AUSTIN — There is no shortage of places to get a drink in Austin. But Mike Rush and Quita Culpepper found a few watering holes creating a buzz not just from their spirits, but from their atmospheres, history and even hidden doors.
Our tavern tour starts in the heart of ‘Dirty Sixth’. It’s not at one of the many in-your-face places, but at an unassuming door.
If the red above the door is glowing -- or if you have a reservation and push the right button -- you gain entry into a secret speakeasy.
Midnight Cowboy is an intimate lounge with an even more intimate past.
“The original name of this space was ‘Midnight Cowboy Modeling and Oriental Massage’," lead bartender Madeline Ridgway said.
And yeah, she’s talking about that kind of massage.
Those happened in front.
“And then in the back,” Ridgway said, “is where you had baths, and you got cleaned up and they sent you out the back door.”
But that's the past. The pleasures they peddle now come down the aisle on a cart.
“Craft cocktails is very much a passion for me and everybody that works here,” Ridgway said.
She and the crew work hard to craft not only those cocktails, but an experience.
She adds it's “an intimate space where you can bring somebody that you actually want to spend time with and be able to have a conversation.”
The ingredients are next level -- much of which you may never have heard of.
“Oh, absolutely. So, there's a lot of stuff that most people haven't heard of,” Ridgway said.
But make no mistake, the sophisticated takes on cocktails are still approachable and delicious.
The rotating menu has even showcased a drink called "The Quita Culpepper."
Next, Mike and Quita land in the lobby of a hostile on Brazos Street, where a door hidden behind a sliding bookshelf leads to the Firehouse Lounge.
Manager Paul Neuenschwander said, “That little element of speakeasy-ness or kitsch or whatever is cute to bring people or to attract people here, but we hope that people stay around.”
The bar is inside Austin's oldest standing fire station. There's space for live music, an inviting atmosphere and, of course, craft drinks.
One of the most popular is the "Gold Rush."
Eberly on South Lamar makes a name for itself with its fine dining and plush décor, but at its connecting lounge, The Cedar Tavern, the bar is the star.
“It's from 1866,” Tommy Maitland, Eberly’s operations manager, said. “It's hand-carved mahogany.
He added, “We acquired it in New York City.”
After more than 140 years in three locations, the partners of Eberly -- who used to drink there -- bought the historic structure when the bar closed.
“It was brought down to Austin in about 150,200 pieces,” Maitland recalled. “Nothing tagged, and putting it together was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”
Back in the Big Apple, it attracted some big names.
“It was a bar for artists and writers and musicians and poets back in Bohemian New York City,” Maitland said.
People like musician Bob Dylan, writer Jack Kerouac and artist Jackson Pollock are all said to have been there.
But today, The Cedar Tavern -- with its carved gargoyles, original Tiffany windows and tasty drinks -- is here for you.
For Mike and Quita's final stop, it's been Christmas all year long since 1972.
So, why the Christmas theme at Lala's Little Nugget on Justin Lane?
"I'm going to leave it a little bit to your imagination at the end of the day," Max Moreland, one of the owners, said.
Moreland said there are many stories -- some romantic, some sad.
The most popular is that the original owner, Frances Lala, put up decorations in December 1972 when her son left for Vietnam.
“She swore she would leave the decorations up until her son arrived home, and he never did,” Moreland said.
Despite that tragic tale, Lala's has provided merriment for decades with its Christmas trees, snow globes and even a leg lamp.
“We have pillows, we've got scapes from people who inherited it from their deceased grandparents,” Moreland added.
And don't forget some Lala's concoctions, like "The Love Child" and "The Reindeer Water."
Moreland said, "We want people to walk in, and it feels like they're in grandma's basement and that they're 12-years-old again and it's exciting and it's energetic and it's comfortable.”
Lala’s is open year-round, but it is most busy in November and December.