There’s something about dive bars that makes them quite magical. Or rather, it’s the lack of some things. Now, before we dive into this list of Austin’s best, it’s crucial we get a few of these things straight.
First, dive bars are not concept bars. They were not designed to project any predetermined vibes. The interiors aren’t “inspired by” and the drinks aren’t “infused with” anything. The mismatched tables and stools are not ironically so, and there is no such thing as mood lighting (moody maybe).
There is no irony.
Dive bars are just really old bars. Think “B.C.” —Before Cocktails.
In the most respectable sense, they’re cockroaches that have survived Austin’s cataclysmic expansion, often appearing as misfits mashed between neighborhood developments, shiny strip malls, and fancy restaurants. Nonetheless, their musty walls, cranky bartenders, and carpet-clad floors have withstood the test of time.
Dive bars are remarkably unremarkable and that’s what makes them so magical.
So far we’ve covered age and irony, but here are a few more mandatories:
- Where there are dive bars, there are beer-guzzling loyalists, AKA regulars.
- Quarters are the key to operating anything beyond your beer can.
- There is likely a pool table or jukebox, but if nothing else, there’s a TV that plays some type of courtroom drama or Wheel of Fortune.
- The décor is nothing short of plastered Poloroids and handcrafted signs designating where you can and can’t smoke.
- The bar may or may not accept credit cards and may or may not serve liquor.
- There’s a bathroom so dank, no amount of soap can help you.
Now with these qualifications in mind, the following are six of my personal favorites.
Simply put, Donn’s Depot is a bar built out of a train depot from McNeil, Texas. And that train made its last stop on 5th Street over 40 years ago. Anyone who’s been will tell you: This place is something special. It’s not just old; it’s old-timey. It’s carpeted and cozy and strung with Christmas lights. The regulars are rambunctious and some of them have been frequenting the establishment since ’72 (they’re called the “Royalty Table”). There’s a dance floor that floods with people after 9 p.m. and a self-serve popcorn machine. Donn owns the joint and performs weekly on the piano, while his son runs the bar.
This next bar straddles a fine line between appearing oddly unassuming and utterly unoccupied. G&S Lounge is square and brick… and for the record, not vacant. In fact, it’s been up and running for over 25 years. It quietly sits between Warehouse Liquor and that one jail release billboard on South First. If you feel like you’re trespassing onto private property, you’re in the right place. But don’t worry—wonders await you! Come here to drink from the extensive beer collection and play pool or Pac-Man or Pinball or Zoltar. If none of that appeals (and why not?), you can sit out back and chain smoke while you pet the bar dogs. Get on their good side because I’m pretty sure they run the place.
If you find yourself in South Austin, I highly suggest you stop into Giddy Ups. The red-painted wood marks its territory on Manchaca Road right before it dead-ends into Ranch Road 1626. Now the rules get blurry here, call it a saloon, call it a honky tonk, I call it a dive bar. The structure itself has been a bar since the ‘50s but it was reborn as Giddy Ups over 15 years ago. Let’s just say, you don’t come to a joint like this looking to hit the town… a townie maybe. But don’t let “Mom” catch you; it’s Nancy’s bar and she’ll throw you out. This ain’t a barn, after all. That said, this place is rural. Like, tie-your-horse-to-a-post rural. Come play shuffleboard and listen to live music. Or if you’re lucky, you might find yourself in a washer-pitching tournament.
Looking for something less blue collar, more bureaucratic? The Cloak Room has been hiding under Austin’s Capitol grounds since the ‘70s, appropriately buried like many of the rumored political dealings that took place here. This basement bar isn’t just old and “divey,” it’s historic and distinguished—the sort of speakeasy where debates break out over Dewar’s and Dean Martin. But don’t let those classy tunes fool you; this is very much a dive bar. Just look for the massive Polaroid collection that lines the bathroom hallway. Now let’s talk about Bev—magical, mystical Bev. She’s a local legend whose been manning the bar since the ‘90s. I could go on and on about her but people already do. I will say that she’s big on manners. I learned the hard way not to kick my feet up on her chairs. Bev doesn’t have to tell me twice.
Last but not least, Deep Eddy Cabaret is not only a dive bar but also an Austin tradition since it opened its doors in 1951. It lingers right off of Lake Austin Boulevard, sharing a block with Deep Eddy Pool. If you’ve got a hot summer day to kill, I suggest a Deep Eddy double dip. Follow up a day at the pool with a round of pool. This place smells like cigarettes and sunscreen and is perfectly plastered with hand-rendered instructions outlining where you can and can’t put your beer. Until about eight months ago, this was one of the last-standing cash-only bars in town. But even though they take plastic these days, Deep Eddy will always have a cash-only soul.
So next time you’re itching for a change of scenery, skip the bar scene for one of these beauties instead. Perhaps you’ll walk in, have a beer, and never leave again. That’s been known to happen. Because hanging out at a dive bar is like spending time with an estranged relative. Sure, they’re mostly tired and a bit dysfunctional, but you’ll always get a good story and a cheap buzz.