Cocktail bars in Austin offer cozy night out of the house

1:53 p.m Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 Austin360

Yes, it’s too late to book a dinner reservation at any of Austin’s top eateries for tonight — it was too late about a month ago. But whether you’re lamenting your tardy timing or you’ve got a five-course meal lined up for Valentine’s Day that’s already got your mouth watering, there’s one crucial part of the night not to be forgotten: the clink of your and your date’s drinks as you toast to each other in the darkened warmth of a craft cocktail bar.

Like restaurants, many area bars have planned special menus with cocktails they’ve interpreted to be perfect for the occasion. Something big and boozy? Something sweet? How about as softly pink as the bouquet of roses stretching out of a vase on your kitchen counter? Check, check and check. Best of all, most of these places don’t require reservations.

Of course, a memorable cocktail is only one part of the equation for a romantic night out. Below, we’ve selected a handful of Austin’s great craft cocktail bars to highlight for Valentine’s Day. Something they all have in common, besides a desire to make that just-right drink, is a cozy atmosphere that will have you cuddling close.

605 Brazos St. 512-201-2522, www.firehousehostel.com.

In the oldest standing firehouse in Austin, built in 1885, deep red walls and dimmed lighting at this tucked-away downtown bar make you feel a world away from everyone else. But wait — you’ve got to find it first. Step into the lobby of the Firehouse Hostel and it’s not immediately apparent where a lounge could be located. Is there any other bar in Austin that features a sliding bookcase as an entrance?

“Welcome to the Narnia for 21 and over,” Mariana Guerrero, one of the Firehouse Lounge and Hostel owners, said she jokes to patrons who often get lost their first time visiting.

Beyond the bookcase, Firehouse Lounge features tons of comfortable seating, a stage for live music and friendly bartenders just as ready to fix up one of the cocktails on the menu as one you request. Firehouse regulars have often called it a “speakeasy,” Guerrero said, because Firehouse “incorporates the sense of what a speakeasy was during Prohibition: a little bit rebellious, completely unpretentious and something of a secret.”

The cocktails on the menu are similarly unpretentious, she said — simple and accessible. And daily happy hour from 5 to 8 p.m. makes some of them only $6. On Valentine’s Day, look for the chalkboard of drinks specials, including “She’s Only 17” with mezcal, “Delayed Gratification” with rye whiskey and “Sticks and Stones” with Scotch and peach cordial.

The word “Rabbit’s” is scrawled along the side of the World War I-era building housing Whisler’s in East Austin, but the name of the bar it used to be isn’t going anywhere, general manager Cesar Aguilar said. That old identity is still very much a part of the less-than-a-year-old establishment (and maybe because the previous owner still stops by). Even so, owner Scranton Twohey, long a fixture in Austin’s drinks scene, decided to tear down the plaster that had been on the interior stone walls in the Rabbit’s days to bring back the building’s long-gone past, while also removing the second floor to keep the bar area open and airy.

At night, candles and a chandelier keep the inside lit; strings of lights shine over the outdoor patio. “People come to enjoy the atmosphere,” Aguilar said.

But they also come for the cocktails. Aguilar said one of his favorite drinks to make — and the one most asked for — is the Old-Fashioned, although for Valentine’s Day weekend, the featured cocktail won’t be anything like it. The “First Kiss” as he crafts it features Duquesne Rhum Agricole, a sugar cane-based white rum that he says adds a “rustic element” to the drink, as well as raspberries, mint, orange zest and Prosecco. Its rosy color suggests it’s best for sipping on Feb. 14, although don’t shy away from it because it might look too sweet; it’s a very well-balanced cocktail.

708 E. Sixth St. 512-320-1526, www.thegatsbyaustin.com.

Although this craft cocktail bar across the street from Easy Tiger is just on the fringe of Sixth Street’s shot bars, it’s far enough away and very different in design — you won’t mistake it for anything other than an intimate date spot that pays homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his heyday of the 1920s, with cocktail names on the menu such as “Drop O Daisy” and “Grape Gatsby.”

It’s got a large outdoor patio and stage that’ll draw crowds come spring and summer (and South by Southwest; it’s an official venue), as well as a brand-new balcony that offers views of the Capitol building; there are also plans deep underway to open a speakeasy-style lounge downstairs and another bar upstairs, said Miguel Lopez, assistant bar manager. He comes from Peche and San Antonio’s Esquire Tavern and hopes the Gatsby “keeps making classic cocktails, while still pushing the envelope and seeing how far we can go.”

In addition to the cocktail menu, the Gatsby offers wine, beer (but only in bottles and cans) and eight infusions, like a peanut brittle Irish whiskey. And for Valentine’s Day, Lopez said, the Gatsby is offering four versatile cocktails. One, named exactly for how it tastes, is a “spicy chocolate-covered strawberry” with vodka that will satisfy any sweet tooth, while also adding a complementing bite of chili. Another, “Whiskey is for Lovers,” is a twist on the Sazerac, a New Orleans favorite. “Pink Gin” and “Love Has a Kick,” with tequila and hibiscus cordial, round out the list.

207 E. 53rd St. 512-614-6683, www.drinkwellaustin.com.

With Foreign & Domestic — which doesn’t take reservations — just across the street, patrons at the little pub in the North Loop area often stop by for a pre-dinner or post-dinner drink, co-owner Jessica Sanders said.

Run by Sanders and her husband, Mike, Drink.Well offers a pretty solid trifecta of creative cocktails, wine that comes mostly from U.S. labels and beer both on tap and in bottles and cans. Enjoy these at the bar or at the handful of tables tucked behind it and you’ll quickly find out why Drink.Well fast became, ever since it opened in March 2012, a favorite neighborhood hangout for locals, as well as a cozy night out for two.

In fact, you might not ever make it over to Foreign & Domestic from Drink.Well on Valentine’s Day, as Drink.Well makes sure to have a menu of creative pub food that’s just as tasty as any of the drinks. But if you do stick to just cocktails, try one of the specials: “Cupid’s Kir” with strawberry liqueur and sparkling wine, “Classic Kina Cocktail” with Fords Gin, “Sherry Cobbler” and a punch called “Snuggler’s Cove.” Sanders said it’s a punch that “friends as well as dates can share,” just in case some people pop in because it’s a Friday night, not because it’s Valentine’s Day. That’s classic Drink.Well: making sure everyone is comfortably accommodated.

115 San Jacinto Blvd. 512-920-0449, www.brasshouseaustin.net.

A sophisticated haven for lovers of jazz, soul and blues, the Brass House has a pretty special story behind its creation: Two Marines opened it after surviving tours in Afghanistan with music as one of their only outlets in harsh battle conditions. Although neither of them knew much about opening a bar, much less running one, they pressed forward with their vision, employing other veterans as well as civilian friends to bring it to life.

Bathed in soft gold from lamps and chandeliers in the plush seating area, the long rectangular room has already become a top venue for jazz bands, with a great cocktail and wine menu to boot. Brass House has done so well that it’s now expanding exactly a year after opening, transforming the space next door into a dining spot until the wall between them is knocked down in a couple months. “Then, we’ll make (the menu) music-themed, such as New Orleans soul,” Gene Todorov, one of the founders, said. “It’s going to be small but tailored to giving the whole experience.”

In the meantime, they want to make Valentine’s Day memorable, since it also marks the first anniversary of Brass House’s opening. Along with a three-course dinner for two that comes with wine pairings, there are seven cocktail specials centered around the Seven Deadly Sins (for example, greed’s drink is “It Takes Two to Mango”). It sounds like you’d best make yourself at home — you’ll probably be there awhile.

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