Hotel bars aren't just for guests anymore. Now, thanks to many hotels' efforts to give them distinct flavor and personality, locals want to visit them, too. That's what the group behind the new East Austin Hotel and its trio of bars and restaurants is hoping will happen for them.
La Corsha Hospitality Group operates popular local restaurants like Second Bar + Kitchen and the revamped Mattie's at Green Pastures. But the organization had never built a hotel from the ground up before, a challenge that beverage director Jason Stevens embraced with his usual eye for detail. Together with other La Corsha staff, he has created three dining and drinking spaces that are distinctive from each other but clearly unified by overlapping design elements and drinks.
The goal with each spot — Sixth and Waller, the main restaurant; the Upside Rooftop Bar, with views of bustling East Sixth Street below; and the Pool Bar, adjacent to the long swimming pool that runs through the center of the boutique hotel — was to create a welcoming atmosphere where just about anyone can find a temporary home. All are open to the public, and all serve food.
"Hotel bars shouldn't be a weird way station while you're waiting for your room. They should be a place where you might really want to hang out," Stevens said.
With that philosophy in mind, he consulted with the hotel's designers and the regional executive chef, Jason Stude, to put together the beverage menu at each space. The Upside and the Pool Bar give out tropical vibes, with a mix of original and classic cocktails that were "kind of pulled from resort menus from the '50s through the '80s," he said. Sixth and Waller, on the other hand, is intended to be an all-day diner; drinks there range from low-ABV aperitifs to summer-friendly highballs.
Some of the cocktails at East Austin Hotel, such as the Champagne Paloma, are on all three menus. Others, like the blue curaçao-loaded Neon Chi Chi, are on the Upside and the Pool Bar menus only. With these, he said, he wanted to "create the overall idea of 'vacation in a glass.'"
But there's one adjective often associated with vacation that Stevens doesn't want to see used to describe any of the cocktails.
"I want to make clear this is not a Tiki concept," Stevens said. "Tiki is not involved in what we're doing. It's all tropical."
Imagine a Palm Springs resort in the '60s, he said: "If the craft cocktail movement had happened there, what the drinks would look like."
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The drinks might look like the cantaloupe-colored Chaotic Good, one of Stevens' personal favorites at the 75-room hotel. With Hayman's London Dry Gin, tropical guava marmalade, lime, absinthe and Angostura bitters, it's got two of the three ingredients Stevens often incorporates to give you the sense you're sipping it on a Caribbean island, or maybe in Morocco. Though it doesn't conjure the taste of a specific region like Peruvian pisco or Guyanese rum might, the ice-filled tipple is garnished with a leaf and lime slice and has plenty of color.
Something else that was important for Stevens to make sure was on the menu? Well, to be frank, not one thing, but a little bit of everything. In addition to all-Texas draft beers, the Upside Bar has bottled standards like Dos Equis and Lone Star available.
"Because we're a hotel, we want to make sure we're catering to everybody, whether they're looking for new things or things that are tried and true," he said.
Whatever you choose, sip away on one of the large poufs at the cozy Upside Bar, decorated in hues of red and gold and circled on nearly all sides by a large patio perfect for people-watching. Or enjoy your drink (and don't forget a snack) on one of the wood-and-leather bar stools at the Pool Bar, which is open-air but covered and offers alluring views of the nearby pool. (People who aren't hotel guests have to buy a pool pass to take a dip, but the Pool Bar has no admission fee.)
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The multi-room Sixth and Waller, partially decked out with a delicate shade of pink similar to the one that covers the main walls of the hotel, is always an option, too. It's open longer than the others to offer breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A frozen margarita is served exclusively at the Pool Bar. Stevens' thoughts on what we think of as a simple drink — in this case, with tequila, triple sec, light agave and fresh lime juice — highlight the quality of the bar program that he and the bar staff aim for at all three concepts.
"It's the most complicated thing on the menu," he said. "Think about it. The ideal frozen margarita should be fresh and also satisfy the palate of every person who comes in. So the proportion of every ingredient has to be exactly right. We're talking about a difference of a couple ounces in the simple syrup. Adjusting those — and also recognizing the frozen machine is going to be outside — is taking time."
Having a frozen machine outside makes the margarita's preparation more complicated, he said, because its viscosity can change over time in hot temperatures. As a result, when we talked shortly after the hotel opened in May, the frozen margarita recipe was still being tweaked. But Stevens didn't seem to mind that it wasn't perfect yet.
"You're pulling all those elements together and hopefully, in the end, getting a real good margarita," he said. "It's almost there. It's close. But we'll keep adjusting until it's where it needs to be."