Three delicious cocktails await its owners.

A Speakeasy Tour of Austin in three acts

02/28/2019 | by lodgewell | Eats & Drinks

There’s no better place than in a hidden bar, a bar with a reservation requirement for achieving cruising altitude on a gin trip. I don’t like exclusivity for the sake of snobbery, but if you’ve got something special, well, it’s best to protect it. On a recent night out, I had the good fortune to time travel with two friends from work on a Speakeasy tour of downtown Austin. But let’s start at the beginning. And scene:

Act 1: Midnight Cowboy: Buckle up, it’s going to be a smooth ride

The three of us stood there in the light rain, shivering on a cold night looking for an address and a doorbell.

I’d walked by this nondescript metal screen door on Dirty 6th Street hundreds of times in the past decades and never noticed it. I had no need for the building’s services prior to this moment: tonight I did. My friends and I needed entrance to one of Austin’s secret bars, Midnight Cowboy, stop 2 of 3 on our Austin speakeasy tour.

We looked for the buzzer as a couple stood in front of us waiting. Suddenly a portion of the door opened and the couple began negotiating with the unseen voice coming from behind the brown grate. Seeing us standing in line behind them I volunteered, “We have a reservation,” and just like that, the man and woman moved aside, and we were ushered in. We found ourselves in a tight, warm, high-ceilinged railroad car of a space with a central aisle for the barkeep to walk up and down surveying the inebriation.

As soon as we walked in, the incredibly friendly mixologist/guide to the night was by our side, leading us to our table, pointing out the pegs for coats and giving us the “so, have you ever been to Midnight Cowboy before?” Many times when this question is asked in a restaurant I find it annoying. I know how to function at a restaurant. But, here, I was looking forward to the tutorial. A speakeasy has its own rules and customs. As I had not been to a bar that required a password and had a passport, I was ready for edification.  

At the beginning, I was against this menu, this passport, this “trip” that Midnight Cowboy was selling. I told my friends and fellow Speakeasy travelers, “I’m going to have water here or maybe they’ll let me have a vodka tonic,” as I grew alarmed at the serious level of mixology voodoo leaping out from the pages of the cocktail passport book.

You see we were on an adventure, to test out Austin’s 6th Street speakeasy scene and I wasn’t behaving very adventuresomely. I worried about the next day’s hangover, and about hallucinating on gin in front of my co-workers. Not a good look on me. Yet, I had to try one of the concoctions in the interest of journalistic integrity, and so we started looking at the menu together to decide which drink would cause the least harm. No food on this trip. The ingeniously organized passport held no dining options, only drinking ones. And drinks. And drinks.

Midnight Cowboy bar
It’s not a menu silly, it’s a passport. To another realm.

As the passports traveled in order of strength, I chose one in the early numbers and it appeared so benign: looking like a mix between a snow cone and a juice cleanse, I remember thinking, “Oh, I’ll take just a sip for the sake of the blog, and wait until we can go back to another low-rent bar and drink vodka.”

However, the “Na Zadorovie” cocktail had other plans…about 4 sips in, I hazily remember saying over and over again, “I LOVE this drink. It’s SOOOO good. Why did you do this to me? Why? Now, I want to start each day drinking this health food.” I don’t remember saying much except talking too much to our guide. I couldn’t stop gushing about my Russian-inspired beverage.

Inside, all snug in our booth, there was no 6th street vibe able to penetrate the secret door held by a password and reservation. This bar was not a period piece, but a cocktail-powered spaceship. The tight space that only allowed a few people onto the flight. That’s what it most reminded me of, a trip to nowhere that you never want to end.

Time, usually an enemy, stood at attention here, seemingly not moving. But why?  Because of the decor, because of the barman’s enthusiasm, because of the coats hung on the wall? Was I in a dream? Were we being dreamed by the gin? Ahh, yes, this makes perfect sense…that’s what happens, the gin has a dream, and it just lives itself out through you. Three broads talking, and laughing and trying to outdo each other in “worst guest at a wedding” story. The close knit groups of friends each at their own station living out their own booze-fueled reverie.

After ¾ of the gin/vodka slurpee, I felt my entire heart open to my friends, my barkeep, my fellow bargoers. Is gin really this kind? Is the heart of gin compassion? Was it really gin that powered the world’s compassion? Did the Buddha have it wrong all along?

Yes, could you tell? I was tip-sey. I had tried not to imbibe and now I was smack in the midst of a gin-fueled mania for sure. I had not envisioned this level of inebriation on a Wednesday night, but that’s what happens when you drink behind hidden doors and underground.

And it had all started so pedestrian a few hours earlier as we set out on our Speakeasy tour.

Act 2: The Cloak Room: The bar where time stands still

The first bar on our itinerary that night had been my idea–The Cloak Room. It had been a long time since my last visit and I wanted to check back in and see how time had treated her. I knew how time had treated me. The last time I’d been here, I’d been enjoying a bleary-eyed birthday party in its underground chill in the heat of summer. Now in winter, it was even more inviting to shiver down the steps and enter a warm, tiny, bar that time did not touch. I looked much older, and if anything, the place had aged better than I had. It seemed more cleaned up than the last time, last century.

Everything felt the same as the 90s. Miss Beverly, the eternal bartendress of the Cloak Room, was still focused on decorum, the jukebox had soul pleasing options and wave upon wave of legislative aides and lobbyists began to crawl in as the night progressed.

Even though it’s a great bar on its own merits, the Cloak Room is most interesting to visit during the Session of the Texas Legislature for its proximity (it’s next door) to the imposing Texas State Capitol. If you doubt me, go by The Cloak Room during the legislative session as we did.  A few patrons that night were either already drunk on arrival or just naturally obnoxious, so I humbly felt that the entire bar’s mood would be improved by my choosing the evening’s music.

Standing at this jukebox filled me with a feeling that I can only describe as rapturous. The Cloak Room jukebox is simply the best in the city. Pumping dollar upon dollar into the machine and deliriously choosing from Prince deep cuts, I filled the jukebox queue with enough selections to keep this crew listening to my music far into the night. They might never notice, but it encouraged me to think that my chosen tracks of Etta James, Prince and Al Green would be the soundtrack for these folks’ entire evening.

Alas, time marched on for us and we had a 7:45 reservations at Midnight Cowboy awaiting. We rushed out into the warm embrace of a Lyft ride to continue our tour.

Back at Midnight Cowboy: Holy Water and Fairies

You are only allowed two drinks max at Midnight Cowboy and I know why. My friend’s drink the “Pacha Kamaq” came out like a procession of saints being carried by believers: glass-enclosed, incense-infused slow walk to the table by multiple bartenders to keep the holy liquid from spilling on its pilgrimage to our table. If this drink wasn’t potent, then I’ll eat my hat. As a testament to my friend’s liver, she did not speak in tongues after consuming it. She seemed fine.

And me, the lightweight? I was right in the midst of a liftoff. A gin/vodka/beet juice liftoff where the smoke still wafting up from my friend’s drink had imbued the smell of Catholic school incense around our table of three. And, I had that feeling. The way that people describe absinthe fairies, this is what happened to me. The wallpaper that had looked sort of dingy when we arrived transported me to some kind of future/past bar. I felt like we were all on a spaceship of happiness and every person in the room was some kind of kindred spirit hooked up to the same matrix-like euphoria.

“Let’s talk about the past, let’s live in the present, there is no future. There is only now,” I blathered to no one in particular. And more. There was just so much more that night…more hilarity, more laughs, more desire for more.

And then? Time, after taking a few hours off, turned its gaze my direction and a new thought leapt up in my mind, “are you sure you feel okay René? Are you sure you’re not just feeling the hallucinogenic pull of this drink, or really, truly, are you going to move downtown and drink this drink over and over and over again until time and space collapse?”

And just as fast as it had appeared, the faint undertow of the cocktail signaled the need for an exit. “Guys, let’s go,” I said. More out of a desire to get cold fresh air than anything else. I was also worried that the part of my mind that loves more fun would agree to another drink and that would be bad. Very bad. Responsibility was required of me in the morning, a hangover would have to wait.

Act 3: The Good Life BAR BAR: We can be happy underground

And once the wind hit my face, I started to recover from that dream state. I think we walked (floated?) around the corner to find our last (or at least my last bar) of the night. A place recommended to us by our co-worker James at Top Trip Rentals, who had it recommended to him by the guys behind the counter at the liquor store at 5th and Brazos. I think that’s enough credentials for you. Located behind the Good Life Barber Shop and aptly named the Good Life BAR BAR. It feels like you stumbled into a well-appointed rec room with a nice chatty owner/operator behind the bar ready to talk. The owner Brian Hummel plays his own personal playlist as the bar’s soundtrack that includes a wide mix of musical styles that he enjoys ranging from Rat Pack classics to old school country with some 80s pop thrown in for good measure.

“Welcome, whattya want?” asked Brian over the sound of Hall and Oates. I want water. My friends wanted an IPA, and we had the entire place to ourselves so I knew it was going to be okay. Only rarely did waves of vertigo rise up in me, the gin struggling to the surface, but I was trying to outrun it with water. It worked okay, and with a clock staring me in the face, reading almost 11 p.m. and knowing I had kids and reality awaiting me in 7 hours, I headed for the doors when my friends were only two beers into their time at this friendly Austin speakeasy.

After we’d tried out every table in the tiny space and returned to the comforts of the bar, another group of revelers (four guys) plowed in around that time, a bit disoriented to find themselves in a small room with three women and a bartender. Because of the size, you do need to bring your own party to this bar. It’s not big, but it’s a good place to sober up if you must. Or drink more if you must. Either option works here.

After talking with Brian about how much Austin had changed, how much 6th street had changed and solving a few mysteries of the universe, I had the realization that only sleep would quell the coming hangover that is the Janus twin to a gin buzz. Abruptly, I bid goodnight to my gal pals and stumbled up the stairs, walked into the bracing cold and caught a ride home.