Nickel City is the neighborhood bar that brothers and co-owners of Via 313 Brandon and Zane Hunt, along with Travis Tober and Craig Primozich, always wanted to own. It’s that anytime-and-everything bar that offers any drink a person could want, from higher-end cocktails to the always reliable shots and beer to glasses of French wine to perfect bar snacks from Detroit-style food truck Delray Cafe in the form of Detroit specialities and chicken wings. And now it’s open right in Central East Austin.
“Every guy just wants to own a bar that they could crash,” Brandon Hunt said, and Tober agreed with that sentiment. He has been working at bars for the past 20 years.
“I poured my first beer behind a bar — illegally — at 12 — my parents owned a bar,” Tober explained.
Nickel isn’t new and shiny. It looks like it’s been on East 11th for years already, which is technically true, since it took over the space formerly occupied by longtime historic dive bar Longbranch Inn. “Rust Belt chic,” said Tober, pointing to his upstate New York background and the Hunts’ Detroit roots, “but with a Texas twist.”
“We want to set up this bar not to be the next hot thing,” Tober said. “Accidentally, maybe, we might become that, but we set it up to be a recession-proof bar. When you’re happy, you go to the bar, when you’re sad, you go to the bar.” Nickel is meant to be a place for conviviality, decompression, occasions, gathering, and becoming that go-to spot when people just want a drink and good company.
“By it not being special makes it special,” said Hunt.
Opening the bar
While the Hunts and Primozich (who also owns Rainey Street bar Javelina) had the idea for the bar, they weren’t ready to execute it until Tober stepped into the picture last summer. Last year, Brandon Hunt stopped by Longbranch for a drink and realized, as he put it, “There was nobody in this place.”
Since the bar wasn’t being used to its full potential, Hunt thought that it would make for a good home for Nickel City. There was recognition with the space. “Everybody either has a good memory or a bad memory of Longbranch,” said Tober, “and if they don’t, they know the name.”
The Nickel team were about to initiate the process of acquiring the bar when Longbranch was evicted in September, the bar was no longer, and the structure became theirs. Everything fell into place.
Affordability is key with Nickel City. “It’s just doing what’s right for people and making smarter selections,” explained Tober.
Filling out the team is bar manager J.R. Mocanu, who worked with Tober at South Lamar restaurant Vox Table. When Tober told Mocanu about Nickel, he knew he wanted to join. “‘I want to open up a bar with our level of cocktails, but still dive-y,’” Mocanu recalled Tober saying. “Exactly the type of bar that me and him would drink at.”
Nickel City is a place where guests can feel comfortable drinking whatever they so choose. The word “cocktail” is intentionally left off the menu because it brings forth images of $14 beverages, but that’s not the case at Nickel. The mixed drinks are still thoughtful and affordable, varying from classics (daiquiris, Old Fashioneds) to house drinks (Mixed Blessings with tequila and grapefruit; the tiki-esque Guilty Pleasure, which makes good use of Midori) to frozen sips. Shrubs, purees, and other ingredients are made in-house. No drink costs more than $10.
The frozen drinks draw inspiration from New Orleans, because, to Tober, it has a “frozen cocktail culture.” The creamy Irish coffee nods to the famous Erin Rose one.
As for spirits, “there’s nothing more American than whiskey and brandy,” Tober says, and those are the stars of Nickel’s list. A few whiskeys are even highlighted on the marquee menu. The lengthy proper list is being worked on; it’s set to debut in October with around 250 to 300 whiskeys and 20 brandies.
Beers range from familiar names like Lone Star and Coors to local brands, like Friends and Allies and Live Oak Brewing Company. The wines, available by the glass, are of quality but cheap, including what Tober described as a “good crushable rosé.” Nothing is an afterthought.
Delray Cafe’s menu is full of “stuff I miss from home,” explained Hunt, offered at modest prices. This means Detroit specialities like coney dogs (chili-topped hot dogs), sliders, chili cheese fries, cheese sticks (aka mozzarella sticks), and more.
Because the Hunt brothers like to go deep with their research, they went home to Detroit to sample the best of their city’s food, working through 18 different slider joints, 20 onion ring spots, 20 plates of mozzarella sticks, and 12 orders of fries just to fashion their own takes.
Delray’s chili and franks are shipped straight from Detroit. The sliders aren't what most people think of. Instead of miniature hamburgers, Detroit sliders come with two ounces of meat, onions, and a bun.
Tober, as a Buffalo native, helped with the Buffalo wings, served by the pound, which will become spicier based on feedback. Even better: the barbecue version is made with sauce from neighbor Franklin Barbecue.
“If you’re going to do barbecue, might as well do the best barbecue in the world,” Tober said. They asked pitmaster Aaron Franklin if they could use his bottled barbecue sauce, and he said yes.
Guests can order food through the bar, where everything will show up on the same tab, or opt to visit the trailer proper, parked outside.
The look is familiar to Tober and Hunt, who grew up around upstate New York and Detroit bars, from the neon in the windows to menu on the wall,to its quippy, daily-changing sign in the back (the bar’s playful take on the famous one from Tex-Mex restaurant El Arroyo).
Longbranch’s historic bar top, which originally belonged to the Driskill Hotel, was extended; yellow banquettes were added; and yet the space still somehow feels larger than its predecessor. “We made it more comfortable,” said Tober.
The restrooms underwent a serious upgrade, since Longbranch’s ones were known as “the worst bathrooms out there” said Tober. “There’s dive bar bathrooms, and then there’s Longbranch bathrooms,” though they did keep one of the original urinals for decorative purposes, covered in Christmas lights for ambience.
There is a small side patio, with chairs and tables, for those who want to enjoy some fresh air. That’s where Delray Cafe can be found too.
Never ones to sit still, the Hunts are on the hunt for their next Via 313 location. They reveal that they’re looking at Cedar Park for a 4,000-square-foot restaurant, though there is no set address as of yet.
As for other bars and food trucks, the Nickel gang is up for anything, whether that means expanding Nickel City or exploring other ideas. Other potential food trailer concepts include cheese sticks, nachos, or their take on beloved diner chain Waffle House, with beer and shots at hand.
Nickel City is here to stay on East 11th Street, though. “We want it to be here for another 100 years,” said Hunt.