Back-to-basics bars: Amid the fancy retro cocktail trend, here are some Austin oases where a drink is a drink is a drink
In Ernest Hemingway's classic story `Hills Like White Elephants,' the deservedly disappointed Jig tells her partner as they're drinking in the hot Spanish sun that `Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe.'
This phrase should ring true for anyone who's been swept up in the latest cocktail craze: After swilling both colored chartreuses, after sucking on herb sprigs and picking muddled basil from your back molars, there comes the inevitable, unsettling feeling that despite the fancy, historically authentic ingredients, something's missing.
That the ice, distilled from clouds that have been harnessed in the back room and hooked up to a steampunky milking machine, tastes a little mildewed. That your $15 egg flip (Thomas Jefferson's drink of choice!) and your Demerara sugar lump (just like pirates used to gnaw!) and your little sips of Lillet (the preferred perfume of consumptive French courtesans!) all amount to a pricey mouthful reminiscent of watered-down Jaegermeister. What to do, what to do?
Go even further backward, of course. Snub the cocktail rebellion and order a plain old martini. Ignore the acai berry vodka with the crushed pomegranate seed rim and go for a glass of bourbon. Forget the crème de wildflowers and demand a scotch on the rocks. Simplify. Here are three places where you won't be tempted by exotic ingredients, fancy names or made-up cocktail lore, places where you can drink an honest drink and your choices are pretty much rocks or straight, shaken or stirred.
609 Davis St., 494-4120, www.clivebaraustin.com . Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m, daily
Rainey Street sure has changed from the quaint little road it used to be. Instead of neighborhood potlucks and the sounds of crickets in the creeks, it's become infested with baseball-hatted hooligans and the noise of people backing into each other's bumpers. Where crumbling historical homes once stood, now impressively streamlined wooden bars are rising up one by one, like ghost ships breaking the surface of a quiet harbor. Clive, in particular, is a bastion of well-groomed slickness. Dimly lighted, impeccably clean and not overly crowded during the week, Clive is perfect for sipping drinks and watching the Texas sun go down - just like it probably was when it was actually a house.
What Clive has that a house doesn't, however, is a decent happy hour during that sunset (50 cents off beers, $1 off wells, making draught Fireman's and Dos Equis $3.50), friendly and fast bartenders, swanky chairs from the old Peacock and the absence of a drink list, proving that they're a place that doesn't cater to fuss and bother.
Sure, they make drinks; they just don't brag about them, even though the Manhattan ($8 during happy hour) I ordered was classic, strong and simple.
Trifecta on 3rd
360 Nueces St. No. 30, 320-9909, www.trifectaaustin.com . Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight, Mondays through Thursdays; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Like many tipplers, I have the hardest time stomaching bourbon and its fellow brown liquors. However, Trifecta almost had me with their bourbon flights. I very nearly went to the other side and said, `Hmmm, not so bad, this stuff that tastes like old drawer liners soaked in honey.' Not so bad, weird drink probably named after someone who still owns an outhouse and thinks it's funny to scare children by taking his false teeth out. Not so bad, obviously toxic fluid that has apparently made a blood pact with my headache to always be together.
Trifecta specializes in so many kinds of bourbon (at least 100) that there's bound to be one you can stand; prices range from $5 to $100. On Wednesdays, their bourbon flights are $3 off - so my Dry Rye sampler was $6, of which the Old Forester was particularly palatable and less cloying than those featured in the Sweet Wheat sampler (also $6). Trifecta also has seven flat screens for Big Ten game watching, brunch on the weekends, an efficient staff (including a waitress who lamented that customers always make her say "Fighting Cock" twice), and is conveniently situated across from the Austin Music Hall. For those who detest bourbon no matter how old or distilled it may be, there's plenty of other stuff to drink, including a long and frou-frou martini list.
The Brown Bar
201 W. Eighth St., 480-8330, www.thebrownbar.com . Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Thursdays; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays; 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays; and 9 p.m. to midnight on Sundays.
The Brown Bar feels like what it basically is - a lobby in the bottom of the Brown Building. People in day-old suits and freshly perfumed dresses seem to be waiting here for something, and the sad little disco ball in the corner listlessly spins for a dance party that probably won't ever happen. No matter - the Brown Bar has plenty of alcohol to tide you over while you wait for the blind date who won't show or the world that won't end. In particular, the Brown Bar specializes in martinis, and the most classic one of the lot is the 007 ($11), a simple lemony gin mix that could stand to be a little colder but that will remind you of international intrigue just the same. (That is, until the programmed music starts up and you remember that you're in a day and age where someone thinks it makes sense to play the Strokes and the Steve Miller Band back to back.)
On Wednesdays, their $8-$11 martinis go down to only $5, and if you want something a touch more solid, there's the `New Fashioned' (which includes Grey Goose, Wild Turkey and bitters, for $8). The Brown Bar has beer, wine, cognac and food (bar apps are half off Monday through Friday before 7 p.m.), making it an ideal spot to while away the hours.