We had come to Austin for everything—the music, the food, the culture—but also because we’d heard some vexing reports that the city’s very soul was endangered. Las Manitas Avenue Café, the legendary Tex-Mex brunch spot, was being demolished to make way for a chain hotel. The annual South by Southwest festival, founded in 1987 to spotlight emerging music talent, had become a mere showcase for the likes of Pete Townshend and Metallica. And those Keep Austin Weird bumper-stickers you used to see on ancient, sun-bleached station wagons clattering around town? They are now emblazoned on the bumpers of Mercedes SUV’s parked in the lots of loft-condo complexes that skirt downtown.
But at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, a cramped honky-tonk bar on Burnet Road, we felt a distinctly Austin vibe. We ordered cold Lone Stars, the easy-to-love house beer of the state of Texas, as the Horton Brothers thumped into a rockabilly groove, singing tight harmonies and luring a couple into a courtly swing routine on the worn spot in the linoleum dance floor. At a neighboring table, a woman pulled a bottle of tequila from her purse. In short order, the bartender plunked down a bucket of ice, two cans of Texsun grapefruit juice, and two plastic cups. Our friend Karen explained: Ginny’s isn’t licensed to sell spirits but does provide the setup—the ice and juice—for only a few dollars. A bar that encourages patrons to bring their own liquor? This town has renegade charms aplenty, if you know where to look.
It may be the capital of the biggest, baddest, brashest state in the Union, but during the five days we spent in Austin, we noticed a soothing one-horse feel. Our first stop in search of the city’s counterculture core was the Hotel San José, which a friend from L.A. had described to us as Austin’s Chateau Marmont. True, there’s a lively terrace pool scene with hip young things reading on chaise longues. But instead of Us Weekly and Star, the San José’s habitués are poring over dog-eared books by Cormac McCarthy and Kinky Friedman. In the shade of the open-air cabana at Jo’s, the coffeehouse adjacent to the hotel, we sipped large iced coffees and people-watched, as the neighborhood—an appealing blend of bohemian and blue-collar—shuffled to life.
Although Austin gets more ink for music and film, the town has a distinctive food culture—a blend of old-school Tex-Mex, traditional Mexican, and barbecue. It’s also the birthplace of Whole Foods and the Texan locavore’s emporium, Central Market. On this trip, we wouldn’t be hoofing it out to the sausage and brisket meccas in Elgin, Luling, and Lockhart (towns in the hills and prairies outside the city). Still, we were hungry for Texas’s much-heralded beef brisket, so for lunch we made a beeline for Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, a spot that had ’cue hounds buzzing on the Web. The postmodern barbecue joint, housed among mid-construction condo buildings in an airy, historic brick warehouse, delivered outstanding barbecued chicken, moist and with a clove-y smoke character, which we chased with a hoppy Lost Gold IPA from Blanco, Texas. The brisket was textbook: super-wet and judiciously smoked.
Our honky-tonk music quest was in overdrive when we landed at the Continental Club, a venue where Amber Digby, a Patsy Cline–like chanteuse, held forth in front of a dapper ensemble that included a slide guitar, an instrument whose mellow crooning flavors this town as much as chiles do. The dance floor here was at least a few steps more intense than Ginny’s, and riveting. We watched a lone wolf cut in on a thirtysomething couple—the woman shod in white cowboy boots—and everybody winced. Once the crowd had thinned and the margaritas had taken hold, we found ourselves out on the dance floor, too.
A trip to Austin needs to include at least one Mexican meal, and since we couldn’t tuck into the famous migas at Las Manitas, we set our sights on El Borrego de Oro #2 and its birria, a hearty Mexican goat stew. The light burgundy broth had an oily sheen, and we showered it with minced jalapeño, onion, cilantro, habanero chile, and lime juice. Blended together, it was about the tastiest thing we had encountered in months: the beautiful gamy shredded goat was made fruity and smoky with all the chiles stewed into the brew.
The birria was uplifting—a culinary triumph as wondrous as our first taste of mole poblano—so we felt compelled to visit the shoebox-size Mexic-Arte Museum that afternoon. Art from South of the Border includes several José Clemente Orozcos and Rufino Tamayos (and a number of other painters of a heroic, postrevolutionary mode), as well as a collection of gorgeous 19th-century earthenware pitchers for serving pulque, a viscous agave beer. It’s a compelling collection that highlights how much traditional and contemporary Mexican, Chicano, and Latin American art and culture have influenced the art of Texas.
From the afternoon’s journey back to the 19th century, we launched far into the future that night to dine at the distinctly new-Austin restaurant, Bess Bistro on Pecan. We’d heard locals grouse about Bess—“Austin doesn’t need Balthazar” one said—but make no mistake, Bess translates an idealized French bistro into western terms (pewter bar; encaustic tile; distressed mirrors). Yes, it serves killer steak frites, but there are plenty of smart Lone Star touches: grilled quail, for example, is glazed in guajillo honey (an ingredient recently inducted into Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste). We sat at the bar, polished off our steak and quail, and ended with a “Texas snowball”—a brownie topped with local Blue Bell ice cream in a shell of flambéed meringue. Sandra Bullock, who has taken over Willie Nelson’s mantle as this town’s most name-dropped celeb, is the owner here (and at the nine-month-old Walton’s Fancy & Staple, a flower shop, bakery, and deli where the motto is Perishable, cherishable, fetishable), but when we visited, the tourists hadn’t yet discovered the place.
We seemed to be the only nonlocals at the Continental, too, where we returned to find a crowd that was far younger and more boisterous than the previous night’s, and much more inclined to dance. The wistful trio Shotgun Party worked up a sweat singing in a warbling style that might have issued from an Edison wax cylinder—more revivalist than renegade. Next up was a hard-charging Bill Monroe type: a skeletal, oily dude who sucked up to the crowd in black leather pants that barely clung to his posterior. The energy level was high, but a few songs in, our pals tugged at us to move on.
The Broken Spoke may be just three miles from the Continental Club, but this roadhouse feels like it’s far out in the country, with a gravel parking lot and a big oak tree in front (a horse tied to the tree wouldn’t have been out of place). Past an anteroom filled with dusty curios was the cement dance floor, with red checkered-cloth tables set along the sides. Here, laid-back Austin was on display: the crowd was jovial, slow-moving, and as family-friendly as a bar can be on a Thursday night, with kids dancing with their grandpas. The music was more country than rockabilly, and Jeff Hughes, a man in a gray cowboy hat, had us sprinting back to our drinks between numbers and back to the dance floor with his clever country covers of the Cure, Billy Idol, and Neil Diamond. Later on, we found Hughes, hat off, nursing a plastic cup of liquor at the bar. He met our compliments with the shrug of someone already a thousand sets into the new century: “I like to shake it up a little.”
Austin’s weather is best from October through April, though nights can be cold in January and February. Temperatures soar into the nineties in the summer months. Many airlines, including American and JetBlue, offer nonstop flights from major U.S. cities.
Bess Bistro on Pecan 500 W. Sixth St.; 512/477-2377; prix fixe dinner for two $40.
Blue Star Cafeteria A terrific brunch spot with 1950’s-inspired interiors. 4800 Burnet Rd.; 512/454-7827; brunch for two $30.
Counter Café Stop by for grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, cult-favorite Coca-Cola from Mexico, and a stellar burger topped with crumbly cheddar. 626 N. Lamar Blvd.; 512/708-8800; lunch for two $18.
El Borrego de Oro #2 390 S. Congress Ave.; 866/609-1572 or 512/383-0031; dinner for two $27.
Hoover’s Cooking 2002 Manor Rd.; 512/479-5006; dinner for two $38.
Jo’s 1300 S. Congress Ave.; 512/444-3800; breakfast for two $12.
La Condesa Visit for chef Rene Ortiz’s contemporary Mexican cuisine. 400A W. Second St.; 512/499-0300; dinner for two $83.
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue 401 W. Second St.; 512/494-1500; dinner for two $62.
Walton’s Fancy & Staple 609 W. Sixth St.; 512/542-3380.
Wink 1014 N. Lamar Blvd.; 512/482-8868; dinner for two $100.
Longbranch Inn 1133 E. 11th St.; 512/472-5477.
South by SouthWest Music & Media Conference March 12–21; 512/467-7979; sxsw.com.
See and Do
Barton Springs Pool Zilker Park’s three-acre pool, created from natural freshwater springs, is a favorite local hangout. 2101 Barton Springs Rd.