Sunday, June 13, 2010


I recently returned from San Francisco exposed to one of those coastal trends which eventually seep into the interior by the time they've burned through their "cool quotient" at home: the high-end cocktail bar. I had the pleasure to visit Bourbon & Branch, a hip establishment firmly attached to the Prohibition-era speakeasy atmosphere, with less than the customary 1 month in advance reservations thanks to friendly connections.

When I say Bourbon & Branch wears speakeasy on its unassuming facade, it's a compliment to the attitude it intentionally evokes. Reservations are not only a date and time for your drinking party to commence but also to receive the appointed evening's password. The bar's outside is an ode to illicit days past, displaying a sign for the local chapter of the Anti-Saloon League. You press the electronic buzzer located next to the front door, an obvious anachronism but not a mood killer; a panel on the front door slides back and the hostess requests the password. Spirited conspirators, we were quickly admitted and shown to our table.

The interior was dimly lit, the tables extremely long and narrow, all the better to crowd more crooked kin into the bootleg hall while protecting their privacy. It's difficult to comment on the decor since it was so difficult to see it but it felt very quaint and intimate. Here you are supposed to linger, sipping complex creations and absorbed in discussion. The experience isn't one to rush but an opportunity to pause for an hour or two in an increasingly always connected, instant response required world and instead reconnect with company in flesh and blood and booze.

You won't find a simple rum & coke or a vodka tonic on the menu. Bourbon & Branch traffics only in the sophisticated end of the mixology spectrum. Classic bourbon, whiskey, gin and such cocktails of the era plus modern concoctions fill out a rather extensive list of choices.

I mention Bourbon & Branch and this rapidly emerging high-end cocktail culture to give you some idea what Austin's newest bar, Townhouse, is trying to import to a little corner of 5th street in the Southwest. We met the bar's proprietor Juan-Carlos Rubiralta, or J.C. as he introduced himself, on Friday night and were treated to an introduction to the Townhouse philosophy as well as the services of it's mixologist-in-chief. Both men went out of their way to present a new attitude towards drinking.

Austin sits at the nexus of several nightlife cultures: a college town, seat of government, live music capital, and youthful affluence thanks to tech industries such as Samsung and Dell. Such an auspicious financial environment coupled with the density of bars on the nationally (in)famous 6th street and growing prominence of the Warehouse district on 4th and a new hub springing up on 5th naturally and easily leads to a bar-hopping lifestyle. But Townhouse seems to want to be an animal of a different stripe.

Like Bourbon & Branch, the interior featured very dim lights but instead of booths with long, skinny tables, the bar featured cozy couches to assemble your party around for intimate discussions as you sample some of the inventive cocktails. The bartenders are also quite helpful and are eager to uncover your tastes and make recommendations. I found it interesting to see the bar's full menu, ingredients included, displayed on a placard that stretched from floor to ceiling. The backlit row of infusers behind the bar to stir up such chimera as catnip vodka also conjure a unique environment.

Drinks are an assortment of ingredients, many exotic to those uninitiated with cocktail culture, and come with a price tag ($11-14) that may be off-putting to the casual drinking crowd looking to grab a quick shot, assess the singles prospects, and then forge ahead to new hunting grounds. But for those looking to try something a little different, Townhouse has creativity and atmosphere in spades.

Only time will reveal if this experiment in the leisurely, sedentary drinking, savoring flavor over the chase, that's currently so popular in trend-setting American circles, will succeed here in Austin. I certainly believe J.C. and his crew are off to a good start.

Good luck! Looking forward to that catnip vodka next time I stop in for a drink.

305 W 5th St
ATX, 78701

for club info dial 512-472-5288

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bee Eye In Jee Oh!

What is about hitting your dirty 30s that makes you think and act like you're a kid again? I haven't played bingo since I was camper in after-school and summer programs because, like a lot of contemporary American families, both my parents had to work to make ends meet. Back in the day it wasn't really competitive: 1 card per kid and 5 across in any direction made bingo. Prizes were cheap, plastic, and broke before you got home. It was just an activity to eat up an hour or so between 7 am morning drop off and parents slowly trickling back to pick up their financial burden(s) starting at 5 pm.

I'm currently unemployed. By choice. I left my job to heed the advice of the dean of admissions at Emory Law School. Take some time for yourself. Enjoy. When 1L classes start in August, there won't be any time to play. So after a much deserved, oft delayed, and oh so amazing trip to NYC and San Francisco to visit friends, I'm back in the ATX looking for cheap activities to get me out of the house and fill up all these precious summer hours until I move to Atlanta.

Somehow the idea of playing bingo again occurred to this here law student to be. Perhaps it's because once upon a time a boss at another job told me she loved to go. Maybe it's because I've driven by that damn parlor on 183 so many times over the last 18 years that I just had to find out what was going on inside. In any case, I decided the time was nigh to join the ranks of the bingo hoi polloi.

I did my research ( thanks ) about the best bingo parlors in town. My criteria were:

1) cheap ( I did mention I'm unemployed, right)
2) newbie friendly ( didn't want to get beat up my the rough & tumble regulars for not knowing all the complicated variations of bingo )
3) possibility of sitting in a non-smoking room ( I quit for good about 9 years ago and only take a drag if I've been drinking heavily )

It turns out one the best places for bingo in ATX is off of Ben White by the name of B-12 Bingo ( ). The Thursday night special is computers for just $10 per session - no per person limit ( loaded with 66 cards each ) and cards are only $8 for up to 36 cards per game per session. Payouts are $500 per game during the first session ( 7:15 - 8:45) and 1 $300, 2 $400 and 2 $700 games during the second session ( 8:50 to around 10 ).

I don't pretend to fully understand what any of that means. I've basically just summarized what they have posted on their website about the Thursday night special.

If you tell them it's your first time at B-12 Bingo, they give you a free daubber. I did and also asked the nice lady at the register for her advice, which she happily gave. Apparently the computer is the way to go ( it is ). But just so you can enjoy all the authentic bingo fun of daubbing those boxes, I also got a $5 card ( and the free daubber ).

I sat down in the non-smoking section ( it was nearly full ) and of course tweet'd and facebook'd about my anticipation. I looked around and was amazed, as many yelp posters pointed out, at the diversity of the bingo crowd. It wasn't just a bunch of blue-haired old ladies and holy rollers. There were old people and young people, groups of 20 somethings and 30 somethings and 40 somethings ladies out having a good time, couples, families ( 18 and up only ) of grandparents with kids and grandkids. I was pleasantly surprised not to be the youngest one there. ( However, I would still argue I was the hippest one if I weren't playing bingo alone and sober on a Thursday night ;) ).

I think part of what contributes to the crowd is the parlor's BYOB policy. This actually seems to be pretty standard for a lot of the establishments in the city. Some people were pushing back Bud Light in their koozies and some were enjoying the fine fermented offerings of Riesling. As I am currently fighting off a rather nasty sinus / lung infection, I teetotaled tonight. B-12 has a concession stand for the purchasing of other foodstuffs and non-alcoholic beverages and has a strict no outside food & drink policy except for the aforementioned booze.

There are multiple large, flat planel TVs stationed around the place fixed on the bingo caller so you can always see the numbers as they come up. In the non-smoking room ( where I spent all my time ), there's also a bingo board. The smoking area, which was significantly larger, featured the TVs, some video games, and even a set tuned to tonight's NBA Finals' game.

So here's how it went down:

The computer rocks! It is 100% automated. When they call the wild numbers at the beginning of the game, it auto-pops all of them on the screen for you and then marks them on all your cards. When numbers are drawn, it's transmitted to the computer. There is even a tracker on the computer to show you which numbers have been drawn. It's definitely the way to go to increase your odds of winning. But having the computer just fill in the cards for your isn't all that much fun ( but getting the message 2 cards are 2 away from winning still gives you all the thrill of being on the verge of shouting BINGO! and collecting a payoff ). That's what the paper cards are for. Daub daub daub! What game type is this? Oh yeah! I'm 3 away from a bingo in this Reno variation.

Unfortunately I didn't win. But for $15, I did have a lot of fun and met some really nice people. An older hispanic couple and their 2 adult sons. Between dispensing advise to me ( fill out this ticket, those are the wilds, be sure to buy your food before the game starts because they shut down concessions ) he was also chastising his boys to get their vehicles inspected. You have to be quiet when the numbers are being called but between games ( when they are verifying the bingos and resetting to choose the wilds ) there is a lot of friendly chatter.

Would I do it again? You betcha! Next time I'd like to have flask in hand and some friends in tow. But for around $30 you get 3+ hours of entertainment ( you could go early and play cards with your friends as I saw many people doing ), an air conditioned place to drink ( and smoke if that's your vice ) so people don't yell at you for drinking alone at home all the time ( guilty ), and the possibility of taking home a substantial amount of cash if that twitching in your fluttering heart becomes the exultant, triumphant shout of BINGO! when your last number finally flashes across the screen. Plus, as a non-profit, they funnel a substantial portion back to several local charities ( Jollyville Sertoma, Northwest Sertoma, Knights of Columbus #8156, and AIDS Care and Assistance, DBA Rights of Passage ).

See ya next Thursday, B12!