The Compleat Rainey Street: Bar Ilegal & Clive Bar

Through the rest of July, I’ll walk through every open door on Rainey Street. See the directory here
Bar Ilegal
609 Davis St., behind Clive Bar. 512-494-4120, Facebook page here.
Hours: 9 p.m to 2 a.m. Thursday-Friday.
Clive Bar
409 Davis St. at the Rainey Street intersection. 512-494-4120,
Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 07.27.12
Bar Ilegal and Clive Bar are the Gemini twins of Bridget Dunlap’s Rainey Street zodiac board. Clive Bar plays the nice one seven nights a week, with a congenial deck and strings of white lights and steady hours. Bar Ilegal comes out to play just three nights a week, exhaling its smoky mezcal breath from a stone house in Clive’s back courtyard that looks like a meth lord’s cook shack. Or a Oaxacan storage shed. One room with flatrock walls, a set of weathered wood carriage doors, the forgiving flicker of candles and a workman’s bench of a wooden bar like something from the set of “Desperado.” Steve Buscemi could be sitting next to you, telling a story about some other place like this: “Now this bar, it's full of real low-lifes. I mean, not like this place here.”
Bar Ilegal trades in one commodity: a brand of mezcal called Ilegal. Not illegal, though it may lead to misdemeanors. Think of it as tequila’s evil twin, still suffering nightmares from the scene in “Urban Cowboy” where Scott Glenn’s Wes Hightower tips up some mezcal, lets the worm sink to the mouth of the bottle, then sucks it in like a human storm drain. Like tequila, mezcal is made from the agave plant, but it’s cooked over hot rocks in underground pits to give it a more sinister edge. And when the bartender lays out three tiny gourd cups to pour a flight of three samples, the shimmering aroma is like filling a Zippo.
The patient man in a dark shirt and bowtie will tell you the Ilegal Joven is unaged, while the Reposado is aged six months and the Añejo for 12 months. My characterization of the three: fire, ember, smoke. The cups are presented on a board with salt and slices of orange. You don’t really need them, he told us, but try the salt anyway, because it’s ground with dried worms for an evolved hat-tip to its hard-knock life.
It’s not cheap, this collection of tiny pours for $15. One full shot of Añejo by itself will set you back almost $20. For $11, I liked the way a cinnamon-infused Joven worked in a cocktail called El Gallo, with ginger beer and a sliced apple floater. But I know that drink’s for the people who don’t want to follow the Bar Ilegal script of super-serious straight mezcal. And let’s be honest, or at least L.A. honest: This is a movie set. The limited hours, the little stone shed, the devotion to one liquor. And we’re all extras on this set. Extras by choice but actors nonetheless — in a commercial starring Ilegal Mezcal.
Clive Bar is happy just to be itself. To see it from the outside is to see it from the inside. It’s as transparent as the people sprawled across its patio and covered deck. All the action is outside; the inside is just a fueling station for the conversations on the pink granite courtyard set with miniature picnic benches around tables like sturdy fruit crates. A Rainey Street Mule will set you back $10, but it’s a spicy refresher of Stoli and Maine Root Ginger Brew in a smart stainless steel mug. Lime and Angostura bitters give it some acid and aromatics. The tap wall includes Avery White Rascal and an apple cider, but the dry, clovey phenols of (512) Wit make it a go-to summer beer.
Clive feels like a friends-and-girlfriends bar more than a pickup place, the kind of bar where seasoned couples go for something easier than the breathless recesses of the early days. I saw six tables on the courtyard with pairs of young women, so maybe Clive is a safe haven for a girls’ night out — fedora-clad boys optional. Especially boys in fedoras AND plaid pearl-snap shirts. Rockabilly throwback or urban vivant? Like the friend who looked at my acid-washed jeans, silver-tipped boots and horn-rimmed glasses in the ‘80s told me: Dude, pick one.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
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