Some bar concepts endlessly mimeograph themselves across America. Go to Detroit or Denver of Dallas, and you’ll find vested bartenders stirring Old Fashioneds in a speakeasy and showy revelers preening on rooftops. Those watering holes are fine for an occasional evening out, but they aren’t the spots you want to showcase when a visitor is in town.
That goes double in Austin, where so many bars capture the spirit of the city. From ferocious LGBTQ dives to classic Texas honky-tonks, these seven picks show the Capital City at its best — fun-loving, spirited, and proof that there’s no better place to be.
Sure, California and Colorado got a jumpstart on the craft brewing revolution, but it didn’t take long for Texas to catch up. Now, according to trade organization Brewers Association, there are almost 400 breweries in Texas and dozens more on the way. True to its name, this Rainey Street bar is a celebration of that growth, highlighting an eye-popping assortment of Lone Star favorites and rarities. And the state pride doesn’t just stop with the beer. Guests can also sip through a diverse menu of ciders or a curated list of Texas Hill Country wines.
Hole in the Wall
Authenticity doesn’t develop overnight. The layers of stickers, neon signs, license plates, and other ephemera at this campus mainstay’s walls have been building since 1974. Although The Drag’s countercultural ethos was long ago co-opted by corporations, the bar has stood strong as an important part of Austin's music scene. In fact, the next generation’s superstar is probably playing there tonight.
While the occasional house remix still blasts from the speakers, this scrappy gay bar is a welcome antidote to the oonce-oonce throb of the mega-clubs. Here, one might play a round of trivia, catch a zaddy belting out a show tune, or watch a bearded drag queen kill it on the stage — sometimes on the same night. It’s delightfully unselfconscious, and the bartenders all know how to pour on that Texas charm.
Little Longhorn Saloon
It’s perhaps fitting that this Brentwood fixture is housed in a former chapel. The weekly chicken shit bingo is a different sort of Sunday tradition, and the raucous acts who grace the stage weekly can definitely take congregants to church. Couples spin on the dance floor, kids dive in and out, and the old-timers still stop by to wet their whistle. That’s the way it has been for more than four decades, and that’s the way it keeps on keeping on.
Although we have never peeked at their records, we suspect that the mother and son who run this east side hot spot both have very diverse collections. After all, the acts they bring to the stage certainly reflect a wide variety of tastes. From folk and funk to reggae and rock, everything is welcome at Sahara Lounge, and everyone is welcome to groove along with it. Before doing so, one should definitely order the Sahara Slant, an instant party starter with Maine Root ginger brew, spice rum, lime juice, and a splash of potent Ghanaian spirit akpeteshie.
Texas politics is famously contentious, but the various battling factions always agree on one thing: Scholz Garten is the place to grab a beer. This campus-adjacent spot has been in operation since 1866, and claims the title of oldest operating business in Texas. In March, the iconic space was gussied up and a new operations team led by Frank alum Daniel Northcutt was brought on board, but it still lives and breathes history. Wonks still dither over policy, Longhorn fans still pack the place with burnt orange, and the pretzels are still the best in town.
Some Capital City concepts can feel generic, but we’re willing to bet that Whip In is the only convenience store/biergarten/Indian gastropub/music venue in the U.S. Somehow the disparate parts all come together seamlessly. It’s perfectly natural to enjoy a bowl of saag paneer with a hoppy IPA and then grab a bottle of wine while heading out the door. This is the Austin that does whatever the heck it wants instead of bowing to mercurial trends.