Diviest Bars in Austin
Perhaps the collective resolution of all listicle writers everywhere should be to stop including Austin on your list unless, well, you know what you're talking about.
This weekend, a Portland-based writer for Thrillist compiled an article titled These Are the 33 Best Dive Bars in America. "I can't wait to see the Austin selection," we thought, excitedly clicking on the link. "Our city has so many dive bars!"
Imagine our collective disappointment to see their selection: the Cloak Room. Now the Cloak Room, a bar just steps from the Capitol, has been the unofficial meeting place for Texas lawmakers since the 1970s, but it is not a dive bar.
Yes, the Cloak Room is the kind of joint that makes uncomplicated drinks and has a cranky bartender, but it's also the kind of private, dark watering hole that lends itself to legislative wheeling and dealing, not cheap drink specials, poor makeout partner decisions and fist fights. In fact, if you can write that George W. Bush "came in once ... for a soda," it automatically means that place is not a dive bar.
With help from Kelly Stocker, the unofficial queen of Austin dive bars, we've compiled a list of some of the best dive bars in town — Cloak Room not included.
Shuffleboard tournaments get heated here, and your best bet for wine is going to be Franzia, but this Austin institution is ideal for enjoying a Schlitz in a bottle (you read that right) while "shooting the Schlitz” with total strangers. Lots of Texas country on the jukebox and an excellent spot to pre or post-game before classin' it up at Henri’s Cheese Shop or Barley Swine.
While John Mueller setting up his new barbecue trailer directly behind this joint threatened to elevate the quintessential East Austin dive into non-dive-bar status, the fact that Mueller opens when he feels like it, shuts down at a moment’s notice and still offers his one-word gruff replies to direct questions makes this Mueller/Kellee's location a match made in dive bar heaven. Open, well, pretty much all the time, Kellee's and its fold tend to welcome you with notoriously friendly bartenders and an opportunity to get cozy with your fellow patrons.
Known for their leather lock-ins and fire play shows, the Chain Drive is equal parts awesome adventure and potentially traumatizing. In addition to being one of our favorite LGBT dives, Chain Drive also has a sweet patio in the back and is dangerously close to the always delicious G'Raj Mahal. So grab a cocktail (they have great drink specials on Thursday and Sunday) and prepare to expand your horizons.
First of all, offering $1 bowls of Utz's Cheeseballs is enough to put it on this list. That Ego's also happens to be in a basement, have karaoke seven nights a week and a "grill and chill" on Sundays and trivia on Tuesdays only makes it more amazing. While they did recently repainted the bathrooms, we’re hoping the lyrical geniuses armed with Sharpies will make a quick and brilliant return.
This strip mall surprise in the Wells Branch neighborhood is kind of a "Choose Your Own Adventure." The karaoke lines are short, ensuring more than your allocated 15 minutes of stardom; they serve pub grub (get the burger!) and have pool and poker. In a throwback gesture, they also allow smoking inside.
The 04 Lounge
Forget about bottle service and leave your platinum card at home, because this is a no-nonsense joint where you get a discount for using cash. Mismatched furniture, brothel-red paint decorating the ladies room and stiff “none of that fancy stuff” cocktails will have you enjoying this windowless bar more than any rooftop patio.
The White Horse
Want to get real drunk? Order yourself a couple of $5 Two-Steps, which are made of a shot of cheap whiskey and a Lone Star chaser. Want to make bad decisions? Get yourself on the dance floor, where you’re almost guaranteed to find a makeout buddy. Want to leave with the faint smell of puke on your clothes? It’s called eau de White Horse, and it’s the price you must pay for having fun.
Hole in the Wall
Paul Qui's shilling ramen in the back doesn't undive this campus-area staple. The ladies room has two toilets but only one door, and their “craft cocktails” are pretty much undrinkable. However, the Hole has the best patio, cold beer, great jams from great bands and a staff even your mom will love.
Reportedly the 1963 pet project of an East Austin couple, this carnival-themed bar is home to a giant pink elephant and more clown pictures than one hopes to see in a lifetime. Sure, Carousel Lounge's decor might send your coulrophobia into full swing, but the live music runs the gamut from gospel to rage rock. Wear your dancing shoes and prepare to boogie on the dance floor. Just a note: this dive serves only beer and wine, no liquor — but they do sell set-ups, and you can BYOB if it's hard liquor.
You’re not going to go the Longbranch to make friends. You’re going to go to get one of the heaviest pours of bourbon around and to chat with the person you came with — or just sit by yourself at the bar. Longbranch (which has been around since the '30s) offers no frills, no fuss and no judgment.
The most specialty thing you can order at the Eastern? Fireball. Make your way through the extra-large patio to the tiny inside bar. Once you've arrived, chat up the friendly bartender as he or she whips up a strong drink for mere duckets. In the mood to get a little sweaty while dancing with a bunch of strangers? Get yourself to an Eastern dance party. You won't regret it.
Any spot with bras and panties hanging from the ceiling is automatically granted dive-bar status, even if they do have Fransizkaner Hefe-Weisse on tap. Home to "the only hip-hop night in Austin," Nasty's ensures you can get down to Biggie while drinking frozen margaritas out of a Solo Cup. Also, oddly, it’s the Huns Rugby Headquarters. Head here to pick up a burly dude with anger issues.
Not your traditional dive bar. This pool hall — and we do mean hall — is a virtual sea of pool tables, all well maintained for the felt aficionado. It has a bizarre kind of loungey patio out back, stiff drinks, a Crypt Keeper pinball machine, local brews and $5 frozen HEB pizzas after midnight that, after boozing all evening, are the best pizzas you’ll ever eat.
Lala's Little Nugget
Why wait for Christmas once a year? Lala’s has it all year round. This little Golden Nugget no longer serves food, but the bar staff makes a killer Bloody Mary, and all your fave Reader’s Digest Solid Gold hits are on the jukebox. Nothing past 1965 as far as we can tell, but it doesn't matter since we’re totally down to hear "Cupid" and "Lollipop" all damn night. One Yelp reviewer says, "If Santa Claus and Blanche of the The Golden Girls had a baby girl, they would name her Lala." We couldn't agree more.
Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon
Though recently renovated by local rocker Dale Watson, Ginny’s still has its old charm and now is actually structurally sound! BYO liquor, free hot dogs with all the fixins and chickens droppin’ dribblets. It remains ever divey — even if the toilet seat in the ladies’ is now heated.
Legendary White Swan
Sure, the neighborhood is “edgy,” but this dive bar boasts two things you just can’t pass up: face-melting blues on Mondays and Tuesdays and a food trailer out back serving gyro cheesesteaks, pecan-smoked pulled pork and a kimchi burger, among other delectable treats. Come for the tunes, stay for the skeeball.
(The OG) Casino El Camino
Despite its location on Dirty Sixth, Casino maintains its dive bar status with staunch defiance. So dark you can barely see, with gargoyles and faux castle stones painted on the wall. You never know whether you’re going to eat a burger or need to rescue a tattooed, torn-hose-wearing princess. Casino's infamous stacked burgers aside, legend says that if you get the right bartender at the right time, he’ll hand you a glass of Gummi bears and a glass of bacon to go with that beer and a burger. Worth it.
Once you scale the Treacherous Stairs of Death, you’re privy to a long dark bar, a pool table, a damn good jukebox and drinks just about as cheap as they come. Their motto? “Our drinks are cheap so you don’t have to be.” You can scale the second set of TSOD to get down to their covered “patio” and hobnob with the neighbors who wander over on any given night. Feel free to break out your Sharpie and go to town on the graffiti-ridden picnic tables. We certainly have.
Mickey's Thirsty I Lounge
You can still smoke in Mickey's. You can also karaoke with Larry (the high-kicking, string bean-skinny cowboy) on Friday nights and bring your own liquor. Beers will run you about $2, but there’s a $4 charge for using plastic (so just don’t). Unless you’re a regular, expect to get the hairy eyeball — but they’re friendly enough after you down a couple of Buds. Bonus? It's open at 9 am most days of the week.
Buddy's Place of Happiness
What do you get when you’ve got an old country jukebox, a crap shuffleboard table, a cowboy mannequin named Jasper and the coldest beers this side of San Marcos? Well, you’ve got Buddy’s Place of Happiness of course. Oh, BYO liquor and cash only. Bonus.
Red Shed Tavern
The picturesque patio and stage area are completely deceiving. Step inside to one of the best booze selections in town — we're talking great beer selections, a decent liquor selection and a good wine list. Add in the fact that it's dark as night and has one of the best jukeboxes in town, and you've got yourself a pretty good dive.
Oh, Trophy’s, how we miss you. We miss your filthy restrooms that stank, the floors that were always damp and the feeling that one misstep, and you could contract VD. We miss stepping on glass on the outdoor patio. We miss your beer selection and the fact that if everyone in the bar agreed, you could smoke inside. We miss your pool tables and the host of regulars who parked themselves at the bar, even in daylight hours, even when the middle schoolers from across the street were just walking home from school. We miss your bands and the fact that you could never tell if you were open because years upon years of posters were plastered on the door.
So head to one of these other joints tonight and pour one out for Trophy’s, the diviest dive bar we know.