Most of the time, picking a restaurant starts with the food. On some occasions, though, what you’d really like to do is order a great cocktail and catch up with friends. When this mood strikes, there’s no need to settle for sub-par dining. Some of Austin’s best restaurants offer thoughtful cocktail menus you can take advantage of for an outstanding food and drink experience. This is by no means all-inclusive, but here’s where we suggest you explore.
A centerpiece of the Lamar Union project, Vox Table’s bar has proven to be a great pre- or post-film hang for those at Alamo Drafthouse. The beverage program passed the torch from Travis Tober to JR Mocanu, and the bar is as strong as ever. The drinks here lean toward lengthy ingredient lists — simple this is not. Interesting new arrivals include the Carlos Almaraz (Del Maguey mezcal, lime, charred carrot, pasilla chile, Green Chartreuse, bitters) and the Conor at Maggie’s (Tullamore Dew, Oothu White Tea Pilsner, honey, lemon, hopped grapefruit bitters, beer foam). Chef Joe Anguiano has a deft hand with seafood and veggies, so pairing your drinks with dishes like his smoked hamachi pipettes, wood-fired oysters, or roasted mushrooms with charred pears is a smart bet.
While simpler options like an on-draft Paloma are available, the stars of Odd Duck’s bar are the multiple barrel-aged cocktails, which cycle in and out of rotation. Among the best are the 12 Year Itch, which marries rich El Dorado aged rum with Fernet Branca and Carpano Antica vermouth. A close second is the Vieux Carre (Bulliet rye, Pierre Ferrand cognac, Benedictine, bitters); the New Orleans favorite benefits with extra spice and sweetness from the aging. Chef Bryce Gilmore’s small plates menu plays well with cocktail hour. Rich favorites like the “pig face” Parker House rolls; the fried quail; and (especially) the sweet potatoes with green chiles, fried skins, and nacho spice are among the best drink accompaniments in the city.
A new addition to Austin’s cocktail game, Geraldine’s wisely hired Contigo and Midnight Cowboy vet Jennifer Keyser to run bar operations. The result is a smart hotel bar program that splits the difference between well-executed classics and more adventurous fare. Popular originals include the Willie’s Cup, which joins High West double rye with hemp seed milk (get it?) and sage, and the Velvet Voice, a mixture of Vida mezcal with Campari, orange bitters, and a delightful hibiscus-infused sweet vermouth. The menu here has something for everyone and assumes that diners are adventurous. On a recent visit, the heirloom bean cassoulet with lamb merguez and herbs was a highlight as were the smoked yellowtail tacos in a taro shell with a Thai tomatillo sauce. This is a great spot for a group birthday or double date.
When C.K. Chin decided to bring upscale Chinese food to downtown Austin, fans of Swift’s Attic waited in feverish anticipation. The food lived up to expectations, but the surprise in the concept was the bar program. Rather than sticking to classics, the drinks here skew full Tiki, complete with crazy mugs and toothpick umbrellas. The My-Tie blends dry Brugal rum with orgeat, pineapple, lime, and coconut milk (topped with more rum) in boozy harmony, while the Wu-Groni takes the classic and adds Chinese bitters and baijiu (a strong sorghum wine). Our favorite is One Texan’s Take on Tiki, which adds avocado, jalapeño, and cucumber to a base of Botanist gin and Cointreau. The menu here is lengthy; the dry-fried green beans are a must as are the cumin lamb and the honey pecan Gulf prawns.
The bar program here uses no fewer than eight riffs on the Negroni as a backbone, and diners can pick their favorite combination or order a flight to sample several variations. There’s also a lengthy drink menu catering to casual sippers and cocktail hounds alike. On the current menu, try the Paper Plane (bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, lemon) and the simple Lion’s Tail (bourbon, allspice dram, honey, lime). The fun and varied drink menu is complemented by an excellent snack menu: Grab the olive oil tasting with in-house bread, a salumi plate, and a cheese plate for optimal Italian-style nibbling.
Fixe’s steakhouse take on Southern dining makes it a great pick for bites and a cocktail: The atmosphere is boisterous, the service is impeccable, and the drinks are strong but familiar. Our favorites include the Honey Badger (Old Forester bourbon, honeycomb, lemon) and the Basil Smash (Basil Hayden’s bourbon, basil, strawberry, grapefruit juice). Both lean a bit sweet but are lovely porch or happy hour drinks. The bar area is a find at social hour: From 4 to 7 pm, the restaurant runs specials on fried catfish, biscuits, sweet tea pickles, and a top-notch smoked trout dip with Carolina Gold rice crackers. You can supplement these with an order of the smartly composed herbivore grits, accompanied by a farm egg, romesco sauce, and garlic-braised kale.
Emmer & Rye
At Emmer & Rye, the cocktail list is pared down but smartly executed. The cocktail menu makes liberal use of local products, especially in the signature Army Navy cocktail, which uses the balanced flavors of Austin Reserve Gin and locally harvested pecans in its orgeat syrup. On the current menu, the Bourbon and Berry (bourbon, strawberry satsuma shrub, orange, and ginger beer) is a crowd favorite, while the Nordic By Nature mixes Bols Genever (a malty gin) with lemon, honey, St. Germain, and To Øl IPA. When dining, keep in mind that half of Emmer & Rye’s menu is served dim sum style. There are usually several exciting choices, so order light from the main menu, but don’t pass up the burrata toast with stracciatella, kale, and black butter.