Austin: The Ultimate Local's Guide
A modern speakeasy for cocktail aficionados
A short walk downstairs into the basement of the energetic and sometimes boisterous Blue Star Art Complex, you'll find a basion of serious cocktail craftsmanship. Bask in the selection of scotch, bourbon, and rye, and know that the moments waiting for a cocktail are time well spent. Friendly and knowledgeable bartenders will happily suggest options for your drink, and in return expect you to be respectful of the bar, fellow patrons, and the craft itself. When you’re surrounded by dark leather booths, you kind of want to, anyway. Order the owner’s favorite cocktail (a Sazerac), sit back, and just take it all in.
Clever cocktails and elevated food with live music
Step downstairs into the cellar of the Pearl Brewery food hall, and lose yourself in the syncopated beats of live jazz, tasteful drinks, and a solid selection of elevated bar bites. The interior is a bit more cozy in person than it appears online, with exposed brick walls, bistro tables, and hardwood floors combining to give a retro modern feel. Come for the first show and enjoy your first round when there’s no cover charge during the week, then spring for the cover and stick around for a while.
North Shearer Hills
Welcoming, unpretentious neighborhood spot
A self-described “vinyl-spinning, cocktail-slinging, vintage dive bar heaven,” Bang Bang brings just enough of an edge to feel fun without feeling like you’re walking too much on the wild side. It's the sort of place where the walls are painted black, your Bloody Mary comes garnished with an entire turkey leg, and the house special shot comes with Pop Rocks. Grab your drink and play a few rounds of Skee Ball in the game room, or settle into one of the antique armchairs and catch an "I Love Lucy" rerun on the vintage TV set (which, if you look closely, actually has a modern flatscreen stuffed inside).
A crown jewel of the Pearl
If you want to show a newcomer one of the most talked-about locations in town, make sure their visit includes a stop at the Hotel Emma’s signature bar. Hardwood floors and upholstered sofas contrast with the concrete walls and industrial light fixtures that belie the building's past life as part of the Pearl Brewery; take a stroll around the hotel either before or after your visit for an even better look at the impressive renovation. Craft beers and carefully selected wines are on offer, of course, but make sure to order a Three Emmas cocktail; it's named after the wife and two mistresses of former Pearl owner Otto Koehler. Definitely ask your server about the full story behind the cocktail.
Welcoming neighborhood ice house just south of Downtown
Families, singles, and tourists of all ages come together in this beloved outdoor drinking destination. Let the kids romp around on the play structure while you choose from the 76 beers on tap (and the additional 300 beers in bottles and cans). A small-but-satisfying food menu offers chips and queso, wings, burgers and tacos to keep you in a good mood. Come on a night the Spurs are playing, and watch the game on the big screen that goes up at one end of the gravel patio surrounded by several dozen of your newest close friends.
Excellent local brews with a downtown view
The opening of the Alamo brewery/beer hall/event venue in 2014 marked the first time a beer called Alamo was brewed in San Antonio since Prohibition, and it's a welcome addition to the local beer scene. From its single original Golden Ale, Alamo now produces an impressive array of seven signature beers and three seasonals. Grab a seat in the courtyard of this expansive and beautifully designed beer hall and gaze at the historic Hays Street Bridge overhead or cast your gaze west and take in an outstanding view of Downtown. This is the place to bring any out-of-town guests when you want to impress with your taste in architecture and in beer.
Classic cocktails in an elegant setting
Located at street level below the best steakhouse in the city, this is a must for any sophisticated imbiber. Should you ever forget what a proper Hemingway Daiquiri, Old Fashioned, or any other classic American cocktail should taste like, the bartenders here will recalibrate your palate. The polished service, hardwood floors, and leather furniture create a setting that demands stylish dressing and good behavior. The extra finesse from servers and bartenders adds even more of a sense of refinement; that’s a touch from the bar’s founding advisor, the late Sasha Petraske, the New York entrepreneur who was credited with inventing modern cocktail culture.
Craft cocktails and thoughtful wines in an intimate neighborhood setting
With subway tiled floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed wooden beams overhead, and a mixture of lived-in booths and high wooden bar tables, this cocktail magnet actually feels a bit like a coffeeshop. That's because in the space’s previous incarnation, it was one. Now, the cozy dining space fills up fast with a diverse crowd of tattooed creatives, young families, and empty nesters. They all come for the some of the city’s best pizza, a thoughtful wine selection, a regularly rotating array of craft beers, and well-made cocktails. Grab a seat, enjoy some excellent dishes, and try a bottle of some dry lambrusco.
Serious wine in a casual spot
You can’t miss this former gas station on a curve of the N. St. Mary’s Strip, next to the original location of the iconic Burger Boy. Just look for the small building that’s covered with in a psychedelic mural with Mexican skeletons and tripped-out naked bosoms. Yes, this is a serious wine shop for people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Grab a seat at one of the wooden picnic tables outside or a communal bar table inside, surrounded by racks of wine bottles. The rotating selection of wines by the glass is always intriguing, but it’s better to just buy a bottle, split it among friends, and munch on a slice of chicken liver paté toast while listening to some classic tunes spun on a real turntable. Or, just grab a bottle to-go and get 10 bucks off the listed price.
Classic cocktails in SA’s oldest River Walk bar
Open almost continuously since the end of Prohibition in 1933, the Esquire’s classic cocktails are worth the visit alone, but the elevated bar bites make this just as much of a dining destination. The Esquire proudly boasts the state’s longest wooden bar top, with more than 100 feet of drinking space. Grab a spot at the bar if there’s an open seat, or slide into a booth -- or snag a seat at one of the tables outside overlooking a portion of the River Walk. And don’t worry: the finesse of the cocktails with perfectly cut garnishes and spot-on preparation keep this from feeling like a tourist hangout. Take the unmarked stairs down to the river level for a drink at the more intimate and low-key Downstairs, and you’ll feel like you’re at another bar entirely.
Personalized cocktails in a mid-century modern setting
Open the seafoam-colored door to this renovated bungalow just blocks from the Pearl, and experience a love letter to mid-century modern living complete with a Formica bartop, geometric furniture, and high-back vinyl barstools. This space-age bachelor pad even features a 1970s-era turntable at the bar. Alas, a smartphone running Spotify sits next to the turntable and pumps out the lounge, chill and hip hop soundtrack. You can order a classic cocktail, but the better move here is to tell the bartender what flavors or cocktails you like, and ask for a drink created specifically for you. You can also step out back for a yard of artificial turf and an outdoor tiki lounge.
Asian-inspired cocktails and small bites
A professional clientele regularly packs this place, tucked between a longtime pizza joint and a French-Asian fusion restaurant. And why shouldn’t they? The streamlined, modern design with zen-inspired flourishes conveys a pan-Asian aesthetic without veering into kitsch, while tasty cocktails and munchies show restrained good taste. In the background, a soundtrack of upbeat lounge music creates an energetic-yet-controlled atmosphere, while friendly and knowledgeable servers guide newbies through the menu. Come on a Monday or Tuesday for the all-day happy hours; bring some friends and share an order of pork bao, salmon sashimi, and mirin-glazed wings, while enjoying a couple of rounds and extending the evening.
Neighborhood hangout with a downtown view
With corrugated metal walls and plenty of outdoor picnic tables, this spot near Downtown gives old-school San Antonio icehouse vibes, but the menu of flavored margaritas (including Big Red), a wide selection of tequilas, and big screen TVs keep everything current. Get here early and climb the steel spiral staircase if you want to find a spot on the rooftop canopy, because it usually fills up quickly. A well-selected menu of San Antonio favorites -- like tacos, tortas, nachos, and an excellent house burger -- offer plenty to keep you going while you order a few rounds.
Cocktail pioneer that's still going strong
SoHo was one of the first wave of bars that launched San Antonio’s craft cocktail movement when it opened in 2007, and while the list of cocktail joints in town has grown a lot longer since then, this original more than holds its own. Creations range from riffs on a boozy Old Fashioned to an often-requested S’more martini; just tell the bartenders what kind of flavors you like, and let them work some magic. Live music and an equally lively atmosphere offer more reasons to brave SoHo's location (just off the busiest section of the River Walk).
Excellent wines in a stylish setting
Geek out to your heart’s content at this cozy shop tucked inside the hip and fashionable Pearl district. The polished concrete and natural wood accents lend the long narrow space to dressing up or dressing down. Led by a sommelier who was named as Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Best New Sommeliers in 2014, the staff members know their stuff and can drop references to brix, legs, and Sémillon, if you’d like. Grab a spot at the bar or an outside table overlooking one of the Pearl’s famed courtyards, nibble on some well-chosen charcuterie, and explore the world one glass at a time.
Pearl-adjacent neighborhood bar with a touch of polish
The wooden patio deck that surrounds this corner bar fills up quickly with locals from nearby apartments, as well as visitors who are new to San Antonio (or just to this part of town). The upscale spirits selection and bartenders' careful professionalism lend a more refined air to the otherwise-cozy exposed brick walls and wood beam ceilings. For munchies, there’s outstanding Thai home cooking from a food truck outside -- the owners of which are in-laws to the owner of the bar, making it a unified family affair.
Far Northwest Side
Craft cocktails inside a sophisticated shopping hub
Tucked away in the Éilan development, this bar feels like it should sit in a basement instead of at the terrace level. With decorative touches that include granite counters, a pressed tin ceiling and leather banquettes, you’ll want to dress up a bit to enjoy the carefully crafted creations here. It’s one of the few destination-worthy cocktail bars that aren't near downtown, so sometimes it can get a little crowded. Come here after your other evening activities for a sophisticated nightcap, or three.
Destination spot for beers, cocktails and dining
With lots of picnic table-style seating and exposed wood in an expansive building, this temple to the gods of beer evokes an upscale barn/mead hall vibe. Friendly servers happily guide patrons through the styles poured from the more than 100 beer taps, and the dozens more in bottles. Not in a beer mood? Grab a cocktail from the full bar. Come here hungry, because the scratch kitchen produces some quite good renditions of bar food classics. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried the Korean-spiced wings or rabbit barbacoa tacos.