A toasty toast: Three drinks to make you feel all warm and buzzy
Whether or not you believe in global warming, and whether or not you believe it's caused by our overdriving and overconsuming, one thing's pretty obvious in Austin this winter: it's been warm. Sure, you've had to let your car run a few mornings, sure the hats and scarves have made an appearance on a crisp moonlit night or two, sure occasional fires have been made out back and the down comforter dragged out from where it lives in the clear zippered thing under the bed, but it's still pretty darn warm.
Holiday activities that one might do in northern climes - snowman-making, sledding, wassailing - are a tad challenging here in Texas, especially this dry season at the end of the first decade of our new century. The closest thing we have to snow is the ice skating rink on the roof of Whole Foods Market. The closest thing we have to a ski chalet is the wooden deck of Opal Divine's, with its hot toddy variants. But another thing that's pretty obvious in Austin this winter: we try. If there's no snow, we'll blow up a yardful of inflatable snowmen. If there are no sleds, we'll use scraps of cardboard. And if there's no wassail proper, we'll spike our drinks with spicy Texas heat. There are plenty of drinks around town to heat us up, in ways both traditional and innovative. The next evening you can see your breath - if such an evening ever comes - don those puffy coats and head out to one of the following for your fill of liquid warmth.
2905 San Gabriel St. 472-2905, www.astiaustin.com/fino . Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays. 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays (dinner only). 11 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays (brunch only).
Fino on Tuesday's Paella Night is something worth saving for - except you don't really have to. Until 7 p.m., their paellas are half off; after that they're 25 percent off. They serve both a constant, classic seafood paella and a weekly version-the night I went, the mixed paella included picadillo-stuffed calamari and squid ink, among about 20 other ingredients. Drinks all week long average around $10 (less during their happy hour, 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays), and their Moroccan Hot Rum ($9) is peppery, buttery and a true toe-warmer, though it might seem even more substantial if it were presented in something other than a wine glass.
Fino must have some tricks up its sleeve regarding space manipulation. When you walk into the wide, open area that's their dining room, instead of feeling like you're exposed in a cafeteria, you feel rather alone and tucked in with your group. Voices are muted, lights are low, and the staff is informed and affable. While Fino on any night is a treat, their Tuesdays are especially cozy, thanks to the communal nature of the paella and their small plates. Innovative cocktails, such as the Brotherly Love ($12, elderflower and gin-based), help too - they might even make you love your entire family this holiday season, if you drink enough of them.
1142 S. Lamar Blvd., 383-8309, www.thehighball.com . Hours: 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Fridays. 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
We'll never know what the village of Hogsmeade is like, nor the shifting halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The Sorting Hat will never sing to us, will never make it so easy to know where we belong. Perhaps one of the saddest things about good, strong children's fiction is that we can never actually live in those worlds that have been so painstakingly created. There is no Quidditch World Cup, no dragons, no potions, no levitating. Just us Muggles, stuck with ourselves.
But for the holidays at least, we have The Highball's Harry Potter-themed drink menu, consisting of blazing cinnamon and ginger Firewhiskey, Butterbeer, Felix Felicis, and Pumpkin Juice. All were only $5 on the Signature Sunday I went, which seemed a magical coincidence in its own right.
Admittedly, The Highball doesn't need to be written about. It's where many locals take out-of-towners, it's got a steady crowd from the Alamo Drafthouse both before and after a movie lets out, and this season it's a favorite for company parties. But it's still a nice place to have around, and should be applauded for its attention to detail. Their trivia isn't too hard or too easy, their DJ sets are free in the ballroom, most karaoke rooms have working equipment and hefty song lists. The rhythmic sound of bowling balls knocking down pins soothes all night long, and if you play skee-ball there forever and a day you could win some fantastic prizes.
1411 E. Seventh St., 628-4466, www.takobarestaurant.com . 11 a.m. to midnight Mondays through Fridays. 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays. 9 a.m. to midnight Sundays.
There are lots of Mexican restaurants on the East Side, and though Takoba is - let's just say it - a pretty yuppie version, it's still good and authentic. Their ceviche is simple and fresh, their soups flavorful, their chips thick. Takoba has an outside patio for all seasons: cheery plastic Adirondack chairs grouped around small fire pits, picnic tables, lots of sand. Inside, noise travels fast and loud. The iron bathroom doors clang, the stark walls don't absorb the chatter. All the same, it's welcoming indoors, too, with its wooden floors and mood lighting. Going there on a busy night feels a bit like some hosts who don't know you very well invited you to their glorious new vacation beach house. So take advantage, and enjoy it.
Takoba also has gotten much more consistent since it opened earlier this year. There still seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the waitstaff and the bartenders as far as procuring drinks goes (the drinks will sit there on the bar well after you've ordered them), but their happy hour offers substantial discounts (drafts range from $3-$4, many appetizers are half off) and their space is ideal for impromptu relaxing, especially if you've just headed east to avoid Interstate 35 on your commute home. If it's cold out, their salty and spicy rocks Mango Habanero Margarita ($8) will warm you up, and if it's hot out, it'll also cool you down. Truly a win-win drink.