The Global Barfly’s Companion #21 by Scott Gilman
Bar: The Wheel
Location: 1902-B E. MLK Blvd, Austin, TX 78702
Are there many people reading The Drunken Odyssey who live in or are visiting Austin? While I of course want an expansive audience, I don’t want too many people showing up at The Wheel, a splendid cocktail bar on Austin’s East Side. On East MLK Boulevard, within blowing distance of East Side hipster cool but at least further north and away from the beaten paths of Cesar Chavez and East Sixth, The Wheel is an understated oasis that is as trendy as it is welcoming and laid back.
Located next to a Juiceland (from where the bartenders were eating food and snacking on sandwiches during their break) The Wheel is the perfect spot for any kind of drinking leisure. Want to cozy up to the bar and drink exquisite cocktails? Check. Want to grab a table in the corner with your date and drink and talk in the darkened recesses of the place? Check. Want to go outside and drink beer while sitting on picnic tables and playing with all the dogs people brought? You can do that do.
The flexibility of the kind of social and drinking experience you can have at The Wheel is what gives the place its charm. It’s an intimate and comfortable space; you feel relaxed and at ease before you’ve even ordered your drink. The wooden panels in the ceiling add to the warmth of the interior, as does the beautiful wall with all the bottles and kegs. The outdoor patio is covered, and there is enough space in between tables to allow for a private gathering among strangers. The fountain along the back wall outside, providing ambient noise of rushing water, was a row beer taps constantly flowing (with water, just in case you got nervous).
My only complaint was the choice of music: apparently it was ‘80s night. I heard more INXS while there than I have in the past several years. Alas, that’s what the drinks are for, to help any music sound better. I tried two of the specialty cocktails. My favorite was the Madison, consisting of Knob Creek rye, vanilla bean syrup, orange and vanilla bitters. It was a little sweet but I enjoyed the way the vanilla mixed with the rye. I admit the drink went down a bit too easy. The second one I tried was the Lyllian, made of Hendriks gin, aperol, lillet blanc and grapefruit zest. Colored gin cocktails make me nervous, but this drink I liked quite a bit. It was neither too sweet or too bitter, and the grapefruit was not overwhelming.
The bar features a whiskey of the day, a concept we should all get behind, but a beer selection I found surprisingly small. Not much of an issue on a cool winter’s night, but come the spring and summer it can seem limiting. Many patrons seemed to struggle choosing their beer; Austin does not get enough credit for its thriving beer culture and I think expectations among bar patrons these days, especially at upscale cocktail bars, is that the beer choices will be as refined as the mixed drinks. I finished my night off with a Sputnik, from Austin’s own Austin Beerworks; it’s a dark beer with tons of flavor and character, so it’s not like great beer can’t be found at The Wheel. I just noticed a few people, when ordering beers, taking longer than usual.
The scene was very relaxed, as you might expect from a smaller venue with a patio. The bartenders were friendly and eager to serve. The clientele was a mix of regulars (identified by bartenders knowing their names) and those bundled up to make the most of a Sunday night on a long weekend. During busy times seating could perhaps be an issue at The Wheel, but not if you take my advice to not go there and leave this charming spot to me and my friends.
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.