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How Austin is Reinventing Happy Hour

From a swanky tiki hut to a stack of shipping containers, our writer discovers what makes the scene tick.

Container Bar

Soused by southwest: bending elbows at the Container Bar.

Here’s how I know I’m in Austin: I’m sitting at a bar, yet I’m not sure if I’m actually inside or out. Technically, I’m inside a building of the sort that could house a wholesaler of industrial fasteners, seated near wide-open garage doors. My cocktail is performing the small miracle of repudiating the heat, and I’m snacking on delicious ox-tongue sliders topped with pickled green tomato, which reminds me I’m in Texas. There’s a large gravel lot with picnic tables and party lights strung overhead awaiting the setting of the sun, that moment when the evening passes from frivolous to serious.

Contigo – the name of this lively bar and restaurant about three miles northeast of downtown – is adjacent to the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, which is being reborn as a new community, with a sort of edge-of-town frontier sensibility. Which is to say, not quite chic and not quite shabby.

It’s not the first time I’ve been confused since I’ve been here. One recent morning, I was walking along a lovely stretch of river­front pathway, admiring the swelling skyline across the way, when I looked up to see an elderly man on a bicycle pass me completely covered in gold paint and glitter and little else, save a barely legal mini-thong.

He smiled. I smiled.

Contigo

Contigo, where you can be indoors, outdoors or both at the same time. (Photo by: John Davidson)

In some ways, this felt perfect – the city itself is currently idling at that same intersection, between yesterday’s weirdness and tomorrow’s gloss. In the alleys and outlying neighbourhoods you can still find that tie-dyed, feral, anything-goes sensibility, sometimes contained in a food truck. But Austin is also the home of button-down state government, the city-within-a-city of the University of Texas, one of the country’s hottest food scenes and a booming tech sector. (Dell Computer started here in a university dorm room in 1984.)

But I’ve come to see where best to sip and snack in those alluring borderlands between day and night. The city is the natural habitat of happy hour, with as many forms as wildlife at a safari park: Almost every restaurant and bar has a dedicated menu, which can run from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., or 5 to 6 or, say, all day Monday. Austin has agreeable weather for much of the year, which draws out the many young and affluent techies here. (I was not in the least surprised to find that someone had posted online a spreadsheet covering the best happy hours in East Austin, analyzing discounts available at each, with the best deals marked in green.) Happy hour has the same appeal as Tinder: no-commitment dining and drinking. A few bites sampled here, a classic cocktail with three or four ingredients there, and… next!

The idea of happy hour originated early in the last century, but by the 1960s it went through an extended phase of questionable dignity where it became synonymous with two-for-one beers accompanied by a chafing dish containing sad, wizened egg rolls. That era is largely behind us, thankfully.

Bridget Dunlap

Container Bar owner Bridget Dunlap.

“I love happy hour,” Bridget Dunlap, owner of Container Bar, and long one of the chief instigators of Austin cool, tells me. “People come out because they don’t want to mess with the crowds that come later.” (Note: This is the only place I’ve been with a velvet rope to restrict access to shipping containers.) Dunlap’s bar, part of her mini-empire on Rainey Street, consists of brightly painted shipping containers stacked about a spacious lot, each utilitarian box given over to an artist. Think life-size Tetris game. My favourite: The container that’s completely, if improbably, swaddled in a photomural of snowy woods. The visual chill made me hungry – easily cured by the Mettle food trailer in back serving up great retro ballast, including Frito pie and sliders.

Austin’s Container Bar

Austin’s Container Bar is stacked with talent – each box is designed or decorated by a different artist.

Some of the best places create their own atmosphere without aid of the Texas sun. That includes Isla, essentially a tiki hut gone upscale, eschewing blowfish and grass-roofed huts for a white-marble bar, pineapple wallpaper and a museum-quality display of tiki mugs and masks. It’s run by the same folks as Péché across the alley (hop over for delicious pre-Prohibition cocktails), and occupies a long and narrow room with tables in the back and a bar up front. I opt for the bar, where I chat with local citizens about the fine selection of rums while grazing on grilled octopus and ceviche – all appetizers are 25 percent off during happy hour, and they can be washed down with $7 tiki drinks.

Feeling bold, I go for the Blue Hawaiian, an oft-reviled drink noted chiefly for its not-found-in-nature colour. Here, though, it’s grown up and college-educated, made with rum, lime, pine­apple, coconut and the bar’s homemade blue curaçao, the colour of a Hockney pool, served over jewels of perfectly crushed pebble ice. Each sip a delightful, tiny tropical vacation.


Austin has a lot of Big History – the imposing state capitol, the LBJ Museum – but also a quieter, more hidden past that’s a wonder to discover. That includes the Hillside Farmacy, a bar and eatery located in a building that formerly housed the first African-American-owned drugstore in the city, which dates to the 1950s. Set in a sort of neo-suburban area, it’s a fine oasis of yesterday amid a city that’s very much about today: Picture tiny tiles, copper-topped tables, tin ceilings and half-curtains on the windows. (I particularly like the apothecary artifacts on display near the ladies’ and gents’ rooms.) During happy hour I find a pleasing throwback in other ways – the bar’s early-bird specialty is discounted oysters and bubbly, and my briny Northeast oysters and a coupe of Spanish Francesc Ricart Brut slice through the heat with laser-guided precision. Stepping outside is like walking out of an afternoon movie in a foreign land – everything seems different and bright and more inviting.

I bounce between Austin’s happy hours mostly by Uber, electric bike and by foot – free-range grazing across a city famous for its sprawl. Of the choices, electric bikes are a perfect match for Austin: traditional, low-impact and vaguely hippyish, but with a high-tech edge.

Odd Duck in the South Lamar neighbourhood

Shaded outdoor seating at Odd Duck overlooks a busy corner in the South Lamar neighbourhood.

I’m especially pleased with the power-assisted pedalling on my way up to Odd Duck, which sits atop a hill across the river in the South Lamar neighbourhood. The place has soaring glass windows looking out onto traffic streaming by – which seems fitting, as it emerged pupa-like from an earlier incarnation as a food truck on this same lot. The interior is accented with distressed wood along with a vintage globe chandelier, plus lampshades crafted from burlap sacks.

The happy-hour special today, a carrot Moscow mule made with vodka, comes out of a spigot at the end of a row of beer taps: light, evanescent, unexpected, with a touch of carrot and a bracing dollop of ginger and “organic sugar,” as my bartender assures me. I also order grilled carrots off the happy-hour menu – it seems too wascally not to. They are perfectly cooked, served with a tangy mole and a sprinkling of citrus and feta.

Uchi: preparation for the sake social

Social work: sushi chefs prepare the raw materials for the sake social.

Moments later I’m coasting down the hill to Uchi, one of the city’s star happy-hour attractions – called “sake social” here. Lines start forming in front well before the 5 p.m. opening, and when I finally get settled at the sushi bar I instantly understand why. The well-priced bites are minor masterpieces – like the machi cure, made with smoked yellowtail, yucca, pear, marcona almond and garlic brittle. Every bite of every small dish I order feels like an escapade – salty or crunchy or overflowing with umami. The retired professor from the Midwest sitting next to me tells me he grew up nearby, but each time he flies home he heads to Uchi even before stopping in to see his family. “There’s no other place like it I’ve found,” he says. And I have to agree.

Uchi’s Machi Cure

Uchi’s Machi Cure is paired with Takara Nigori sake.

With its hushed murmur and sleek ruby-red decor, Uchi feels like a luxurious geode set amid scrappy Austin. But I soon find myself eager to return to the other Austin, where everything new seems old again: distressed wood, rusted metal, faded paint, chipped plaster. Sometimes it can be hard to know what opened just last week and what’s been around for generations. (Even the housekeeping cart at my hotel has distressed-wood accents.)

I pedal across the river to a spot I instantly feel most at home: Whisler’s, situated on a charmless corner in low-slung, light-industrial East Austin, just across from a Goodwill.

This former Latino dive bar has tables arrayed on a gravel lot (naturally), garage doors opening into a bright bar, and a dim, rustic bar further inside with spalling walls and lambent light that seems right out of a Sergio Leone epic. (Adding further to the Mexican borderland vibe: the tiny upstairs mezcal bar, offering more than two dozen rare mezcals by the shot, although it’s open only evenings on weekends.)

Owner Scranton Twohey opened Whisler’s two years ago after serving in the Rainey Street bar trenches. It’s also the current parking spot of Thai Kun, Paul Qui’s justifiably swooned-over food truck. The Cabbage Two Ways took that wallflower of vegetables and made it an unexpected star.

Happy hour runs 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and offers $6 classics, like a perfectly crafted old-fashioned. But I quickly venture beyond and enjoy some of the most inventive cocktails in Austin. This includes the Grifter, a memorable tipple compounded of mezcal, Aperol, lemon, grapefruit, sage and a touch of celery bitters.

Like Whisler’s space itself and the city around it, the drink is perfectly balanced between tropics and desert, between plains and mountains, yesterday and today, indoor and out, day and night.


RELATED: The 7 Best Happy Hours in Austin and 5 Things to Do in Austin, Texas

Tags

AUSTIN     BARS     COCKTAILS     FOOD & DRINK     MIXOLOGY    

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