In the nickel of time
Beloved East Austin bar Nickel City pours out Houston expansion
It’s possible that back in 2020, no one told Nickel City owner Travis Tober about the pandemic: At least, it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down. The force behind the venerated East Austin watering hole not only expanded into Fort Worth in January 2021, but also opened a new concept, Old Pal Texas Tavern, just months later in Lockhart’s Historic Downtown Square. This year, he co-founded Lockhart's Best Little Wine & Books — and it appears he’s just getting started, announcing a new Nickel City coming to Houston early next year.
Nationally acclaimed and locally beloved in both Austin and Forth Worth, Nickel City’s third location will be in Houston’s East Downtown area at 2910 McKinney St. The original Austin location opened in 2017 in the former home of the Longbranch Inn, quickly becoming one of the top bar programs in the country with a slew of accolades, including Esquire’s “Best Bars in America.”
Hailing from Buffalo, New York, Tober plans to bring the familiar “Rust Belt Chic” aesthetic to the Houston outpost, along with the “bar inside a bar” concept introduced in the Fort Worth location’s not-so-secret mezcal bar, Bar Bagazo. Like the Fort Worth mezcaleria, the Houston concept will feature a single spirit focus, with a patio bar focused on rum.
Projected to open in early 2023, the third location will convert 3,200 square feet of a 1940’s warehouse with an interesting brick facade. Co-owner Craig Primozich will oversee design and construction, hiring Houston-based interior design team Lizzy Bufton and Stephanie Russel of Taft Studio to guide the project.
In an exclusive sneak peek for CultureMap, Tober answered five quick-fire questions about what’s sure to become one of Houston’s new favorite neighborhood hangs.
CultureMap: What kept you going during the pandemic with all these new concepts?
Travis Tober: With bars, it can be a bit easier to redevelop and pivot, and it’s that idea that when stuff gets harder, the tough get going, and the pandemic allowed us to see where our shortcomings had been so that we could decide what to do differently and what to change. We redid our patios at both Nickels during the pandemic, and we’re excited to introduce an even bigger patio in Houston for that same reason.
CM: What’s the same and what’s different about each location?
TT: So in Austin, we have our cash-only bar, which raises money for charity. We like to feature traveling bartenders there about once or twice a month, and it all goes to charity. In Fort Worth, we wanted to be the largest agave spirit bar in the area, which we accomplished with over 250 SKUs of agave spirit. That bar itself was based on annual pop-ups we had been doing in Guadalajara, so we wanted to reflect that city in that back room in Bar Bagazo. For Houston, we realized patios were our shortcomings, and people really love the outdoors there whether it’s a gazillion degrees or not.
CM: Why did you choose Houston as your next Texas outpost?
TT: To me, Houston is the best food city in the U.S. It’s the biggest city in Texas and top 4 in the United States. It’s kind of like New York in that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. And it’s such a diverse city, it’s a 24-hour city, so we’re really excited about bringing a new Nickel City there.
CM: Why rum?
TT: Houston is known as a big rum town: It’s one of the top cities in the United States for consumers of rum, so we wanted to do something a little more lighthearted with tropical vacation vibes — not tiki, but more tropical.
CM: Last question: What are you drinking today?
TT: I am in Chicago researching rum bars and sourcing equipment for the Houston concept, so I’m drinking daiquiris.