a local bar than a hotel bar,” Jaymont says, “We don’t have everything, but we do specialize in things no one else carries. We have tequilas that aren’t in Austin.”
Soon, Corner will have a “tequila locker” for tastings of niche expressions. The bar and restaurant is constantly “innovating to keep guests coming back,” he says. “Used to be, the hotel bar wasn’t a perk; it was something you had to have. But now, people stay at hotels because of the food and beverages.”
The concierge recommendation: Tequila cocktails like the tart and spicy ATX Paloma are top-notch, but have a Texas beer from one of the 24 taps Corner boasts. They’re constantly rotating through new and surprising offerings.
South Congress Hotel
1603 S. Congress Ave. 512-920-6405, southcongresshotel.com.
The accommodations: Austinites didn’t take long to embrace the boutique hotel on the other end of South Congress’ busy shopping district. It’s got a lot to like: striking minimalist design from architect Michael Hsu, a rooftop pool with views of the city skyline and a handful of shops and eateries with their own particular identities.
These include the expansive Lobby Bar, the airy Cafe No Se and the elegant Central Standard. Paul Qui’s already booked-up omakase-style Otoko and its neighboring bar, the Water Trade, will soon join them. (That unusual name “is a nod to the alias of Japanese speakeasies back in the day,” says Nate Wales, the director of operations for the hotel’s hospitality group.)
Wales and his collaborative crew of bartenders keep the drink programs for each of these spaces distinctive. The Lobby Bar, for example, is all about “Austin classics. I’m not talking about pre-Prohibition drinks,” he says. “Instead, it’s things Austinites love: the Palomas, the margaritas. High-acid citrus drinks with riffs on Manhattans and Aviations and other traditional cocktails sprinkled in.” And Cafe No Se, with “food that’s very light and fresh,” makes rosé wine and champagne-topped cocktails the star of the booze show.
The concierge recommendation: Until the intimate Water Trade opens, make yourself at home at the Lobby Bar, where you can meet with friends, enjoying small plates from Cafe No Se and cocktails like the gin-forward Last Word. The hotel’s garage is free for diners and drinkers for up to three hours, so you won’t have to start with the stress of finding parking in a crowded area.
Hotel Van Zandt
605 Davis St. 512-542-5300, hotelvanzandt.com.
The accommodations: The most recent of these hotels to open, the Hotel Van Zandt is taking full advantage of where it’s located, just off the nightlife district of Rainey Street. Its bar and restaurant is even named after Rainey’s once-beloved mascot, a guinea fowl called Geraldine. And like many of the bars in the area, Geraldine’s makes live music a big focus, with a prominent stage for bands to play.
Next door to Geraldine’s is a pool deck — where people who aren’t hotel guests can hang out at night and order drinks — and it’s got a distinct cocktail list of its own. “I want to be a little more playful on the pool deck,” Jen Keyser, chief of bar operations at Hotel Van Zandt, says. “You’ll see some fun stuff this spring and summer that would just not work in a restaurant venue. Large format cocktails, tiki drinks, bottled cocktails and maybe a squirt gun.”
A longtime fixture in Austin’s bar scene, including at Midnight Cowboy and Contigo, Keyser was lured to Hotel Van Zandt with the promise of having so much to work with. She’ll especially get adventurous during SXSW, “which will definitely be a time to play around.”
The concierge recommendation: Make a night of it at Geraldine’s — stay for dinner, drinks and a show and prepare to be wowed by all of it. Keyser’s bar program is arguably just as lively; after all, Geraldine’s has become home to a cheeky tribute to Austin’s favorite musician: Willie’s Cup, made with rye whiskey, sage leaves and hemp-seed milk and adorned with a telltale red bandana.