As Austin’s palette for craft cocktails continues to refine, so too does the city’s appreciation of bar interior design. Sophisticated spaces span the city, and nostalgia is sweeping Austin, with bars that transport visitors to a slower time period.
Designer Joel Mozersky of One. Eleven, did the interiors for Sixth Street bar Midnight Cowboy. He says, “When paying a premium for a hand-crafted cocktail, you should be drinking it in an environment that elevates that experience.” In Austin that can mean inside renovated historic buildings or a room filled with custom-designed furniture.
But balancing quality with warmness is key. “We want you to walk in and not be afraid to touch something because it’ll break,” says Rob Pate, owner of Peché on West Fourth Street. “It should feel very comfortable, but grand.”
Navigating local vintage-inspired bars that offer craft cocktails can be intimidating, especially for the novice cocktail drinker or occasional bar-goer. So we gathered a few local bars that not only offer a well-designed romantic nod to the past, but also feel relaxing and welcoming once you step inside. They are a perfect stop in after enjoying the festivities of this weekend’s Austin Food & Wine Festival.
Ring the buzzer outside Midnight Cowboy and escape Sixth Street’s boisterous atmosphere because once the heavy exterior door closes behind you, it can feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal.
Inspired by the late 1800s through early 1900s, the dimly lit 11-foot-wide space with private high booths, exposed brick wall and pressed tin ceiling tiles makes you feel as if you’ve discovered a special place. Its former life as a massage parlor might not appeal to everyone, but its reinvented style has brought back the luster of the original 1900s-built building.
Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League is behind the intimate space that seats 48 and requires reservations on busy nights. With the space’s infamous past, the design challenges piled on. “The atmosphere was seedy at best,” says Beverage Director Bill Norris. “But once we gutted it, the bones were beautiful.”
The design concept centered on emphasizing the original elements and making the transition from the street “luxurious but not intimidating,” Norris says.
Mozersky worked on the transformation and says, “We wanted Midnight Cowboy to feel like it had always been there and was authentic.” His favorite design element is the vintage-inspired wallpaper.
“We used the same pattern in different colorways in the various rooms, and I love the way it changed the feel of each area,” Mozersky says. “I wanted it to look like it was the original paper in the space and we just unearthed it, and I think it does just that.”
Norris says he’s most drawn to a vintage wooden statue that was repurposed as a bar post. Norris said he thinks the piece dates back to the 1800s, and is supposed to be a patron saint for innkeepers.
But a peaceful, beautifully designed bar doesn’t mean much, Norris says, if it’s not supported by great service and quality products. “Bill’s menu is innovative and daring,” Mozersky says. “But its roots are in traditional cocktail making, so the space was designed to be somewhat traditional, but unlike anywhere else in town.”
In Austin’s historic Warehouse district, absinthe bar and cafe Peché brings back pre-Prohibition style. An elegant, giant glass absinthe dripper fountain greets customers to a building more than 100 years old. Smaller functional versions of the fountain adorn the bar area. These fountains serve to drip cold water into an absinthe drink, but their delicate old-world style brings sophistication to the ambience.
Pate says the fountains were obtained at a New Orleans shop that was affiliated with an absinthe museum. Character and comfort were driving design factors for Pate, who also hired a design consultant for the project.
Peché’s long and narrow space, which was the former site of tapas bar Málaga, exposes a brick wall on one side and vintage mirrors (a Craigslist find) on the other. Classic absinthe advertisements also adorn the wall. A couple of black beaded chandeliers dangle over the bar area, and music from yesteryear fills the quaint space.
A variety of bottles fill the large wooden shelves behind the bar, including some unmarked mason jars that a waitress said were filled with aging fig syrup for a future recipe.
East Side Show Room
Pull back the curtains and become a part of East Side Show Room’s eclectic pre-World War II-era bar, which the management describes as “part 1920s European bistro, part cabaret and part Austin urban bohemian.”
Designer Mickie Spencer is the mastermind behind East Side Show Room and other visually striking restaurants and bars including Swan Dive, Hillside Farmacy and Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden. Spencer, who co-owns East Side Showroom, has an eye for transforming unwanted items into hip, functional art and ensuring that spaces are impeccably lighted. That’s the case at East Side Show Room, where the nostalgic ambiance includes design touches such as a nautical porthole over the center bar welded together with an upside down vintage milk can.
East Side Show Room was originally launched with the idea that it also would serve as a showroom for Spencer’s unique design style. The bar’s live music brings old-world Europe to this East Austin showstopper.
Keep an eye out for some other local bars with cool design:
Weather Up, 1808 E. Cesar Chavez St., facebook.com/WeatherUpAustin
Easy Tiger, 709 E. Sixth St., easytigeraustin.com
Icenhauers, 83 Rainey St., icenhauers.com
Swan Dive, 615 Red River St., swandiveaustin.com
Handlebar, 121 E. Fifth St., handlebaraustin.com
Malverde, 400-B W. Second St., lacondesa.com/malverde
Check out the vintage-inspired bar designs at:
Midnight Cowboy, 313 E. Sixth St., www.midnightcowboymodeling.com
East Side Show Room, 1100 E. Sixth St., eastsideshowroom.com
Peché, 208 W. Fourth St., pecheaustin.com