Dive bars in many cities have gone the way of the dire wolf, but in Austin, where weird is celebrated, they’re digging in and spreading like an invasive species. Justin Elliott, beverage director at The Townsend cocktail bar, says that in the city’s genre-blurring food and drink landscape, it can be hard to know what even qualifies as a dive anymore. “In the modern Austin, Texas, image and concept are often more important than actually creating a really great culture,” he says.
Great culture or not, new spots are opening around town to cater to a laid-back, food-truck-lovin’ crowd. And their superficial dive-bar cred is pretty convincing: some have seedy trailers parked on their patios, others have redneck furniture made out of wooden pallets, and the best of them have Big Buck Hunter shoved into a dank back corner. Meanwhile, the classics of the dive bar genre—The White Horse honky-tonk, for example—have never gone out of style with locals and are only gaining in popularity with the #SXSW hangers-on looking for that authentic Austin experience.
We asked nine of Austin’s top bartenders where they drink and dive when they want warm conversations and cold cans of Lone Star. You’ll probably find them slumming at these watering holes after their shifts, betting on Chicken Shit Bingo, shooting capitas of mezcal, and playing Delta blues on the jukebox.
Co-owner of Half Step
Favorite dive bar: Deep Eddy Cabaret (2315 Lake Austin Blvd, 512-472-0961; deepeddycabaret.com)
Bostick says: “I’ve long been a huge fan and regular of the Deep Eddy Cabaret. Don’t let the name fool you though—it’s not a dancing cabaret. More of a dark, neon-lit den to drink the coldest beer in town and play pool. Due to change of hands, only recently have they started selling hard alcohol and accepting credit cards, but other than that, walking in here is like walking back in time. The jukebox is stellar and cheap, and the pool tables still only require fifty cents. It’s a young and old people-watching mecca where, on most occasions, you’ll leave with a handful of new friends. It’s a bar where you come as you are and will be respected for doing just that. 50 gold stars.” (Photos: Claire McCormack, Facebook/Deep Eddy Cabaret)
Beverage director at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
Favorite dive bar: Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon (5434 Burnet Rd, 512-524-1291; thelittlelonghornsaloon.com)
Norris says: “I love it partly because it was one of the first places I went to when I first moved to Austin a decade ago. But mostly I love it because the Lonestar is always ice-cold, the music is always solid, they let you set up your chair in the parking lot on nice days to drink in the sun, and they serve free hot dogs on Sunday while they play Chicken Shit Bingo. It’s the kind of place where the guy on one side of you might deal meth for a living and the woman on the other is on the physics faculty at UT. You never know who you’re going to meet there, but you can always count on cheap beer and Ginny herself hanging around on weekend afternoons.” (Photos: Annie Ray, Yelp/Jessica A.)
General manager at Midnight Cowboy
Favorite dive bar: Barfly’s (5420 Airport Blvd; 512-452-6455, barflysaustin.com)
Phillips says: “Barfly’s is my neighborhood bar. While it’s literally upstairs (does that make it an inverted dive?), it’s been one of my favorite haunts since before I moved here 13 years ago. I’m originally from El Paso and the staff is almost 100-percent El Paso natives, so we have some hometown chemistry in common. That aside, drinks are cheap, the jukebox is solid, there are cool flicks on the tube, and I’ve made some lifelong friends on that back patio. The demographic has hardly changed in the last six years during the city boom; the bar has so many veteran regulars that it keeps a nice balance between new folks and old Austin. The bartenders are the salt of the earth and pretty talented at keeping a tight leash on the b.s.” (Photos: Jessica Attie, Yelp/Don R.)
General manager and bar manager at Odd Duck
Favorite dive bar: Gibson Street Bar (1109 S Lamar Blvd; 512-386-1345, gibsonstreetbar.com)
James says: “Gibson Bar is right next door to the restaurant, so we go there often. Mean Eyed Cat is also great, as is the 04 Lounge on South Congress. If you’re looking for a divey atmosphere with live music, the Continental Club is the shit!” (Photo: Yelp/Kelly S.)
Elliott says: “I have a hard time really knowing what constitutes a ‘dive bar’ exactly in Austin in 2015. I mean, I learned how to drink in bars in New York City in my ’20s, and for a while lived right behind the Port Authority where the dive bars are like something out of a David Lynch film. I’ve yet to find anything so wonderfully gruesome in Austin. When I first moved back to Austin in 2011, the nearest bar to me was the old Horseshoe Lounge and it will always have a special place in my heart since I took my wife there on our first date. The beer was cold, the service was warm, the jukebox was terrific, and maybe as important as any of that, it was comfortable in its own skin in a way that only the truly great bars can ever hope to be—all the more remarkable in the modern Austin, Texas, where image and (shudder) ‘concept’ are often far more important than actually creating a really great culture.
I’ve also been known to find a little respite in La Perla on the East Side. The #hashtaggers and scenesters walk right by the place, which is fine by me, leaving me to enjoy this tiny outpost of cold beer and tejano ballads on the jukebox. Frankly, I really shouldn’t even be talking about it at all right now. Also a lot of people are probably going to talk about The Liberty, which is definitely one of my favorite bars in the city, but I’m not so sure it’s a dive bar. Not yet anyway.” (Photo: Yelp/Amanda S.)
General manager at Isla
Favorite dive bar: Dive Bar & Lounge (1703 Guadalupe St; 512-482-3483, diveaustin.com)
Jenkins says: “I love going to Dive Bar. They have Big Buck Hunter, a patio, a frozen machine, and Jon Roach. He’s easily one of the most hospitable bartenders in town.” (Photo: Yelp/Sanda B.)
Bar manager at Péché
Favorite dive bar: King Bee (1906 E 12th St; 512-600-6956, facebook.com/KingBee)
Buser says: “To call King Bee a dive bar is a bit of an injustice. To me, a dive bar is a place in your neighborhood that offers affordable drinks and friendly, personable service with a great atmosphere that makes you feel at home. I feel every bit of that when I come to King Bee. The cocktails are delicious and they won’t burn a hole through your wallet. Billy and Colette are about the nicest barkeeps you could find and it’s a pleasure to be served by them. The jukebox is full of fantastic albums. The patio area has plenty of picnic tables where you can kick back and enjoy yourself. They even offer pizza! It’s a place you might come for one drink and end up staying ‘till close. Order the frozen Bees Knees—it’s the fastest way to cool down from a brutal Austin summer.” (Photo: Yelp/Subie P.)
Executive bar manager at East Side Showroom
Favorite dive bar: Shangri-La (1016 E 6th St; 512-524-4291, shangrilaaustin.com)
Fry says: “Well, I tried to think of something really obscure that I love as much, but my true favorite is Shangri-La. I’m here all the time and it feels like home. The bartenders have been friendly with me for years. They’ve got two pool tables and enough space to drink alone or see all of your friends. And they’ve got Mission of Burma on the jukebox. After all these years, it still feels like the bar I first walked into. They’ve never strayed from being the easygoing place with no pretension that has the best patio in town. The east side has changed so much, but this bar has really kept that feeling alive.” (Photo: Yelp/Deanna W.)
Co-owner of drink.well
Favorite dive bar: Yellow Jacket Social Club (1704 E 5th St; 512-480-9572, yellowjacketsocialclub.com)
Sanders says: “‘Dive bar’ and ‘brunch’ aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to Yellow Jacket Social Club on East 5th. It’s a totally underrated dive and a pretty disarming spot for day drinking. The weekend brunch menu really is a hidden gem in Austin—delicious, cheap, no-frills mimosas and a solid beer and spirits selection. The vibe in general is hip without the hipster, which is just my speed when I’m trying to unwind on a Sunday after a busy service weekend.” (Photo: Yelp/Joe C.)