Officially called Austin’s Backyard, the new Houston venue on 20th Street got some attention over the summer for its mural.
We didn’t even need to go inside the Austin-themed bar to feel like we were in Austin. Buzzy 20th Street in the Heights has quickly become Houston’s version of the Texas capital’s Sixth Street. Groups of youths swarm from bar to bar on the weekends, spilling onto the road, dodging Ubers dropping off the latest batch of partygoers, and other cars hopelessly trying to find parking. The only thing Sixth has on 20th, at this point, is better pedestrian infrastructure.
The Heights party strip is not my typical scene, but when an Austin-themed bar that got some attention over the summer finally opened, I had no other choice but to join the fray for an evening, dragging with me a few amenable friends. In early June, a mural was being painted on the bar, still under construction at the time: “Welcome to Austin in the Heights,” it read. But by the time it made its debut this past weekend, the message had changed slightly. An apostrophe and an S were squeezed in after Austin, and “in the Heights” was painted over by the word “backyard.”
Now officially called Austin’s Backyard, the bar joins a changing block of the Shady Acres subsection of the Heights, where an increasing number of multilevel party bars are being built. Drift Bar opened in January 2020, boasting 50 TV screens inside its sprawling indoor-outdoor space. The owner is building the 8,500-square-foot Heights Social next door, which is still under construction despite a “coming summer 2022” banner displayed at the site.
“What are you wearing?” asked my friend after she accepted the guinea pig challenge. An outfit that’s not too dressed up, I advised, so as to not immediately give away that we would be among the oldest people there. When we got to Austin’s Backyard, the bouncers took a millisecond glance at our IDs. “You’re good,” one of them said to me. There must have been something about us that signaled our year of birth began with 19.
Austin’s Backyard is a massive, cavernous space with a long bar over to the side, big tables and TV screens peppered throughout, and a mezzanine. Outside the bathrooms, 3D wall artwork pays homage to an essential part of Austin culture: a large painting of Matthew McConaughey, sitting on a real motorcycle front that protrudes out from the wall, with a blue neon sign that reads (just once) “All Right.”
The playlist, engineered by a DJ who was operating a portable turntable at a round hightop, bounced from modern country to hip hop to Cyndi Lauper to EDM. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played twice in the space of an hour, but there were no complaints from this ’90s kid. Behind the DJ, tucked on the second level and almost missable, there’s a replica of the “Greetings from Austin” mural, and a small awning in the corner displaying the words “Keep Austin Weird.”
Despite the mural outside having been repainted, staff T-shirts and a neon welcome sign on the street still reads, “Welcome to Austin in the Heights.”
After paying $30 for two vodka sodas, we decided to escape to the mezzanine, perhaps due to an innate 30-something urge to find somewhere to sit down and have a conversation. The mishmash of furniture upstairs didn’t feel cohesive or thought-out, until we realized it looked exactly like a student’s room curated with a collection of finds from Facebook Marketplace. A row of couches called our names. We walked over to the only one that didn’t have a “reserved” sign, and were granted a brief stay before we got kicked off of it by security, who told us it was, in fact, also reserved.
So we perched on the other end of the mezzanine, looking down onto the crowd, which provided some quality people-watching. As we observed interpersonal relationships play out and made up scenarios in our heads, it felt like someone was replaying my early 20s as I watched from above. At 10:58 p.m., a young woman got up on one of the tables and began dancing, before realizing it was not quite yet the vibe. But we didn’t stick around long enough to witness that shift.