When it turns hot, head to the roof. There, high above the heat of the street, bathe in the breezes, loll in the shade, rest your weary eyes on the opulent Austin skyline.
That’s what social media whiz Jacob Stetson and I did recently. We slowly, judiciously sampled 11 downtown rooftop bars, clubs and eateries on foot one evening. We walked past another six — three of them visibly jammed and thus uninviting — then discovered that yet another intended stop, Roial, is not yet ready for reopening.
Starting on West Sixth Street, Benji’s Cantina, replete in blue tile and buff wood, is sleeker and cooler than I had guessed from the playful name. While stray packs of open-shirted men stalked the terrace, diners were mostly families with kids or youngish workers relaxing after business hours.
Our creatively presented sopes and quesadillas proved quite tasty. Stetson judged still-fresh Benji’s: “When you want to be downtown, but not in the crazy.”
The second stop: The Ranch. This well-traveled club feels relaxed no matter the hour or occasion. As sunlight lingered, its larger rooftop room was closed, and most customers, draped in loose summer wear, headed to the smaller deck with its high cocktail tables and pounding 101X-style soundtrack. We had arrived during the mid-evening lull, knowing that a second, post-happy-hour wave of guests was to come after our departure.
When West Sixth first evolved into a separate nightlife district, it served those office dwellers who didn’t want to face MoPac (Loop 1) or Interstate 35 at dusk, as well as those who had grown weary of East Sixth or the Warehouse District. Now, it rumbles intermittently pretty much from noon to midnight and beyond.
Next came the infelicitously signed Molotov. (Hey, what’s so fun and ironic about a hammer and sickle symbol that mutely witnessed the death of millions under communism? Bookmark that debate for another column.)
A sweet, small crowd clustered around a giant rooftop cooling fan while pop music burbled on the roof. Nowadays, Molotov’s north view is dominated by the enormous facade of Benji’s right across the street. Once the toast of West Sixth, it seems outclassed by its smaller, single-level companion bar, Dogwood, next door.
Intimidating from the outside, newly opened Rio is manned by a friendly, well-trained crew. The streamlined rooftop club echoes Las Vegas or Miami Beach with its sweeping views, long, sparkling pool and trim waitstaff, self-dubbed “cocktails,” in black mini-dresses. Drinks are slightly pricier here ($8 for our shared Tito’s and tonic, as opposed to $5-$6 at other stops, when we were not alternating club sodas, usually free in Austin).
Platinum-card level bottle service is available. You want to dress up a bit here for the steady, dry breeze on the club’s third-level roof. We exited via the alley and headed down to the Rattle Inn. A fidgety mob had already assembled on a Thursday night for the best view in the district, oriented to the southeast, rather than the north, south or west.
This sibling to Ranch 616 and Star Bar manages to project a younger, more party-oriented tone. At least one table comes with an ice trough down the middle. Despite the fairly early hour and the usual lineup of party anthems, Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” got ’em wriggling officially.
A thin set of patrons gave us plenty of maneuvering space at 219 West, which inevitably revives memories of Coyote Cafe, Ninfa’s, Union Park and other previous incarnations of this curvaceous West Sixth hangout. Sharp musical selections provided a backdrop for a stumbled-upon video shoot promoting a girls night out deal that 219 West offers in tandem with Golden Bones salon.
A short stroll east led us to the Warehouse District, where we encountered our first fully animated crowd at Hangar. This air-travel-themed bar is split along three slender levels, leaving little elbow room on the roof. In recompense, one is afforded a superb view of the converging street action at West Fourth and Colorado streets. I imagine the sights get pretty entertaining as nightly revels roll on.
A cane-syrup-voiced singer wearing a major beard serenaded us about his encounters with Lil Wayne, Houston and a “Loo-siana state of mind” at Six, formerly known as the informal clubhouse for Lance Armstrong’s posse. This night, it was the only rooftop to offer a live musical act. Twinned Six and Hangar — one can check out the action at the other across Colorado Street — catch less of a breeze on a summer night, perhaps because of the surrounding steel, glass and masonry holding the day’s heat.
The surprise at Six was our shared beverage, the most subtle and satisfying of our night’s rounds. Unlike Rainey Street — sampled a couple of weeks ago during a similar tour — the creative drinks are not at the forefront of rooftop nightlife.
With its billowing awning and its cushy, island vibe, Lanai at Congress Avenue and West Fifth Street was once the most attractive rooftop club downtown. It could use a little touch-up. A dozen or so customers this dark night seemed confounded by the bassy DJ set. A really far-gone rave guy in tank top and frizzy hair had the dance floor to himself for semi-acrobatic ramblings.
Possibly the coolest rooftop gang hangs out at Handle Bar at East Fifth and Brazos streets, our next stop this evening. A playground studded with a seesaw, rocking horses and bean bag throws amused the troops. Folks engaged in genuine fun as the night progressed. This hipster outpost would be at home on Rainey Street or in East Austin.
We wrapped our rooftop tour at Iron Cactus, the mod Mex restaurant with top-shelf tequilas that has outlasted other East Sixth Street trends and exported the concept to other locales. Here we could view the pressing masses at Maggie Mae’s and the Blind Pig, two rooftops we skipped.
Chanting, stepping Alpha Phi Alpha brothers enlivened the East Sixth Street mix this night. The nation’s oldest black fraternity had rung in its general convention center at Hilton Austin — and filled two other downtown hotels with an estimated 10,000 visitors — the previous night.
Thursday is College Night on East Sixth, even during the summer, which made for frisky street theater as observed from a cool, high perch at the end of our leisurely tour.
Take a tour of Rainey Street’s entertainment options at austin360.com.