Clinton Corners

The first time I found myself on the corner of S.E. 26th and Clinton, I remember a distinct feeling of having been folded into a secret. There is really no other way to describe standing beside the flashing red light that regulates the infrequent traffic, surveying the strange enclave of shops, eateries and bars tucked inside the quiet, tree-lined, close-in southeast neighborhood. It’s like stumbling into a strange village from a deep fog.

A friend of mine who lived in the neighborhood called the intersection Clinton Corners. After she moved to Austin, my girlfriend and I took her apartment and Clinton Corners became the nexus of our social life.

One thing you should know about my girlfriend and I: We like to drink. Not in the gross Micky Rourke as Charles Bukowski type of way, but more in the endearing William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles type of way. We have a fine collection of cocktail shakers in our built-in china cabinet and we bought a copy of Playboy’s Host and Bar Book, circa 1973, on our first date.

I believe that one of the reasons we enjoy the Clinton Corners area is due to this proclivity we have to imbibe. In a four-block radius there are a total of five drinking establishments, each with their own style and clientele, virtually one for every mood.

Because of this it is easy to bar crawl – or saunter if you’d rather not get the knees of your slacks dirty. Not to mention that, due to it’s proximity to Division and Powell and it’s relatively short distance from the city center, traveling to this lovely southeast hollow is as easy as a 10-minute bus ride from campus or a 10-dollar jaunt in a cab.

Perhaps the most well known watering hole on the Corners is the legendary Dots. Known as much for its kitsch aesthetic and dark interior as for its gastronomical offerings, Dots is a hipster dive supreme. The food is excellent and its grease content is just about perfect for the post-hangover belly. Chasing a Dots Reuben with one or two of their finely crafted Bloody Mary’s is one of the great joys of my life. Though I do strive to avoid hangovers, Dots almost makes them worth it. In the evenings, Dots fills up rather quickly, so it can get hard to find a table, especially in the bar area. However, if you do find a place to rest your can, you will most likely find yourself engaged in easy conversation with your neighbor at the bar or someone seated at an adjacent table. There is a friendliness that seems to pervade Dots if one is open and willing to except it. The service at Dots can be a bit spotty but when you are served you are served well by an adorable staff that you’d like to eat up with a side of spicy tofu sauce. Sometimes I have found myself wishing I knew semaphore in order to flag down the wait staff though. Drinking at Dots is affordable, but bring cash as they will not accept your plastic.

Across the street from Dots there is a trio of establishments that could not be more different from one another. Clinton Street Brewing is the newest establishment on the Corners and is an addition to the quirky Clinton Street Theater. The smallish brew pub has several taps to dispense some of the town’s finer micro-brews. There is a nice bar along the large eastern window for street watching and a couple of booths for the diverse clientele to discuss Surrealism or music or the latest cult freak-out to take residence on the theater screen for the week. Beer is affordable here and the wide selection of brews means that even your crass, Miller-swilling friends will feel at home with the selection.

The theatre separates Clinton Street Brewing from the Clinton Street Pub, a rather rough looking dive that, I honestly must say, intimidated the bejesus out of me until I was drunk enough one evening to hold my bejesus in and walk through the door. I was delighted to find several excellent pool tables, an awesome jukebox and friendly, roughish, youngish, neighborhood regulars. The Clinton Street Pub is very much a dive bar, but it’s comfortable and affordable and there is little to no attitude to contend with. It was built for drinkers and drinkers respond by doing what they do best as they lean against the long bar. Certainly a fine place to stop as you make your way down Clinton Street.

If you make your way north two doors from the long established Clinton Street Pub you will find its polar opposite in Savoy. This new eatery/tavern replaced the much-loved La Cruda, and has done a fine job in filling the space with good food and excellent drink. The tavern portion of Savoy has that warm natural wood feeling, as if a hip Norwegian fur trapper had decided to design a place where he could enjoy a cocktail or two with his trusty reindeer pal. The lighting is soft, the atmosphere is smoke free, very comfortable and the service is exceptionally friendly. The Savoy Manhattan is one of the treasures of Clinton Street. It is strong with a hint of sweetness and healthy round finish, garnished with a real cherry. It feels good to know that your grand pappy’s mixed drinks have some new champions. Other Savoy cocktails swerve towards the creative side, but all are delicious. The Savoy staff take the cocktail experience seriously, almost as seriously as they take happy hour, where you can get such delights as fried cheese curds for way cheap and wash them down with $2 Stella Artois. The only downside of Savoy is that the fine cocktails do come with a price and after a few Finnish Floats your judgment could be clouded enough that you forget how much your spending. I would be remiss if I did not mention that Savoy also serves top-notch food. I have a friend who swears he is addicted to their steak, but you would never know it by looking at him because he has the metabolism of a titmouse.

If you have sampled the wares of the fine drinking establishment mentioned above, a short walk might do well to clear your head. A few blocks west, downhill for you non-athletic types, you will find yourself at the popular Nightlight. The Nightlight is a lovely establishment that after several attempts to open, one of which was thwarted by fire, finally found sure footing in an area ripe for development. The surprisingly large establishment offers a pool table, music from DJs and some amazing large gangster type booths where you can enjoy a round or two of Trivial Pursuit with your chums. The drinks at the Nightlight are affordable and the clientele is friendly and outgoing. It’s also a fine place to end the night. Despite its upscale veneer the folks at the Nightlight are rock n’ roll at heart, offering great art on the walls and a jukebox chock full of kick-ass music. Plus, if you happen to have a few too many on your birthday it isn’t the most embarrassing place to fall on your ass.

After a fine night of fine drink, one of the most pleasant things about walking back through the neighborhood is the many friendly cats who come to ensure you are finding your way safely. They are almost like the fuzzy ambassadors of this hidden gem of an enclave. A secret spot for the serious drinker, Clinton Corners is just about perfect.