We could all use a drink right now.
All businesses have had to adjust during the coronavirus pandemic, and many have had to endure shutdowns. Watering holes, though — namely bars and taprooms — have had a particularly rough go of it among Texas establishments. Gathering indoors as a crowd is one of the riskiest behaviors around when it comes to spreading COVID-19. And for bars, such gatherings are usually the whole point.
After initial pandemic closures in the spring, drinking establishments briefly were allowed to reopen starting Memorial Day weekend. Gov. Greg Abbott shut them back down after a subsequent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations. They remain closed, technically — but it’s becoming more common to see a bar or taproom offer food service as a way of legally reopening. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has eased some rules in an effort to help such businesses be reclassified as restaurants, which are allowed to operate at reduced capacity.
Last month, we asked our online readers to tell us their favorite spot to grab a drink. From there, we picked out the places that received the most nominations. It’s a strange time, so we wanted to find out how these watering holes are doing and what customers can expect these days.
The Roosevelt Room: They’re one of Austin’s best-known cocktail bars, and their lights were dark for a long time.
The Roosevelt Room reopened on Sept. 17, six months to the date that the pandemic shut them down. That’s half a year with no revenue, general manager Matthew Ross points out, though he adds the bar has been successful enough in the past that it’s helped them ride things out. Still, Ross says that the bar had to enact furloughs during the shutdown. (They’ve now brought some folks back and hired new faces, too, he says.)
Ross says the Roosevelt Room wanted to go "above and beyond" once they could reopen. The managers were "underwhelmed by most places" when they scoped how other bars had resumed service. During the downtime, the bar focused on updates and renovations: a new windowed facade for the building that allows for more natural light and air; doors connecting the bar to its sister space, the Eleanor; a new bar prep area to speed up service; and a retooled stage that now can serve as seating in a more socially distanced floor plan.
With new rules OK’d by TABC, the Roosevelt Room (which touts its high-quality recipes) started selling pre-mixed cocktails to go — 11 drinks to start — but Ross hopes to expand that menu once they "shake the rust off."
Customers coming in will find a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new. You’ll see a lot more plexiglass, for one. The Roosevelt Room already had a kitchen and a service system, and Ross says they’ve added a new snack menu. Now, any of their 80 cocktails come with a bite to eat to comply with TABC rules — "food sales up and liquor sales down, without a change for guests," Ross says.
Something for fans to look forward to at some point: the bar is developing a cocktail catering truck called Road Haus, Ross says, hoping to launch sometime in October.
(307 W. Fifth St., Unit B; 4 p.m. to midnight Monday and Tuesday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. to midnight Sunday, with reservations online; therooseveltroomatx.com)
The Lucky Duck: East Austin bar the Lucky Duck is a prime example of the whiplash faced by drinking establishments this year, in what’s normally one of the going-out capitals of the country. The Lucky Duck first opened its doors on Jan. 19, then closed in March, then reopened May 22, then closed again in June and finally reopened again Sept. 2.
"We've opened and closed so many times, I have it committed to memory," says co-owner Michael Bajec. He calls the pandemic "quite the experience" for a fledgling bar in what’s typically a hot East Sixth Street spot. Bajec hopes the worst is behind the bar, and the Lucky Duck has switched to a restaurant permit that allows them to welcome guests in a masked-and-distanced environment. Wayside serves its signature waffle dishes from a food truck on the patio.
Before the pandemic, the Lucky Duck hosted pig roasts and seafood boils, the kind of activities they’d hoped would be a draw for new customers. That’s out, now that large gatherings are verboten.
"We picked the worst year to open without really knowing it," Bajec says.
The bar just started an open mic night on Wednesday, and they’re working on a TV wall so people can watch sports. Bajec thinks a lot of bars are trying to do the right thing and investing in customer safety, and he hopes people start to feel comfortable coming back.
"Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of bar (and) restaurants doing the right thing," he says.
(1300 E. Sixth St.; 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Friday, noon to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; theluckyduckatx.com)
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Whisler’s: The East Sixth Street bar is known for its Old Fashioned and other quality cocktails. It’s currently open, along with a menu of chicken, burgers and fries from Golden Tiger. The attached Mezcalería Tobalá bar is closed, however.
When Texas bars were first allowed to reopen, Whisler’s created a safety manual based on state health guidelines, says Matt Wenger, general manager of operations; now that the bar is open yet again with the food on site, he says "we have maintained the same standards."
"We are doing well, while it is nothing like our normal business in the past," Wenger says.
(1816 E. Sixth St.; 4 p.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday; whislersatx.com)
St. Elmo Brewing Company: How has the South Austin brewery fared during the pandemic? That’s a big question, says general manager and co-founder Tim Bullock.
They’ve had to cut shifts and furlough employees. But all in all, things are going "pretty good," Bullock says. After weathering the "awkward" back-and-forth with the state reopening booze establishments and then shutting them back down, St. Elmo’s beer garden has been back open as of late July.
Visitors will find a pop-up from the Spicy Boys chicken truck. There’s a new policy at the taproom bar — a Chex mix snack is required with every beer before you take it to sit outside — and there’s a host on weekends to assign tables and keep things spaced out.
There’s been some fun in weird times; the brewery recently collaborated with Zilker Brewing Company for Slush Buddies, a slushie-inspired pair of hard seltzers. St. Elmo recently started its Grassy Thursdays live bluegrass series up again, for the first time since March 12. "We are making sure that customers are seated at a table and enjoying the music," Bullock says.
"I want to reinforce the importance of supporting local businesses," he adds. "These bars and restaurants and breweries, for the most part, they’re filled with your neighbors. I live in the Crestview neighborhood, and I know another brewery owner who lives in that neighborhood with me. My neighbors down the street from me were letting me know when they were placing a beer to go order."
Those are the small gestures that make the local economy, and especially Austin, a special place, Bullock says.
(440 E. St. Elmo Road; noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; stelmobrewing.com)
Austin Beerworks: "It’s been real difficult," co-founder Michael Graham says. Austin Beerworks, like most breweries, has two businesses rolled into one: distributing their brews (like the popular Pearl-Snap and Flavor Country) to buyers around town and serving guests on the premises. When the pandemic hit, Graham says about half of their distribution accounts closed down — the bars, restaurants and hotels that suddenly found themselves unable to operate like normal. The loss of South by Southwest, the brewery’s "busiest chunk of the year," also hurt, he says.
Austin Beerworks’ taproom was shut down completely for a while, but with TABC rules adjusted, their outdoor patio is now open in a limited capacity with food sales on site. "We are fortunate that we owned our own food truck," Graham says. The brewery’s Can-tina serves tacos, burgers, queso and more. And, Graham points out, they sell merch at the brewery, so they were already close to the revenue calculus necessary to reopen by law. And of course, there’s beer to go.
He’s thankful to Austin Beerworks’ customers for rolling with the punches, and asks fans to come in with a "softened set of expectations." The brewery has COVID-19 safety protocols prominently displayed on their homepage. The experience will not be the same as pre-pandemic times.
"We’re trying as hard as we can," Graham says. "We understand there are laws and regulations that don’t make sense to everybody."
(3001 Industrial Terrace; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; austinbeerworks.com)
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Friends & Allies Brewing: The way Ben Sabin tells it, he didn’t have much choice in keeping the taproom closed at his East Austin brewery. Its business relies on foot traffic from nearby tech offices and a gym. The brewery’s founder and owner says those are all either shut down or operating at very limited capacity.
"With all this stuff being closed, it’s been an overgrown ghost town. Nature’s taking it back," Sabin says with a laugh.
Friends & Allies tried beer to go for a few weekends, even setting up a griddle to make food for people picking up. The brewery closed down and reopened multiple times, like so many others. It caused "confusion and chaos" and just wasn’t sustainable, Sabin says. They’ve had two rounds of layoffs; people have been understanding, he says, but it’s hard when your staff is like your family.
For now, Sabin says he’s focused on distribution, and Friends & Allies is "still in full production." For a bit there, it was all canning, but now that restaurants and bars (with food) are starting to open back up, the brewery’s been able to produce draft beer again. Distribution is roughly half of the business in normal times, Sabin says, and the taproom was about 40%.
"The fact that every bar can pay to change their license (by selling food) makes no sense," Sabin says. But he adds that he’ll consider pulling the switch on food at the brewery if foot traffic in the area picks up.
"Any transaction you do with a local business, all of it helps," he says, adding that "we all really appreciate (it). I am not speaking for myself — I am speaking for every single one of my friends that runs a bar or restaurant in this town."
(979 Springdale Road; taproom currently closed; friendsandallies.beer)
Whitestone Brewery: "There have been extreme ups and downs," says Whitestone owner and operator Ryan Anglen. "We've gone from having too much beer in the tanks during the first shutdown and only being able to sell product through package and to-go, to now not being able to catch up to production with the increase in demand and our retail partners slowly opening back up."
Anglen says his Cedar Park brewery is trying to stay prepared for "any future surprise shutdowns as much as we can." The taproom and patio are back open at 50% capacity, and beers now come with a bag of chips or a koozie. There’s a food truck Wednesday through Sunday. Angler says CDC-recommended safety measures are in place.
"Although it seems to be moving in the right direction, breweries are still facing enormous challenges during this pandemic and many of us have been financially depleted in order to stay afloat during the shutdowns," he says. "The support has been unbelievable from the craft beer community, but we really need to put more pressure on all of our politicians to help more of the small businesses. Instead of continuing to try to recruit new large companies to Texas, focus more on trying to keep your current small businesses alive."
(601 E. Whitestone Blvd. Cedar Park; noon to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday; whitestonebrewery.com)
The Austin Winery: If there’s one thing Cooper Anderson, head winemaker at the Austin Winery, wants drinkers to know right now, it’s the significance of drinking local.
"Now more than ever, you can prop up the community around you," Anderson says. "We use Texas-grown grapes. So every dollar you spend makes its way back to Texas farmers."
The South Austin winery, which previously sold the majority of its wine directly to customers out of its tasting room, was sent scrambling to find a way to keep bottles in customers’ hands after being forced to shut down the tasting room in March. A quick shift to pick-up and delivery mode (plus deals and special promotions) kept business steady -- although Anderson admits the experience has been a cruel kick to the vineyard.
However, Cooper says the winery was pleasantly surprised by the way things have played out for its wine club: "It’s always been this lifeblood for us. We thought our members would back out and cancel. But that didn’t happen." Instead, Anderson says the membership has even grown. "People have been sort of forced to discover drinking at home and how fun that can be," he says.
The Austin Winery, which partnered with vegan pizza truck Li’l Nonna’s earlier this summer, reopened its tasting room to reservations for parties of up to 10 people in mid-August but continues to offer flexible pick-up and delivery options.
(440 E. St. Elmo Road; 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; theaustinwinery.com)
Becker Vineyards: Back in March, Becker Vineyards was primed for transitioning into a closed tasting room model. The business already distributed many of its wines widely throughout Texas for retail and had an established wine club following.
The vineyard was quick to get into the virtual tasting game and has maintained a weekly virtual tasting schedule for almost 7 months now.
Known for its large-scale production and touting itself as the "largest purchaser of French and American Oak barrels in the state," Becker reopened to a very limited capacity (parties under six) on Sept. 12. Its website says that the tasting room experience now includes food, too, to comply with TABC rules. Regularly scheduled tastings and tours and the winery’s annual grape stomp remain on hiatus, but the vineyard is offering curbside pick-ups and encouraging customers to order their wines online.
(464 Becker Farms Road, Stonewall; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday; beckervineyards.com)
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Treaty Oak: Located about thirty minutes outside of Austin, Treaty Oak has settled into its role as a get-away-from-it-all destination.
Distillery greeter (and self-proclaimed "amazing granny") Alice Barnes says she fielded numerous calls from people looking to put some distance between themselves and Austin city limits in recent months. Her advice was simple: "Come to the country." Barnes is the mother of Treaty Oak owner and founder Daniel Barnes; she’s also the person for whom the onsite Alice’s Restaurant was named.
Since its initial March 18 shutdown, Treaty Oak hit the ground running with its quarantine accommodations. The distillery finalized to-go options within the week and began sharing out quick, at-home cocktail recipes. Later in the summer, it debuted a ready-to-drink bottled Old Fashioned. Treaty Oak also honed its food focus and placed a Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ veteran at the helm of its barbecue pit.
It also, like other distilleries, began producing and selling hand sanitizer and temporarily turned its premises into a public market, offering food and supplies to those impacted by the pandemic.
Barnes says it's been mostly smooth sailing since the distillery’s late August reopening to the public. "People have been very understanding," she says. "Everybody is willing to adhere to our precautions. Plus, we’re all so upbeat. We have a really wonderful group out here."
While visitors previously were encouraged to bring blankets or chairs to enjoy some real country-style relaxation, current procedures require that guests sit at a designated table to help monitor capacity.
But as Barnes will tell you, "The barbecue’s worth all of that."
(16604 Fitzhugh Road, Dripping Springs; noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; treatyoakdistilling.com)
Deep Eddy Vodka: "We want them back. Just as bad as they want to come back, you know, we want them here," Deep Eddy event sales manager Braden Williams says.
After a false-start reopening in June, Williams says the Dripping Springs distillery is committed to reopening to the public again only when they know keeping the doors open is more permanently sustainable.
"My staff is getting taken care of, because Deep Eddy can afford to do that," Williams says. Deep Eddy’s tasting room employees were kept on and paid for months before being offered employment at the company’s distilling plant, he adds. Some employees took that option, while others have since quit with plans of rejoining the team after the tasting room reopens.
Williams says that until then, the public’s disappointment over the Deep Eddy’s closed doors is measurable: "I have an office here near the tasting room, and I sit next to a window, and I keep a little tick sheet of every time someone pulls up, realizes we’re closed and drives away."
For now, diehards who want to sip on a Deep Eddy cocktail while in the company of others have a new option: attend a Longhorns football game. The company recently opened the Deep Eddy End Zone, a bar inside the University of Texas’ Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium.
"It’s a point to come to Deep Eddy when you’re visiting from somewhere. It can be hard to tell people (no) to their face sometimes," Williams says. "But just know that we’re working on it. We’re trying to get back open."
(2250 E. U.S. 290, Dripping Springs; tasting room currently closed; deepeddyvodka.com)
Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden: Want a latte? Want a draft? Want delicious trailer food? Can’t decide? That’s OK — that’s what this South Austin spot is for. The groovy open spaces of Cosmic closed down in March before reopening in mid-May at limited capacity.
"It was very challenging at first," says co-owner Paul Oveisi. "There was often conflicting information and directives, so we were slow and cautious. We did, however, have the luxury of an expansive outdoor area, so it did make it easy to implement distancing."
As fall rolls in, you can still stop by for a Mexican molé mocha or a Jolene cocktail — bonded bourbon with peach, ginger, Earl Grey and mint — under the trees in the beer garden. The LeRoy and Lewis, Pueblo Viejo and Tommy Want Wingy food trailers are open. And yes, there are drinks to go, too.
There’s been frustration, though. Cosmic didn’t open up as soon as quickly as some would have liked, Oveisi says. He adds that the owners didn’t feel comfortable allowing children back at Cosmic until recently. Children older than 2 have to wear masks except when seated, and kids 12 and younger must always be accompanied by a parent. (Adults have to wear masks too, natch.) It’s currently 21 and up after 5 p.m.
The live music that’s a big part of the atmosphere ("a main part of our culture," Oveisi says) has been eliminated. No groups larger than 10 are allowed, and Cosmic is recommending customers use the Tabbed Out app for no-contact ordering.
There’s been some trouble getting people to adjust to Cosmic’s new safety protocols, Oveisi says.
"For those who don't work in hospitality, please appreciate how incredibly challenging this has been for our staff," Oveisi says. "Although most of our customers have been incredibly grateful, some have not, and it has been as emotional and stressful for our crew than anything I've ever seen. We've all rallied around them and grown closer to them all, but it has been (excruciating) for them at times dealing with some very difficult situations. ... Please give all hospitality workers as much extra love as you can. They mean everything to our business."
(121 Pickle Road; 8 a.m to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 a.m. to midnight Thursday-Saturday; cosmiccoffeebeer.com)
Summer Moon Coffee: The moon milk is still flowing at Summer Moon. All of the business’s nearly 20 locations scattered throughout Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and San Marcos are open and serving the shop’s signature wood-fired coffee drinks. That includes Summer Moon’s original South First Street location, which opened nearly 20 years ago.
The local chain was quick to transition to a to-go model in March and upped its retail offerings with coffee pod packs, cold brew by the gallon and, yes, containers of moon milk for enjoyment at home. In April, Ascension Seton included Summer Moon on a list of local businesses that had either donated products directly to the hospital or were offering significant discounts to hospital staff during the pandemic. The coffee shop also later released a limited edition Kindle blend and donated 100% of its sales to local food banks.
In May, Summer Moon did away with the shop’s rewards program, they said to refocus the business by "showing our appreciation in more direct ways and charitable giving."
Summer Moon locations currently are open with various hours and touting standard safety protocols. Plus, a moon latte is but a swipe away with the brand’s app.
(Various locations; check website for hours; summermooncoffee.com)
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Caffé Medici: With locations now spread out across Austin since their original Clarksville coffee shop opened up in 2006, the taste of Medici Roasting’s beans makes for a familiar sip. In addition to the West Lynn Drive store, they have five other locations on Guadalupe Street, East Sixth Street, South Lamar Boulevard, Congress Avenue and Springdale Road. All are currently open except for the Congress location, which is a walk-up window. You can order drinks to go online. Medici Roasting also launched a coffee subscription service in May.
(Various locations; check website for hours; mediciroasting.com)
Mozart’s Coffee Roasters: While Mozart’s sprawling two-story outdoor patio, primed for social distancing long before it was a required business practice, might not look all that different than it did prior the pandemic to a recent visitor, the inside of the classic Austin coffee spot runs a little differently nowadays.
Early into the pandemic, Mozart’s installed prominent shelving units in a section of the shop normally occupied by tables and filled them with local goods, a variety of masks, produce and other essentials. Designed to offer a walk-through shopping experience, Mozart’s new take on a market provided one more spot for locals to get what they needed.
Mozart’s also has given a handful of promotions a try in recent months, including live in-house opera; wine and dine date nights; to-go charcuterie boxes; and partnerships with many local mask makers. Mozart’s also was one of many spots around town to feed first responders for free during the pandemic, and they partnered with local businesses including Terry Black’s BBQ for "First Responder Pack" giveaways.
While the shop’s signature bottomless coffee offerings are off the table, Mozart’s dessert and traditional drinks are available for pick-up or socially distanced enjoyment seven days a week.
Oh, and yes, the Christmas lights are already up.
(3825 Lake Austin Blvd.; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Sunday; mozartscoffee.com)
Radio Coffee & Beer: In non-pandemic times, it’s pretty hard to find a parking spot at this hopping South Austin joint. The Veracruz All Natural and Dee Dee Northeastern Thai Street Food trailers are a draw, and their coffee and beer menus are heavy on local sources. (Da Boot Po’Boys also set up at the shop last month.)
According to the COVID-19 protocols on their website, Radio is playing it pretty safe these days. They’ve got limited outdoor seating right now. Folks can order inside with a mask on, and there is a plastic barrier across the bar. They’re also using an intercom system so folks can wait for drinks outside. Radio’s even posted a safety compact between it and its customers to its website.
(4202 Menchaca Road; 7 a.m. to midnight Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday; radiocoffeeandbeer.com)
Try Hard Coffee Roasters: Try Hard is new here. But it’s settling in just fine.
The coffee shop opened in late June after local French eatery Blue Dahlia Bistro closed its original East 11th Street location in May.
Try Hard serves tacos, pastries and a variety of coffee creations, but it has also experimented with playful non-coffee options in recent months. Hibiscus-mint tea with coconut cream foam and a Tajin rim? Try Hard’s got you.
Although fairly new to the neighborhood, Try Hard's reached out to the local community. The coffee shop hosted an outdoor bake sale with local bakery Red Poppy and oat drink brand Oatly to benefit the Black Lives Matter movement in July and was "overwhelmed by the amount of love and positive energy from y’all," according to an Instagram post. More recently, the shop hosted a voter registration drive.
Try Hard’s taco offerings are straightforward, but their "pillow" pastries are an interesting breakfast option, and walk-up windows make pick-up a breeze.
(1115 E 11th St.; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; tryhardcoffee.com)
Jeffrey’s: Upscale Jeffrey’s is a mainstay of Austin’s fine dining scene. And according to our readers, the drinks are mighty fine, too. The West Austin restaurant has a formidable wine list and serves a variety of beer and cocktails, like the Touch of Evil (Mezcal Union, Cimarron Blanco tequila, Dolin dry vermouth and green chartreuse).
"We at Jeffrey's are extremely proud of our beverage program," says general manager Chase Layton. "Some adjustments were made when the pandemic began, but our goal was to continue to provide as much normalcy as possible to guests who entered our establishment."
Those adjustments, Layton says, include single-use menus and displaying the 60-page wine list on iPads. Chris Dalaku, the assistant beverage director for Jeffrey’s, says the pandemic hasn’t caused any sourcing or supply issues for the beverage menu. The menu has shifted to a list featuring more classic-style drinks, though, and the martini cart that usually makes tableside sips has been put away for now, he says.
Jeffrey’s also offers curbside pickup. Customers can order cocktail kits and wine by the bottle online.
"An increase in occupancy percentage doesn’t really change much for us as we still insist on maintaining 6 feet distances between tables," Layton says. "Jeffrey’s has always been a very close and bustling location, but in the interest of guest and staff safety, we’ve pretty much been running with the same limited seating since reopening for dine-in in May."
(1204 West Lynn Drive; 5 to 11 p.m. daily, with reservations available; jeffreysofaustin.com)
Truluck’s: This Houston-born national chain boasts two Austin locations and has become a fixture. Truluck’s locations across the country suspended operations in March and took the next two months to carve out a reopening plan that featured a host of safety measures including single-use menus, touchless payments, health screenings and new curbside options.
Truluck’s full and extensive bar menu, featuring a variety of top-shelf liquors and specialty cocktails, remains available for in-house consumption, but the bar’s half-off wine bottles through its curbside drinks services are a tempting incentive to opt for a to-go order.
The seafood spot also offers private dining options for guests looking to take social distancing a step further. Private rooms are available for reservation for parties up to 10 people.
(10225 Research Blvd., Suite 400, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 400 Colorado St., 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; trulucks.com)