- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
The folks behind Rainey Street’s newest bar — who also are the masterminds behind Los Angeles’ venerated craft cocktail haven the Varnish — hope to emphasize that craft cocktails don’t have to be difficult or pretentious.
At Half Step, you might never have to shout your order to a harried bartender preparing drinks for the thick crowd of other customers beside you. You can ask questions about the menu. And if you don’t like any of the drink options or don’t know an Old-Fashioned from a Last Word, don’t fret. Just tell the bartenders what type of spirit or flavor you like, and they’ll pull a recipe out of their considerable arsenal and make a craft cocktail they hope you’ll remember and want again.
That’s the approach at Half Step, which is having a soft open now and officially opens its doors on Tuesday. Founder Chris Bostick, who worked at Fonda San Miguel and other spots in Austin and New York before his days at the Varnish, wants to deliver a comfortable, inviting place where craft cocktails are accessible.
“If someone might order a vodka soda, we’ll make them the vodka soda no problem,” he said. “The hope is that they’ll sit there drinking it, they’ll see everything going on, and all of a sudden they’ll get curious. If you’re not beating people over the head with the old mixology shtick, before you know it, the vodka soda drinker goes, ‘Well, that drink. Can I try it with vodka?’ And from then on, we’ve earned their trust and they’re drinking that.”
Half Step has been nearly three years in the making, and Bostick and others from the Varnish have considered every detail, from the arrangement of ingredients on the bar to outside seating to the types of ice they’ll serve with certain drinks.
Take the interior for example. Dimly lit and cozy, a mixture of new and vintage fixtures, it has tables on one side and a server who will bring drinks to patrons there. This section, Bostick said, is more restaurant-style and won’t have clusters of people standing beside the tables. That’s important to him, as “it’s nice to be able to sit down, relax and really connect without someone yelling by your elbow.”
On the other side, separated by a low wall where bar stools from Uncommon Objects offer more seating, is a sleek stainless steel bar with easily visible menus and fresh ingredients — a small variety of fruits and beakers of house made syrups — resting on ice on both ends.
When people walk in, Bostick said, they have a couple of choices. They can head straight to the bar, see if a table is available and sign up if one isn’t, or go outside to where another bar, built for speed, is ready to serve up drinks such as juleps and swizzles. The outdoor bar will have two cocktails on tap, as well as four draft beers; the indoor bar will have six beer taps, including Circle Brewing’s Alibi.
The indoor bar has a specific menu, including an option for bartender’s choice. There are five $11 cocktails listed, each using a different spirit and style (such as a buck or a collins), and all with no more than four ingredients.
“We choose to keep it simple because the bourbon, Benedictine and Angostura (of a Kentucky Colonel, one of the listed cocktails) should all have a say, should all be balanced and speak for themselves,” Bostick said. “It’s the Italian way of cooking: simple, but with honor to the ingredients.”
Indeed, Bostick and his team have considered every cocktail ingredient. For that reason, behind the Half Step bungalow is another small building — an icehouse.
There, a Clinebell machine, typically manufactured for ice sculptors, produces massive blocks of ice that can be molded into different shapes that depend on the type of cocktail. A long rectangular block called a Collins spear, for example, goes into highballs; a single square rock pairs with spirits served neat. And for the cocktails that call for crushed ice — the juleps and swizzles — another machine (the same one Sonic uses) produces that pellet-shaped ice.
“We think of ice as the flame that we use to cook our ingredients,” said Eric Alperin, a partner at Half Step who still works at the Varnish; he explained that the clear ice made this way is durable and melts slower in drinks, preventing them from diluting too quickly or getting too warm. The functional use of ice made in-house is so important to them, in fact, that Half Step has trained two guys to work in the icehouse, the first purpose-built one in Austin with a Clinebell machine used for cocktails.
That’s just one of the things that makes Half Step a sleek addition to Rainey Street, which Bostick selected as the location for his bar because he said he could sense that it was not only a bustling part of city nightlife, but also a neighborhood of bar and food trailer owners who bring over free tacos and say hello to each other on their porches.
“I’ve noticed that’s what Rainey Street is about: great neighbors, great bars. And different bars, too, that was part of the impetus for coming here,” Bostick said. “We said, ‘Let’s create something that isn’t down here already; let’s develop an experience that is a little bit different so that when people walk through the door, they say, ‘Whoa, this is unexpected.’”