The Global Barfly’s Companion #15 by Scott Gilman
Location: 75 1/2 Rainey St Austin, TX 78701
What to make of Rainey Street, just barely north of the river and walking steps west of I-35, tucked away in its own corner in downtown Austin? The transformation of a sleepy block with small, wooden, occasionally dilapidated houses into a nightlife destination point continues.
Initially a counter to the craziness, mayhem, and sleaze of Dirty Sixth, filled with prowling undergraduates, the bars of Rainey Street offer a mellower, more tranquil environment, in either cute houses or expansive patios, to actually interact with friends while having choice cocktails or quality beer. At least it used to. Now two large condominium buildings shadow the south end of Rainey Street, and the foot traffic makes it almost impossible to drive along Rainey Street itself. One of the first times I went there, a few years ago, I paid $5 to park in someone’s back yard. That house is now a bar, and the spot two blocks away I found to park for free is now metered. Rainey Street has fully morphed into a cool, new option into its own scene.
To each their own, of course, but that scene has kept me away from Rainey Street on weekend nights, though it’s noticeably less crowded during summer (when the city gets a reprieve from all those undergraduates). Most of the bars now are carbon copies of each other, save the interior design oddity of Container Bar. Banger’s offers a solid beer selection along with the best sausages in town, Craft Pride, at the end of Rainey, serves nothing but Texas beer and also is known for its incredible selection. But for cocktails the gem of the street is Half-Step, which rates as one of the finest cocktail bars in Austin.
Its reputation is well-earned. The design inside is intimate and charming, though I was struck at the lack of seats at the bar itself; just a few small stools across from the bar make up the only seating options where the bar is.
There are two other rooms: one with dark wooden tables and chairs, and a few booths, both for larger groups and parties of two.
There is another room in the back with no seating. Outside are areas to sit both on the patio and at ground level, along the side of the building (where this is also a ping-pong table) and facing Rainey. There is a second bar outside, one with a different cocktail menu than the one inside where I was getting my drinks. I’ll have to go back and try some of those; the cocktails are so good you want to try them all. I started with a Gentleman’s Buck, with bourbon, OJ, lemon juice and a few other ingredients.
All cocktails are $11, except for the Bartender’s Choice (which I’ll get to) for $12. It’s served in a Tom Collins glass with a rectangular bar of ice. Custom-shaped ice is one of the hallmarks of the place, and I admit to perceiving it as a gimmick until I saw how perfectly my bar of ice cooled and lasted throughout my entire drink. I saw the making of a mint julep (which I personally drink only one day a year, the first Saturday in May) which had perfectly sized crushed ice, packed in and overflowing a silver julep mug. The sprig of mint and powdered sugar on top tempted me, but that’s too much liquid candy if you ask me. I decided for my next round to have a Bartender’s Choice, where you just tell the bartender the spirit of your choice and any other likes or dislikes, and off he goes.
I wound up with a drink called The Last Word, which my bartender, who moved to Austin three years ago from Seattle, tells me is now the most popular cocktail in the world. It’s made with gin, Chartreuse, I think perhaps something lemony and has a dark cherry in the bottom of the glass. It was a lime-ish shade of green and was amazing. I moved around a bit, sitting both inside and out, and listened to the excellent music: several songs by the band Antibalas, an afro-beat band out of Brooklyn, a reggae sounding version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and The Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”
My reigning champ for cocktails in Austin has been Drink.Well up in the North Loop, and I still think with their food service, smaller space, seats at the bar (important if you’re out solo) and location away from Rainey Street it deserves top billing. But the drinks are just as good if not better at Half-Step; the attention, detail and care given to each cocktail (from the ice to the glass to the mixtures) are top-notch. There is an elegance and professionalism to the drinks at Half-Step that may stretch beyond the tastes of the masses in the neighborhood, but that doesn’t take away from what is an excellent spot for fine mixology in a homey and warm environment. Just prepare to return to a culture shock once you walk out the door.
Scott Gilman lives in Austin, Texas and enjoys exercise, reading, writing, eating and drinking. He is working on his first novel and a short story and essay collection. More of his writing can be found here.