Drinking in secret, occasionally seedy bars is a time-honored rite among Austinites.
Take, for example: Austin’s historic “Guy Town” district, home of prostitution, drinking, gambling and the random opium opportunity, thrived for more than four decades, from 1870 to 1913. Stories of murder, brawls and “loose women” abound from that era—just a bit more intense than your average night on Dirty Sixth.
And though today there are more bars here per capita than in any other ZIP code in the U.S., choosing the speakeasies with intriguing histories and a little craft cocktail magic can really add to your drinking enjoyment. We’ve assembled some of the top favorites among locals along with the insider info about how to get in, and what to do while you’re there.
We arrived at our appointed 11 pm Sunday night reservation time and found the unmarked iron bar door at 313 E. 6th St.—there was once a neon sign announcing “Midnight Cowboy Modeling Oriental Massage”—and were soon escorted to our dimly lit booth.
“Midnight Cowboy is one of the coolest and most unique secret bars,” said Nicole Jensen, founder of Austin Tour Company, which leads a secret bar tour.
As its sign proclaimed, the building operated as a massage parlour as late as 2005. To get in, make a reservation in advance online. When you arrive, ring the buzzer marked “Harry Craddock”—the name of a famous London bartender.
Floppy Disk Repair Co.
This bar gets the worst online reviews: the staff are awful at fixing floppy disks. However, they do fix a mean cocktail. But the price of admission? Let’s just say you need to be well connected.
There’s a notoriously challenging door code required to gain entry, and it changes every few weeks. The following insider tips are given in order of ease of entry: Wait for someone leaving or going out to wriggle in the door; Yelp Austin Community Manager Luci Harris’ foolproof strategy is: “ask the bartenders at Handlebar [next door] for the code after you buy a beer and tip the staff”; Google and search social media for the code (the bar was formerly called Red-Headed Stepchild).
The menu will surprise and delight you with its hilarious drink names, such as: Nobody Actually Liked Miranda (Tastes Like Having a Crush on Your Cousin). Order one of the drinks with a sidecar of Cocoa Pebble and don't miss the swings at the bar.
Did you just wander into some adult version of Narnia? Pay a visit to the Firehouse Hostel, located in Austin’s historic fire station built in 1885. Locate the magical bookshelf inside the hostel, sliding it over to reveal a magical world of delicious drinks. It really doesn’t get much cooler than that. There's also the chance to mingle with people staying at the hostel and potentially make new, international friends.
This is the city’s probably least well-kept secret bar: the lounge bartenders mix up a great cocktail, no matter what your tastes. Go for a tried-and-true Moscow Mule or Negroni or venture over to the creative side with a Not Your Average Girl Scout—Cafe Lolita, dark rum, chocolate bitters and cream—or an Apricot Spritz made with apricot liqueur, lemon, sugar, Angostura bitters and bubbles. Cocktails are only $6 during happy hour, 5 to 8 pm.
The trick of Garage is to find its secret location on Colorado Street between 5th and 6th streets. Head inside the parking garage and look for the green neon sign that says “Garage.” Try an Indian Paintbrush, named for Texas’ fiery wildflower, made from vodka, grapefruit juice, rosemary syrup and bitters. Garage bar general manager Paul Finn has said of the drink: “It perfectly captures the essence of Austin.”
Order up some of the hand-held bar snacks created by chef Philip Speer, from the Taiyaki—a Japanese twist on a curried chicken salad sandwich—to the Blue Crab Toast.
Head over to Rainey Street and find Clive Bar, one of the original tenants of this historic district-turned-hip-bar-scene. A stone building out back is where you’ll find Bar Ilegal, known for mezcal, a smoky, agave-based liquor sometimes referred to as tequila’s grandfather but not in a "what’d-ya-say-sonny" kind of way.
Mezcal is the name of the game here, and you’ll find some small-batch treasures imported from Oaxaca. Once you get a feel for what you like, you can upgrade to a cocktail (Mezcal mule, anyone?). If you’re new to mezcal or just interested in learning more, feel free to ask one of the bartenders who will gladly walk you through a mezcal flight.
Argentina and Austin tango together in this tiny, 1920s throwback bar decorated in a South American art deco motif. It’s located below the Buenos Aires Café on Sixth Street in a historic space dating to that era. The Milonga Room is by reservation only so call ahead and get a password, then head to the back of Buenos Aires Café, ring the bell and say the password.
Enjoy the cocktail program that is heavily influenced by the drinks of South America, including those infused with amargos and fernet (bitters). “Milonga” is the word for an Argentine dance, and also a place for dancing and socializing. If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch a tango or a flamenco while sipping your cocktail.