Ask me for a recommendation on where to go out for a drink, and you’ll get bombarded with a set of questions. Do you want beer, wine or cocktails? Fancy or casual? What part of town? Do you want something loud and high energy or quiet and romantic? Are you looking to drink something specific, such as whiskey or mezcal?
Although the conversation used to be much simpler, Austin’s bar scene is so diverse and interesting right now, intense debate can erupt when narrowing down the options for a quality happy hour or night on the town. Bars are opening every month, with each one contributing a new perspective to the city’s drinking discourse.
Here are some of the most exciting and notable bars that should be on your radar right now. Whether new or well established, they all have a strong sense of atmosphere and talented staff, and each one reflects what’s going on in the city right now or where our bar scene is headed. Bottoms up, Austin: You have a lot of drinking to do.
From the outside, Whisler’s looks like any other bar on the East Sixth Street strip with its understated patio and lack of signage. Inside, it’s an ode to shabby chic with dusty antiques and dim romantic flickers of light emanating from the central vintage chandelier. It’s dark and romantic, and the drinks always pack a punch. The bartenders act as if they’ve been mixing drinks their entire lives, all of them welcoming and unpretentious, but the concoctions are the result of long-studied recipe development. Killer ambiance, a nimble and talented staff, and playful original drinks make this one of the year’s best cocktail newcomers. 814 E. Sixth St. 512-480-0781 and on Facebook.
For an arguably narrow niche concept — a craft beer bar that serves only beer made in Texas — Craft Pride always delivers on the surprise and delight scale, making it the best new beer bar this year. Every time I visit, one of the amiable bar staff directs me to something new, different or rare. The beer selection is varied and organized by style, making it easier for customers to find something to their liking. Design-wise, a clean Texas vibe is channeled without kitschy details, making both the indoor and outdoor spaces accessible and pleasant. 61 Rainey St. 512-428-5571; craftprideaustin.com.
This quietly confident East Cesar Chavez bar didn’t make my list last year in part because of a handful of organizational issues that needed to be fixed. The quality of the cocktails has never been in question, but now a newfound attention to customer service has propelled the experience to higher levels. The menu has been scaled back for ease of use, and wait times for drinks are significantly lower. Go for balanced, proper refreshments made with a strict attention to measurement and nitty-gritty detail. Also make sure to note the in-house ice program; cubes are hand-chiseled and tailored to dilute each beverage properly. 1808 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-524-0464; weatherupnyc.com.
When brewer Joe Mohrfeld moved from Odell Brewing in Colorado to Austin to help open the pizza-centric brewpub, he came with a clear vision: to make English-inspired recipes brewed in the style of American craft. So many new breweries open without such a well-honed mission; it’s hard to ignore Pinthouse’s manifesto. It also helps that Mohrfeld has a great pedigree and nails the concept; the Blind Jake Porter recently brought home a bronze medal from the Great American Beer Festival. The open community seating and order-at-the-bar system keep things slightly too casual for my tastes, but it’s a small price to pay to tap beer directly from the source. 4729 Burnet Road. 512-436-9605; pinthousepizza.com.
Bar manager Jason Stevens isn’t satisfied to rest on the laurels of the bar’s excellent reputation, built on three years of consistently good service and innovation on the cocktail menu. Drinks continue to be tweaked until they reach perfection, new drinks are crafted using cutting-edge technologies, and service continues to be impeccable. Wine manager Paula Rester brings the same level of dedication and talent to the other side of the menu. When combined with adjacent sister bar Second Bar + Kitchen, the Congress family remains at the top of the heap overall. 200 Congress Ave. 512-827-2755; congressaustin.com/bar-congress.
Looking for an unassuming place to sip a pint? Star Bar is one of the most underrated spots in the city for craft beer. You won’t have to wade through waves of beer nerds and a menu of obscure drinks at this airy West Sixth corner bar to get to the goods. The bartenders know their stuff and manage to score some of the best out-of-state keg releases in the city for their modest tap selection, but you also won’t be discriminated against for ordering a Shiner Bock or Corona. Most of the afternoon regulars do. Fancy a house mixed drink? They also serve a selection of cocktails and seasonal boozy milkshakes. 600 W. Sixth St. 512-477-8550; starbartexas.com.
Although it feels as if the future of Austin’s cocktail scene will center on bars with a casual vibe and well-made drinks, there will always be a time and a place for the fanciest of cocktail joints. Enter the new bar program at re-opened fine dining restaurant Jeffrey’s. Like a professor’s home library, the bar area is stately and sophisticated but simultaneously warm and cozy. Only seven substantial bar stools take root at the dimly lit bar, where you can order cocktails that are relatively simple and usually booze-forward. Bar manager Josh Loving, formerly of Fino and Midnight Cowboy, oversees the program, assuring that quality will always take center stage. 1204 W. Lynn St. 512-477-5584; jeffreysofaustin.com.
East Side Showroom
This eastside cocktail staple fell slightly off the “most exciting” list after barman Jason Stevens left for Bar Congress a few years ago, but the program found its voice again with Justin Mork as bar manager. A full menu returned this year, reflecting Mork’s dialed-in knowledge of spirits and flavor pairings (for awhile, the bar featured a concise list of relatively boring classics). New, complex cocktails made with a Showroom flair prove the eclectic bar is still relevant in our constantly changing scene. 1100 E. Sixth St. 512-467-4280; eastsideshowroom.com.
North Loop bar owners Mike and Jessica Sanders have orchestrated something for everyone at neighborhood bar Drink.Well. For those pesky times when you feel like a cocktail but your spouse just wants a beer, the bar offers a sassy seasonal cocktail menu, a small but thoughtfully compiled selection of craft beer on tap and a variety of wine options. The pub food is slightly upscale and regularly delightful. While the pub-style ordering system can be a bit of a hassle and the noise levels typically high, the staff are dependably amiable and the overall climate jovial with a hint of cheeky irreverence. 207 E. 53rd St. www.drinkwellaustin.com.
The cocktail scene as a whole is heading in a more casual direction, but there is something timelessly alluring about the notion of hushed conversation in one of the secluded booths at former massage parlour turned speakeasy-style bar Midnight Cowboy. The reservations-only system guarantees you won’t have to fight for a place to sit and provides the undivided attention of your bartender when they make cocktails table-side. Intriguing flavor combinations usually can be found on the house cocktail menu, and punches are excellent for sharing. 313 E. Sixth St. 512-843-2715; www.midnightcowboymodeling.com.
Straight from the source
After laws changed earlier this summer and made it possible for breweries to sell their beer to customers to drink at on-site taprooms, almost all of the breweries downtown changed their visiting hours and welcomed thirsty drinkers to their doorsteps. Awards for most friendly/open and eager examples of this in the Central Austin area are Jester King, Hops & Grain and Austin Beerworks. Some of the best beer in the city served right where it’s made? Someone pinch me.
We’ve been waiting patiently for two cocktail game-changers to land, and both openings are imminent. Keep your eyes on Rainey Street’s Half Step and East Austin’s Motel to open their doors in the near future.
Too Soon to Tell
Several new spots weren’t open long enough before deadline to judge, including new minimalist coffee and beer bar Wright Bros. Brew & Brew, the easygoing Austin Beer Garden and Brewery, and Rainey Street’s upscale restaurant and bar No Va, among others. These places all have a strong sense of identity, thoughtful design, talented staff and great dialed-in vision for what they want, so I have confidence to say they should still be on your radar and will likely make plenty of “best of” lists going forward.
Correction: This story reflects a change to the description of the Wright Bros. Brew & Brew bar. It serves coffee and beer.