In 2016 I rang the buzzer marked “Harry Craddock.” When someone finally answered the door, I was turned away without a reservation. This year, I take precautions. The only reservation available during my visit to Austin is Sunday night. I choose 6:30 for two, knowing I will be solo, but added the just-in-case plus one. Also, no option for a reservation for one is listed.
After opening probably a thousand Lone Star tallboys for six days straight, I almost forget about the reservation. Resurfacing, I embrace reality outside of festival life and glance at my calendar. “Midnight Cowboy 6:30.” Right.
I brush past a ventriloquist on the corner of 6th Street with a small crowd and look for the store front. I know I will recognize the only building on the busy stretch of bars that feigns a private residence. It looks run down, unkempt – appropriate for dirty 6th. I press the buzzer and wait, arriving 10 minutes late for the reservation.
The inner door opens, but the man behind it does not open the barred metal screen door. I offer my name, the fact that I have a reservation.
“One moment.” The door shuts again. The exclusivity seems a bit much, but I determine to withhold expectations. Soon I am ushered into a space with black leather booths.
“It’s going to be just me, actually,” I say as if this were a recent change, “Are there seats at the bar?” I peer to the back that looks quite charming.
“Unfortunately it’s just a service bar,” the host declines.
“That’s chill. No problem.” I slide into the booth that is mine – a little two-top with patterned black marble that looks like the leggings I own from H&M. I slip on my sweater over my romper and pull out a book. The temperature differential inside form out is significant. This seems like just the place to unwind from a week filled with live music and long hours. In fact, in the pre-war chic decor, I feel like I’m already back in New York.
The list looks solid. I am pleased to spot sherry as an ingredient in several drinks. Imagining the flavors of each, I narrow the list to a few possible choices and ask for guidance once my host returns. It appears he will also be taking my orders and I spot another man behind the bar, presumably the bartender. Both are sporting Hawaiian shirts. He seems most excited about the drink with a whole egg, so I order it, thinking I will start with an egg drink and end with a stirred cocktail.
The Soft Hand (barbados rum, orange-amaro, pedro ximenez sherry, lemon, whole egg, fresh nutmeg) is silky and rich. It is set before me in a coup larger than those I am accustomed to.
“Are you in for South By?” he inquires. I must seem like I’m not from Austin, perhaps it is the book in front of me or the muted palate of my clothing.
“Yes, I was here this week working at Hotel Vegas,” I lay it all out for him. Austin is a place where people want to chat. This sort of immediate interaction is completely normal. “I live in New York. This is sort of my way of unwinding after South By.”
“Oh,” he perks up. “I know the owners of that bar and I used to live in New York. Let’s chat. Mind if I join you a moment?” He motions to the booth seat across from me.
“Not at all,” I reply. He sits and introduces himself. We play the get-to-know-you game and the places-in-New-York game. Oddly, he lived in my neighborhood, so we talk local, rents, Austin v. New York. During my week I’ve met several other New Yorkers and similar conversations. We are a strange breed, always wanting to talk about the cost of living and lament on how expensive it is in New York, meanwhile refusing to leave.
Midnight Cowboy is five years old, I am told, and affiliated with Alamo Drafthouse. Suddenly it clicks. How can a hidden cocktail bar that operates on reservations only with a capacity of maybe 40 survive in the heart of 6th Street Austin? A parent company. We talk about the difference in drinking cultures between the cities. In New York, none of us want to be in our small apartments, thus seeking refuge in bars. Additionally, meeting friends must happen outside the tiny dwellings we inhabit. So, bars. Austin, an equally heavy drinking city, is motivated solely by a good time and the opportunity to hang out. So, bars. Or after-hours porches.
He is tapped away by his co-worker and I return to my book. A group of four sorority-looking blondes is seated in the four-top booth behind me, slightly closer to the entrance. I can almost hear the boom of 6th Street through the walls, yet this space is a quiet haven.
“What’s your favorite?” one asks the other bartender who has greeted the table. I smirk at the predictability of that question. It is one I field often. His response is cheeky, “I like Lone Star.” Well played. He then cordially fishes for more information to guide the girls, saying, “this is about what you like. Citrus? Spirit-forward? Sweet, dry?”
A third employee enters the space with coffees, the aroma wafts down the isle as he delivers them to the bar. I assume he is the manager as he checks in on me, “how is your drink?”
It’s great. And going down more quickly than I would like, wanting to savor the experience. I knew I would order more than one cocktail. The last bits of frothy egg are like chilled cappuccino foam. My book engulfs me again and I forget about the empty glass. A bar cart rolls past.
A bar cart?
I’ve never seen one of these contraptions in use and I side eye the situation as it posts next to the sorority girls. I eavesdrop, the cart distracting me from reading. Each drink is made one at a time, the bartender detailing the ingredients as each is added. It’s like a tutorial for cocktail beginners. I hear one girl ask “what’s that?” to which the reply is “dry vermouth.” The whole ordeal seems vastly inefficient, but I suppose the shtick is the tutorial.
“What’s the drink you have most fun making?” another asks.
“I like making shots for people,” he replies. The girls giggle.
I am offered another drink and order the Nom de Guerre (rye, walnut liquor, velvet falnerum, scotch rinse, salt tincture, bitters). The salt and walnut intrigue me. A part of me hopes the drink does not require the cart, but the box is wheeled over.
“Hello again,” my Austin-New York comrade is back. “I’ll be making your Nom de Guerre,” he says with a bit of acknowledged irony.
I break the illusion of show by asking, “How do you like the cart?”
He hates it. “Forced interaction with people. We could do so much more business and make drinks more quickly if we didn’t have it.” His statement confirms all of my perceived criticisms.
The drink is in front of me, on a big rock, and the cart retreats. It tastes like I expected – the spiciness of a rye manhattan with a slight hint of nuttiness. The falernum and walnut do play well together and the drink is balanced. Yet it tastes like a manhattan and nothing more.
I find myself settling into the booth, cozy with my book, thinking I could stay for much longer than my allowed two hours on a reservation. It is my last night in Texas, however, and I know I can read in a bar similar to Midnight Cowboy anytime in New York. The outdoors beckons. Tacos entice me. I close out, thoroughly enjoying my respite. The visit was worth the planning required.