As is the case with its restaurants, it’s virtually impossible to check out every bar in Austin. Even if you had the constitution for such an endeavor, there just isn’t enough time with so many cocktail lounges, sports bars and neighborhood haunts opening and closing each month.
A recent search for “bars” in Austin on Yelp yielded 1,356 results. Though far from scientific — and the list includes several restaurants that just happen to have a bar — it’s an indication of the booming industry in Austin.
Mixed in with all those bars are a few watering holes that fit a peculiar little niche in drinking scene. They are bars that aren’t trying to be noticed. They evoke the taboo nature of drinking during prohibition. They make you feel like you’re in on a secret. And, for once, you might have the illusion that you’ve found a place that none of your friends have even heard of.
Here are three of Austin’s best downtown bars that are hiding in plain sight:
Imagine life in downtown Austin back in 1885. The city was just starting to blossom. The so-called Servant Girl Annihilator was on the loose. Austin was about to become the home to the state fair — briefly. And the city’s first fire station was built.
Today, you can waltz on in there and find a clerk ready to check you into a hostel. Or, if you’re in the know, someone will push through a bookshelf that opens into a windowless little lair called the Firehouse Lounge. They make fantastic cocktails, as many speakeasy-style bars do. You’re likely to overhear some international travelers talking about what they’ve discovered in Austin and where they’re headed next. And, you’re right across the street from the Driskill and the wild 6th Street scene, which provides an added layer of ambiance.
The streets just to the south and west of the state Capitol grow quiet in the evenings. Comprised mostly of offices for special interest groups, lawyers, lobbyists and other government-related agencies, it’s a bit of a no man’s land for bars and restaurants, though a few are mixed in.
Just across a tiny street west of the Capitol grounds and down a small staircase is a dimly lit basement bar called The Cloak Room. It has been a refuge for politicians, lobbyists, lawyers and journalists through the years as legislation grinds on at all hours. Although you’re probably less likely to find a high-level politician hanging out here late at night — or in the middle of the day, for that matter — than you may have been years ago, it remains one of the best tucked away bars in Austin because of its friendly service and dark political atmosphere that, in today’s pop culture, could be a meeting place for Kevin Spacey and a sinister associate in House of Cards.
If you’re a movie buff, “Midnight Cowboy” may bring to mind the dark interplay between Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in the 1969 cult classic drama film. In Austin, Midnight Cowboy is more about exceptional cocktails and limited access. It’s not something you’re likely to find at random, unless you were looking for an oriental massage.
Mixed in with the attention-grabbing bar fronts on 6th Street, you’ll see a sign that says “Midnight Cowboy Oriental Massage,” and, then, you ring the doorbell marked “Harry Craddock” to get in. Get reservations to ensure a spot for two hours. If they have walk-in space, the “vacancy” sign will be illuminated.