Austin's 5 best bars are shaking up the cocktail scene in unusual ways
UPDATE: The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, originally scheduled for April 16, will now be held on July 23. The story has been updated with the new date.
Austin knows how to do a good bar. From down-home dives and honky-tonks to sexy speakeasys, the Capital City has no shortage of great places to grab a drink. But a great bar? That requires a blend of talented staff, a sprig of ambiance, and a dash of magic.
This year, the nominees for CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bar of the Year may look a little different. In addition to narrowing down the number of places for 2020, we broadened our idea of what makes a great bar. It's not enough to be elevating cocktail culture anymore; the best bars in Austin should be places we actually want to patronize. From a brand-new dance club to a classic Rainey Street cocktail lounge, all our nominees have that unknowable magic that makes them truly special — and a true reflection of Austin.
Learn more about the 2020 nominees below, then join us in toasting the winner during our ninth annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards on July 23 at Brazos Hall.
Coconut Club is the kind of bar Austin needs. Owned by Cheer Up Charlies vets Cole Evans and Brian Almaraz, the two-story dance club offers options to please the unassuming vodka-soda drinker, the cocktail maven, and everyone in between. The bar is a reflection of Coconut Club itself: an inclusive space where everyone is welcome, from club kids and queer folks to bachelorette parties and tech bros. A welcome (and welcoming) addition to the local bar scene.
Half Step is like George Clooney — it never goes out of style. One of the OGs of Rainey Street, Half Step continues to push boundaries while perfecting the thing that made it famous: great cocktails. The neighborhood may have changed since Half Step stirred its first martini, but the attention to detail, the craftsmanship, and the willingness of its bartenders to craft something special for their patrons have never faltered.
Tucked away in a downtown parking garage, the aptly named Garage is fun without being gimmicky. Unlike some newer spots that use flashy tricks or neon signs to distract from the fact that nothing tastes very good, Garage uses its unusual space to enhance the experience. The intimate, industrial-inspired space is cozy without being stuffy, and the cocktails are among some of the best in town.
No matter the time of day, it's always time for Kinda Tropical. Tucked away on East Seventh Street, long past the rest of the east side bars, you'll find this hidden oasis. Behind the bar are some of Austin's best, including veterans of Weather Up (RIP) and Yellow Jacket Social Club. The bar's innovative cocktail menu is foiled by a curated wine and beer list. And though this is a bar award, don't pass up the food. What emerges from chef John Clark DiCicco's kitchen is just as good as the drinks.
Small Victory has a blink-and-you-miss-it front door, likely a nod to the speakeasies that inspired it. Up the stairs, the space is indeed as small as the name implies, but the powerhouse bartending team packs a bigger punch than anywhere else in town. The classics — Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, etc. — are superb, but the real fun comes when drinkers offer up a few ideas and let their bartender craft something extraordinary.