There’s a funny overlap of camaraderie and competition among people who love neighborhood watering holes. Dive bar aficionados are a tribe of people who appreciate and seek out those gritty, dark, unpretentious havens where no one (and also everyone) knows your name. As befits our city’s dedicated approach to drinking early and often, Austin is a place where the barroom crowd can choose their own adventure any night of the week.
E. 6th St.
Named after the winged aggressors that cover our power lines and patios, the Grackle has stubbornly occupied the same spot since its opening in 2011. Amid the spate of condos and cocktail bars on E. 6th St., it has remained comfortably itself. Dimly lit and always cool, the space is home to a pool table, some darts and a sweet jukebox, along with a couple of banquettes. The bar eschews the stereotypical well liquor and low-brow brew selection you might expect in favor of a number of craft beers on draft and an extensive collection of whiskies, including some rare finds that make a whiskey lover’s heart beat a little faster. The sprawling covered deck outside is groaning with picnic benches populated by tattooed regulars, off-the-clock service industry folks and Austinites who know where to go for an inexpensive drink. Augment your beer-and-a-shot routine with a banging (vegan!) bacon cheeseburger and tater tots from the on-site food truck, Arlo’s.
If there’s a place that’s fully committed to its dive bar status, it’s Barfly’s. Their motto is “Our drinks are cheap so you don’t have to be.” They don’t do beer on tap. They don’t do table service. They don’t have a cocktail menu. They don’t have live music. They don’t do jerks. What they do have are strong drinks, super fast bartenders and a set of stairs you may decide not to navigate after enough of those strong drinks. It’s the quintessential neighborhood bar, and its patrons are often walking in from the surrounding houses, starting or ending their evenings with a stiff drink. Belly up to the bar, sit downstairs on their covered patio or grab a booth for a good view of people sharking it up at the pool and foosball tables. Barfly’s jukebox is the old-school CD kind with a 100-disc selection that’s so much fun you spend more than the first fiver you put in the slot. Just like at its sister bars (Mugshots, Violet Crown, Pour House, Hideout and Bender) the TVs scattered about the bar play cult classics for your viewing pleasure.
King Bee Lounge
E. 12th St.
The Legendary White Swan was a staple of the 12th and Chicon landscape before current owners Billy and Colette Hankey turned it into the King Bee. They revamped the layout, scrubbed it down, fixed the bathrooms and created a cocktail menu. Despite these additions, the black walls, flickering red table candles and carpeted makeshift stage area evoke that same old, familiar feeling. It’s a neighborhood bar with surprises like hand-crafted cocktails, an impressive mezcal collection and an ever-present frozen Bees Knees (featuring gin, lemon, honey and an edible flower) on tap. Fans of blues music will find themselves here late on Monday nights for an outstanding weekly jam session with the Little Elmore Reed Blues Band. When the weather’s nice, their string-light-covered patio is a popular spot for a smoke, a chat or one of their delectable house-made pizzas. The perfect combination of crispy and chewy, these thin-crust pizzas are topped with inventive seasonal ingredients (often from other local businesses) and are just the thing to soak up some of those delicious drinks.
The Little Darlin’
S. Congress Ave.
Every once in a while, a bar comes along that nails it on every level. The Little Darlin’ in way South Austin is one such bar. Housed in what was once the beloved La Fuente’s, they’ve taken this surprisingly big piece of property and transformed it into a neighborhood joint that appeals to all ages and stages. Their bar selection mixes it up with craft beer, infused liquors, a rotating frozen beverage and delightful surprises like their Sanchez Michelada, a beer with a bloody mary popsicle. They’ve also captured the lunch, brunch and dinner crowds with substantive and creative menus. Snack on a burrata caprese or some pimento cheese croquettes, share a summer salad of watermelon, queso fresco and candied jalapeños along with a 44 Farms flat iron steak, or start your Sunday with some fried chicken and waffles. Their sprawling dog- and kid-friendly patio has become a go-to location for special events, benefits and group outings. It offers tons of seating for diners or drinkers, cornhole and an elevated wooden stage that regularly features an artist in residence. It’s an ideal locale to hang with friends, imbibe solo and even impress a date.
Antone’s may be the official home of the blues in Austin, but Skylark Lounge is giving them a run for their money. Housed in what was formerly Bernadette’s, Skylark is a glorious semi-hole-in-the-wall off eastern Airport Blvd. Leather booths, wood-topped tables and cocktail rounds jostle for space inside the barely lit shotgun-style bar that leads up to a corner stage with a prominent retro neon sign reading “Skylark.” That stage is graced by purveyors of soul, funk, blues and jazz. You can catch a happy hour show here from Margaret Wright, a get-up-get-down from Birdlegg, a vocal thunderstorm from Rochelle and the Sidewinders or shows from Austin originals like Miss Lavelle White, Soul Man Sam and others. Follow the line of funky artwork to the nondescript door at the back of the bar to discover the real secret: their fantastic patio. Mismatched seating plus picnic benches, a firepit, pop-up canopies and vintage signs make for an eclectic and easy-sittin’ spot. After having a couple tasty beverages, track down the soul food sandwich guy, Phil Rome, from onsite People’s Soul Food Kitchen, and get yourself one of the best fried chicken sandwiches and side of fries in the city.
by Kelly Stocker // photography by Nathan Beels