What makes a truly great bar in 2023? In Austin, it takes more than a cutesy name and borrowed nostalgia. A parade of Johnny-come-latelies provide plenty of distraction, but ultimately, we return to the tried-and-true.
That's why readers will see so many familiar faces amongst the seven CultureMap Tastemaker Awards nominees for Bar of the Year. Only one has opened in the past year. In a city that often seems drunk on its own buzz, it's essential to support those places that will call guests a cab at the end of the night.
Join us in celebrating the spots that have set the bar in Bat City — and welcoming a newcomer to the fold. Only one winner will be crowned during our blowout May 11 party at Fair Market, but the city would be lost without all of them. Buy tickets now before they sell out.
Austin has lost much of its previous identity amongst a flurry of Hermès scarves and Patagonia vests. Neighborhood bars are needed now more than ever. One could rhapsodize at length about DrinkWell owner Jessica Sander's cocktail wizardry or how the burger still hits after all these years. But DrinkWell's je ne sais quoi lies in the sense of community, whether in driving the conversation towards healthier hospitality workplaces or simply greeting the regulars sidling up to the bar.
In Plain Sight
The younger sibling to underground speakeasy Here Nor There, this pocket bar gets its name from its street-level visibility. But that doesn't mean it's any easier to score a seat. With only eight barstools and a small standing area, the joint is packed from opening to close. What draws the guests isn't just the exclusivity or even the promenade of rainbow lights: Irish import Conor O'Reilly plays pied piper with Italian-style sippers that dazzle as brightly as the neon.
A nude Burt Reynolds reclines in the bathroom. Thrift store bric-a-brac crowds a wood-paneled wall. This East Austin patio bar practically wallows in its Palm Springs kitsch. Dive bars often get stuck in trucker hat grit. With an expressive cocktail menu of frozen favorites and lively originals, this one cleans house with the sweep of an Elizabeth Taylor kaftan.
When this East Austin bar arrived, Capital City nightlife was under the thrall of mustachioed mixologists. The Nickel City team took the piss out with a frozen Irish coffee in a Styrofoam cup. It's not that the cocktails here require a less exacting palate (a current selection employs shiitake mushrooms and seaweed), it just turns out that barcraft with a sense of humor is a hell of a lot more fun.
A vanguard in Austin's shift away from boisterous mega bars, Josh Loving's downtown hideaway has always provided adults sanctuary from the Sixth Street roar of "shots, shots, shots." Now approaching its 10th anniversary, the operation is a bona fide classic. Reserve a spot before an elegant dinner or revive the ancient lost art of the nightcap.
The Roosevelt Room
Sure, cocktail nerds can get an education by thumbing through a reprint of Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide, but we've always believed in practical learning. Patrons of this downtown bar can drink their way through decades of America's spirited obsessions, from graceful Boulevardiers to exuberant Cosmos. Lest one think a mortarboard is required for a night on the town, the bar team plays hooky with some eccentric new creations. Run the Jules could be served at the Mos Eisley Cantina.
The opening salvo of an Otoko omakase, this South Congress Avenue lounge specializes in Japanese whiskies and carefully crafted tipples. Though there is a focus on seasonal and rare ingredients, Watertrade prefers not to namedrop. Instead, it leans into the vibe. Do you feel "fizzy and playful" or "amazing and robust?" Laze in one of the low-slung chairs and let the staff do the rest.