Austin’s Speakeasy Bars Are Easy To Get Into — If You Know the Right People
What to expect when you visit Here Nor There, Eden, Midnight Cowboy and other hidden spots
Let’s get one thing straight: in 2022, we are no longer in Prohibition. The ol’ giggle-water (pardon me, alcohol) is legal. There are no mobsters running bootleg moonshine down Congress Avenue, no bouncers named Bugsy on Sixth Street, no flappers sneaking out of the house to do the Charleston on Brazos Avenue.
And yet: speakeasies. They do exist here in Austin, roughly one hundred years after the fact.
So what’s a speakeasy in 2022, you ask? No, it’s not a weed bar (wishful thinking); it’s still liquor through and through. The most straightforward answer is that it’s a reservation-based cocktail lounge, but that’s not nearly as fun to say. They also offer a creative way to monetize Austin’s downtown basements, and in a land of limestone (and rising real estate prices), that’s not nothin’.
But I think the easiest way to explain the speakeasy’s appeal is that it’s exclusive. No, you don’t have to be a celebrity to get in, you just have to jump through a few more hoops to make it happen. As such, Austin’s downtown speakeasies are small, intimate affairs, with a distinct “if you know, you know” vibe. On that note, here are five worth knowing about.
313 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701
The OG modern speakeasy of downtown Austin, you’ve probably heard of Midnight Cowboy before: the skeezy exterior that opens up to a polished Prohibition Era interior, the buzzer outside, the then-unlikely location (smack dab in the middle of Dirty Sixth). Personally, I always thought their URL was a stroke of genius (not midnightcowboybar.com or even midnightcowboyaustin.not, but in a nod to the building’s brothel roots: midnightcowboymodeling.com). When it first opened, it was about a month’s wait to get in; now, you can typically swing it with a week’s notice.
Expect: To dress up a little. There’s no dress code per se, but the leather high-backed booths, the period decor, and the impeccable service all suggest sophistication. You’ll feel more comfortable here in a blazer than a Carlos N’ Charlies tee, is what I’m saying.
Do I need to know someone to get in? Nope. Just visit the website, make a reservation.
Try: The Backwoods Jackalope. Drinks rotate often at Midnight Cowboy, but this whiskey-forward concoction includes rye, poached apple, acidified orange (for more tartness) and spicy bitters with cinnamon and clove notes. Is this a fall drink? Or a fruity spring drink masquerading as fall? Who cares; it’s delicious and made table-side.
612 Brazos St, Austin, TX 78701
Opening its doors in late 2018, Here Nor There reminds me a bit of Soho House on South Congress, in that it’s “members only” … sort of. You can apply for HNT membership if you’re recommended by an existing member, ensuring you’ve always got a table res if you want it — up to 24 hours in advance. Or! You can do what I did: roll the dice and “request” a booking (more on that below).
Back to the actual place, though: steps away from the Driskill Hotel, you’ll encounter a gate with a keycode, walk down an artful staircase toward an unmarked basement and say hello to a friendly doorman asking if you have a reservation. Once you’re in, you’re ensconced in a very dark, very stylish space, with tiny booths, a ceiling combed through with stars and servers with cool accents. I repeat: it’s dark! Which, I’ll admit, adds to the overall sexiness of Here Nor There, as does the exposed brick, brocade wallpaper and house rule that women be treated with respect. God willing that someday, we won’t need this to be spelled out — but until that glorious time, it was easier for me, a card-carrying woman, to relax and have fun.
Expect: To spend a bit. The cheapest drink I saw was $20. We’re not in Kansas (or on Dirty Sixth) anymore.
Do I need to know someone to get in? Not exactly, but you do need HNT’s proprietary app. Simply download it, request a reservation at the times available, and you’ll hear back within 24 hours if you got it. If successful, they’ll give you the key code to get in the gate.
Try: The Black, on their current color-themed menu. Drinks change seasonally, but this one is a mix of charcoal-washed gin and fig: a nice balance of bitter and bold, sophisticated and sweet.
1201 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702
Across I-35, you can still find speakeasies and secret bars, beginning with Milonga Room: a lovingly restored basement under Buenos Aires Cafe. If I had to pick an adjective for this place, it would probably be “Parisian” — or at least the Paris that exists in my mind, a romantic vision of post-war frivolity and excess. If you remember East Side Showroom on East Sixth, before it became Ah Sing Den, this will remind you of that.
Expect: That feeling you got when East Sixth first started becoming hip, pre-mass gentrification, circa late 2000’s. Vintage sofas and chairs, sweet tiny tables, velour seats and the occasional Edith Piaf.
Do I need to know someone to get in? Nope: just a reservation, which you can make on their website. Google “Buenos Aires Cafe Milonga Room” and it’ll pop right up.
Try: Food! Because it’s connected to Buenos Aires Cafe, you can order appetizers in addition to your cocktail, and since these secret bars are almost entirely kitchen-less, this feels like a special perk. I’m a fan of the empanadas myself, particularly the carne picante with spicy ground beef. Keep in mind that Milonga Room is only open three nights a week, Thurs-Sat; if you’re lucky, you’ll go on a night there’s a tarot card reader.
Location: Underneath Buenos Aires Cafe on East Sixth. Enter through the back parking lot!
119 E 5th St, Austin, TX 78701
Next door to the now-shuttered HandleBar Austin, there’s a charming 80s-esque sign pronouncing “Floppy Disk Repair” on 5th Street, which by day, looks exactly like the anachronistic tech shop it pretends to be. But inside, it’s a bar named Redheaded Stepchild, evocative both of the Willie Nelson song and deviance more generally.
Given the name, you might expect to enter this bar by first walking through a series of fluorescent-lit cubicles, and pushing open a door that says “Fax Room” to get to your final destination — but no, the outside door takes you right into the bar itself. Like all of the bars in this article, it’s small by design, but rowdier than the others we tried. Aka, you can’t just stumble inside … but hang out for a few minutes, and you might stumble out.
Expect: To feel like you’re in a horror movie, which is intentional: the bathrooms feature fake blood on the walls, and there’s a portrait of Jack Nicholson in full “Here’s Johnny!” mode.
Do I need to know someone to get in? Yes: either you sweet talk the doorman (jovial, in my experience), or ask around for the door code. Such as, the servers at Here Nor There.
Try: The swing-set seats in front of the bar, which I have to say — brilliant. Why doesn’t every bar feature swings?
Easily my favorite of Austin’s secret bars, I found out about Eden on a tip from one of the servers at Here Nor There. Located in a nondescript alleyway across from a dumpster, you’ll definitely wonder, “Am I at the right place?” when you’re looking for it — which is why it was kind of nice to pop in before sunset, with a companion, and with relative sobriety between the two of us. I can see this being hard to find otherwise.
Once inside, you’ll walk through a low-slung ceiling to a tiny bar and lounge — there are maybe 10 tables total, and that’s being generous. Eden’s bar menu is a play on Biblical temptation and sin, with drinks like “Paradise Lost” and “Naked and Shameless;” there’s a very Instagrammable neon sign that says “We’re Only Humans” on the wall, atop a vintage red sofa. Cozy and sexy, Eden is a cocktail room that isn’t trying too hard. It’s cool because it’s small, cool because it’s unmarked; it’s also cool because it’s unpretentious. We are only human, after all.
Expect: A Cheers-like atmosphere. I loved the rough-and-ready feel of Eden, a slightly more punk-rock version of this particular bar genre.
Do I need to know someone to get in? You do need to know someone to find it (like me!), but at time of printing, you don’t need a reservation or special door code.
Try: Reap and Sow, a tequila/sherry cocktail made with clarified apple, pear, agave and habanero: just when you think you’re having dessert, you get a bit of Texas heat. I also liked the Diary of Eve, a summery blend of grapefruit-infused vodka, absinthe, apricot and egg white.
Location: Alleyway connecting Brazos and San Jacinto, between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Look for a red light, and a purple door.