The team behind Highland Lounge isn’t crazy about calling their new downtown bar a gay bar because it’s so different from all the others that have come to define the local scene over the years.
General Manager Elaine Everett prefers calling Highland an LGBTQ-friendly bar: a place where gay, straight, young, old men and women can come without feeling excluded because they don’t fall in a certain label. “Highland is a little ahead of its time in Austin,” she said. “We’d rather focus on service, on having friendly bartenders and staff who make anyone feel welcome, rather than on having events like ‘lesbian nights’ that imply only they can be here on that night and no one else.”
Highland Lounge — named after the seven lakes that flow in and around Austin — also offers a pretty comprehensive craft cocktail menu, something else that sets the bar apart. Created by Highland’s beverage director Joyce Garrison, a cocktail maven in Austin who previously worked at the W Austin, the menu is divided into a list of signature cocktails, featuring classics like the Brown Derby (with Buffalo Trace bourbon, fresh grapefruit juice, house-made honey syrup and grapefruit peel) and the Pimm’s Cup (with Pimm’s No. 1, fresh lime and lemon juice, simple syrup, ginger ale, cucumber and mint), and a list of signature shots such as the Red Snapper (with Old Overholt Rye, Amaretto and cranberry juice).
In addition to those, there’s a monthly nonprofit cocktail that staff donates a $1 of each one sold to a different nonprofit each month. November’s drink profits are going to Out Youth, a local organization that supports and provides services to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning teenagers.
The concept behind Highland first developed for founder Robert Grunnah after traveling to L.A., Miami, Chicago and other cities in the U.S. that have gay bars and dance clubs beloved in the community at large. Kevin Haley, Highland’s director of marketing, said the Abbey in L.A. was a prime example of the sort of bar that Grunnah wanted to replicate in Austin, where he hadn’t yet seen a similar concept. “It’s considered one of the best gay bars in the world,” he said. “Upscale, known for its martinis, draws all kinds of people — Robert wanted to bring something like it here. He felt like there were a lot of members of the LGBT community whose needs weren’t being served.”
Highland is the latest in a long line of gay bars to occupy the space at 404 Colorado St., from Club 404 in the early 1990s to Kiss & Fly a few years ago. Haley said Grunnah decided to gut the old infrastructure that made up Kiss & Fly, renovating it to make it the sleek, open space it is now, with a blue, white and yellow color scheme that pays tribute to the water theme; plenty of seating on both floors; and a large dance floor in the center with floor-to-ceiling speakers that a live performer recently said made “Highland sound like Carnegie Hall,” Haley said. Hanging on the walls of the outdoor patio area are big posters featuring original illustrations that represent each of the Highland Lakes, from Inks to Lady Bird Lake (and some of them, because it is a bar after all, are playfully suggestive).
In the month or so that Highland has been open, it’s developed into a cocktail bar with an atmosphere more like that of a casual lounge than a dance club (the dance floor doesn’t open up until 10 p.m. most nights), and Haley and Everett hope it continues to draw all kinds of people from around Austin. “We’ve got consistently good drinks, great service, a good wine list and mostly local beers — we want to be better than what you’d normally find in the Warehouse District,” Haley said.
Highland Lounge, 404 Colorado St. (512) 649-1212, highlandlounge.com.