Garage Cocktail Bar
Park yourself at this covert speakeasy for killer drinks and food
by Karen Spezia
Photographs by Mica McCook
“Where are you taking me?” my husband groused, as we haplessly scoured a downtown block for our destination. I’d been justly warned that Garage Cocktail Bar was hard to find, but just as we’d lost hope, a discreet neon sign beckoned from the bowels of a high-rise parking garage. We entered frustrated and weary, but hours later, departed delighted and thankful that we’d persevered in discovering one of Austin’s coolest covert bars.
In a city rife with trendy cocktail bars, Garage has trumped them all with true Austin weirdness: it’s in a parking garage. Seriously, it’s tucked beneath a downtown office building in an old parking attendant office. The snug space has been transformed into a stylish speakeasy that’s both cozy and airy, creating a delightful oasis of superior craft cocktails and outstanding Italian-inspired nibbles.
It ain’t just any old garage: the office tower above it is historic and iconic. When it opened in 1954, the American National Bank Building was a modernist marvel. Its Mid-Century Modern lobby was designed by famed architect, furniture designer, and Mies van der Rohe protégé Florence Knoll. It featured Austin’s first escalators and a large-scale mural by artist Seymour Fogel, a disciple of Diego Rivera. It boasted Austin’s first motor bank and an innovative double helix-shaped parking ramp—a nod to the DNA molecule—that housed the cars and the valet parking office.
But just beneath the parking ramp remained a dingy vacant valet office considered non-rentable. That is, until a trio of investors came along who found inspiration and potential in the unusual space, and Garage Cocktail Bar was born.
In 2008, it was renamed the McGarrah Jessee Building and restored to its original glory by McKinney York Architects, garnering a Best American Architecture Award. But just beneath the parking ramp remained a dingy vacant valet office considered non-rentable. That is, until a trio of investors came along who found inspiration and potential in the unusual space, and Garage Cocktail Bar was born.
The space maintains much of its industrial character with high, exposed ceilings and gray concrete walls. Local legend Mickie Spencer (Eberly, East Side Show Room, et al.) embellished the space with dazzling custom-made decor. She created a centerpiece circular bar that mimics the curves of the spiral parking ramp, its marble countertop under lit from below and bathed in soft light from the transom windows above. Behind the bar, a dark and sultry lounge area is illuminated by flickering votives and intricate light fixtures handmade by Spencer. Buttery-soft leather banquettes hug the walls, accented by sleek ottomans and marble tables. Vintage green subway tiles line the entrance and bar. And a vintage Rega RP3 turntable sets the mood by spinning soul-funk vinyl throughout the night.
But all this cool vintage history and modern style means little if the drinks and food aren’t good. But they are. They are very, very good. The folks behind Garage’s bar and stove are just as passionate about their artistry as its architects and designers. Lead bartender Jayson Black is a storyteller, creating original libations — like the Coachwhip and my favorite, the Evangelist — whose ingredients all seem to have a history. He also mixes perfect classics, like Daiquiris, Old Fashioneds, and a riff on the Jack Rose called a Junior Junior. And his whiskey list will blow your mind.
Chef Tim Lane’s food is a revelation. His small menu of shared snacks is modeled after the Italian apertivo, the classic evening ritual of drinks and nibbles. Lane knows Italian food: he cooked in Italy for over a decade, including Rome’s Michelin starred Glass Hostaria, and also spent time at New York’s highly acclaimed wd~50 and Austin’s own Asti Trattoria. His clever menu features regional Italian flavors and changes with the seasons. Recently, we swooned over tender hand-pulled mozzarella with tomatoes; gobbled up crispy rice suppli croquettes with savory stuffing; and fought over the last crunchy cube of eggplant, dressed with a spectacular arabiata sauce.
From its quirky location to its chic décor and knockout drinks and snacks, Garage will surprise and delight you. Everyone involved is zealously dedicated to their craft, which puts Garage a notch above – or in this case, below – everyone else in town.
Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2017