Two-Stepping in Austin
Published: June 2009
By Jennifer Howze
Martinis and barbecue?Mixing it up in the heart of the Lone Star State
When Richard Linklater captured Austin in his 1991 film, the title said it all: Slacker. Liberal politics, loose work ethics, and a penchant for tie-dye embodied the city's attitude. Now, with the influx of high-tech firms, film crews on location, and young, cosmopolitan professionals, it seems all the slackers have gotten haircuts, landed jobs, and gone in search of a good martini. But Austin is still deep in the heart of Texas. The town guards its honky-tonk roots and music scene like a good poker hand; laid-back attitude reigns.
Carousel Lounge 1110 E. 52nd St.; 512/452-6790. Ignore the impulse to flee upon seeing the building's off-putting exterior. Once inside, you'll be greeted by a friendly crew and a lighthearted atmosphere. Bands perform Smokey and the Bandit-era tunes, and the dance floor is packed.
Miguel's La Bodega 415 Colorado St.; 512/472-2369. Ground zero for the biggest block party in history. As the night wears on, standard salsa, merengue, and cha-cha steps become mere suggestions for the abandoned revelry on La Bodega's stone floor.
Broken Spoke 3201 S. Lamar Blvd.; 512/442-6189. The honest-to-God Texans here wear hats and boots easily, and the waitress calls you "honey" when she delivers your chicken-fried steak. Everything is genuine at this 34-year-old honky-tonk. Texas the way it wants to remember itself.
Gruene Hall 1601 Hunter Rd., New Braunfels; 830/606-1281. Newfangled C&W dance warehouses spend thousands trying to manufacture the ambiance that Gruene Hall tosses out with the trash. Since 1878 the floors have been worried with boot soles. Screen doors clap shut. The tin roof heats up. Parents bring their kids! And dancin' fools think nothing of the one-hour drive from Austin.
Continental Club 1315 S. Congress Ave.; 512/441-2444. After 40 years this club has secured its reputation as a top-notch music venue. You haven't done the town until you've hit Tuesday's happy hour (6 p.m.), when Toni Price plucks out twangy riffs that accompany lightly ironic "my beer/my broken heart" lyrics.
Antone's 213 W. Fifth St.; 512/474-5314. The smell of Aveda hair gel has replaced cigarette smoke in this new location of the 23-year-old, Chicago-style blues club. The infusion of squeaky-clean collegians doesn't quite fit with the hard-bitten feel of the rest of Clifford Antone's empire, which also includes a music label and record store. But the music's still great. And old-timers still flock to hear jam sessions longer than their most recent marriage.
Stubb's BBQ 801 Red River St.; 512/480-8341. In Lubbock during the 1970's, C. B. Stubblefield paid the likes of Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen for gigs with big plates of barbecue. Although C. B. passed away three years ago, this Austin outpost fans the flame. Out back, bands jam on an open-air stage. Up front, chef Brian Wubbiena more than does justice to "Stubb's" lip-smacking legacy.
The Backyard 13101 Hwy. 71 W.; 512/263-4146. Verdant, sloping lawns, goldfish ponds, and a canopy of 500-year-old oaks make this alfresco amphitheater-- just 15 minutes out of Austin-- the area's most beautiful place to hear music. The artists aren't so bad either: the likes of Sheryl Crow, Leonard Cohen, Bonnie Raitt, and Lyle Lovett.
The Ritz 320 E. Sixth St.; 512/474-2270. Shun the sharks and sharpies in the street-level pool hall of this revamped 1929 movie palace and head directly to the second-floor lounge. From a box seat in the converted balcony, watch cabaret singers and other sophisticated acts.
Club De Ville 900 Red River St.; 512/457-0900. Slick vinyl couches showcase nonchalant hipsters, and a groovy aesthetic has touched every detail in the joint. Meanwhile, outside, bands rock on a stage that juts from a cliff. The air is thick with good genes and good vibes.
Speakeasy 412D Congress Ave.; 512/476-8017. Despite its name and its back-alley location, Speakeasy is the worst-kept secret in town. Austin's A-list packs in to close deals at the bar, kindle affairs on the sink-down sofas, and contemplate the skyline on the rooftop deck. Roaring Twenties-style furnishings (of course) mix smashingly with lounge and swing music.
Lucky Lounge 209A W. Fifth St.; 512/479-7700. Smack downtown, this new little bar isn't looking to hide out. Still, Lucky Lounge is less about high rollers than low profiles. The joint dodges wild packs of after-work drinkers by opening at 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and the dim lighting and boudoir appointments whisper intimacy. Friday's live-music sessions from 6 to 9 p.m. guarantee a full house.
Ringside at Sullivan's 300 Colorado St.; 512/495-6504. Valet parking, paneled walls, leather chairs, and soaring flower arrangements?This club may be young, but it is not naïve. The staff is crisp. The lighting is kind. And the bartender mixes the sort of drinks distinguished gentlemen send over.
Cedar Street 208 W. Fourth St.; 512/708-8811. Young puff daddies balance blondes upon their chinoed knees, and the attitude, like the cigars, appears to be imported-- from L.A., perhaps?Here, even the conversations are accessorized.
Caucus Club 912 Red River St.; 512/472-2873. Home base for the nattiest crowd in town. Forest Whitaker took a breather here while filming Hope Floats. Arrange yourself on an overstuffed couch and wait to be discovered.
Thanks to an abundance of bands, the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, and a slew of vocal supporters, Austin's vibrant music scene has plenty of options.
For groovy lounge sounds, check out the Recliners, whose songs include "Cosa Caliente"-- a Spanish version of Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff"; Dino Lee, alias "Mr. Fabulous"; and the Naughty Ones, who knock out sexy shows with oozing sax, striptease beats, and slinky dancing girls. Other funky faves include 81/2 Souvenirs and the Asylum Street Spankers.
The hugely popular alternative-country sound, which takes its cues from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and improvises from there, has homegrown talent in the Old 97's. For a more traditional sound, check out Junior Brown and his steel guitar, or Don Walser (a.k.a. "the Pavarotti of the Plains") and his vintage warble.
In the singer-songwriter category, such locals as Alejandro Escovedo, Shawn Colvin, Ian Moore, Lisa Tingle, and James McMurtry (son of writer Larry) are perennial favorites.
If possible, catch any of the artists who are inextricably linked with Austin: Storyville (with former members of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan's band), Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Ely, and Willie Nelson.
Iguana Grill 2900 N. Ranch Rd. 620; 512/266-8439. The people next to you on the Iguana's covered patio probably own one of the pricey red-tiled houses that surround the restaurant and overlook Lake Travis. And you can be one of them, if only for the duration of a margarita.
Fadø Irish Pub 214 W. Fourth St.; 512/457-0172. Austin's most happening alternative to Cocktail Nation and good-old-boy attitude, Fadø packs in a clean-cut crowd all night. The outside deck is always jumping. But the pub's most attractive asset?Cute waiters from the U.K.
Mozart's Coffee 3825 Lake Austin Blvd.; 512/477-2900. When one more cocktail threatens to completely pickle you, Mozart's is the perfect antidote. Thursday through Monday, live jazz or classical music floats out over the wooden deck and onto the water of Lake Austin. Grad students proliferate, discussing romantic poetry and physics till closing time.
Shady Grove Café 1624 Barton Springs; 512/474-9991. Trailer park chic meets Roy Rogers on the patio of this down-home restaurant. At dusk, a wooden screen is cranked up from behind an Airstream trailer (except on acoustic-music Thursdays, natch). When the soundless feature changes from the Marx Brothers to Shirley Temple, order another round of Shady Thangs (Peruvian brandy, vodka, triple sec, lime juice) and make up your own dialogue.
New York-based writer JENNIFER HOWZE spent her college years researching the bars of Austin.