Visit Austin for delicious barbecue, lively music and a smart, fun aura
Monday, August 12
A Visit to Austin
Departing BWI on the only airline offering direct flights to Austin, G. and I reluctantly navigate the festival-style seating. Southwest is known as a low-cost airline, so I think the unassigned seating must contribute to the cost savings, but I can’t figure out how. We twist down the narrow aisle, passing row after row of open middle seats. We are lucky to find two seats together near the back row of the plane.
G. and I arrive in Austin, Texas just before noon. The heat feels good after two days in my parents’ over-air-conditioned house, then freezing at an intolerably air-conditioned wedding. I love sleeping in an air-conditioned bedroom under warm blankets. I enjoy relief from summer heat in controlled amounts of air-conditioning, but I hate relentless, blasting ice-cold air.
Welcome to the town of blasting, ice-cold air.
We taxi across the Colorado River from the Hyatt to Austin’s downtown. We are meeting our friend S. at Dona Emila, a Mexican restaurant recommended to us by another friend. We still have a half hour before we meet her, so we wander a few empty, wide blocks. Anticipating a lot of sun this week, G wants a hat. Lo and behold, we walk by a The Hat Shop, and bingo, we have hats.
We are seated in the blue-tiled restaurant and the emptiness makes us doubtful. S. pops in a few moments later. She moved to Austin just last week, and began orientation in the MBA program at the University of Texas today.
The food is not quite terrible, but not quite good either. A crazy, homeless man hits Gene up for money in the men’s room.
After dinner, S. drives us around the UT campus. She uses a steering-wheel lock on her car, a New York habit I guess. She drives us up Guadalupe and around the perimeter of the campus. We visit her new studio apartment.
An Elephant in the Room
We drive back downtown to the Elephant Room, a basement jazz club. The band plays the John Coltrane album, A Love Supreme beginning to end. Suzanne heads home after the set.
We stick around for the next set, a jam session run by a guy with a sax and an eye patch. He tells the audience that anyone can come up and play, but he swears he will kick them off the stage if they are drunk or no good. Rooster Cogburn keeps moving his patch around– up, down, up, around. He claims it is hot and shakes the patch like a fan. He puts it on his forehead in the Cyclops position. His eye looks normal.
A teenage kid plays sax for most of the set, while the other musicians rotate. RC says the kid is in high school but he looks even younger.
We catch a taxi a few blocks away, at 4th and Colorado, on the waitresses’ advice. Back to the hotel, we learn room service knocked off at eleven; we are fifteen minutes too late. We order a pizza that we must pick up in the lobby.
Tuesday, August 13
Judging a City by its Record Stores
G. still sleeps as I tip toe around the room getting dressed. Leaving him a note, I ride Hyatt’s signature glass elevator down to the lobby and buy an iced coffee with a muffin and fruit.
I research record stores on the Internet and read The Austin Chronicle. The air conditioning blasts and I wish I had a sweater. I packed only for ninety-degree days; I didn’t bring anything with long sleeves.
After an hour, G. joins me and rates my selection of record stores. The first one on our list, End of an Ear, is on South 1st Street.
End of an Ear is part of a mish-mash of funky stores with hand-painted wood signs. While G. flips through crates of vinyl, I go to Amelia’s, the vintage clothing shop next door.
“Nothing before 1965,” Amelia tells me. The place looks like a cluttered dollhouse, lots of tiling, a small room full of wedding dresses and christening outfits. Hats from all eras hang around the upper perimeter of the rooms.
I finish browsing and chatting at Amelia’s, but G. is still shopping. He found a bin of 99-cent vinyl and built a six-inch stack of albums to buy. I sit and wait on a red soda-fountain stool and read the local event paper.
We figure Sticky Fingers behind End of an Ear is a memorabilia shop, but turns out to be an artist’s studio in the making. We meet Elena, spouse of Sticky Fingers owner and artist/owner of Happiness. Happiness is behind Amelia’s and sells plants and crafts and other artwork.
G. finds happiness in the form of a “flying saucer,” a camping tool he has been hunting down for years. It grills sandwiches over campfires. His former roommate, J., would make grilled cheese sandwiches over his stovetop in Queens with this long-handled heavy metal contraption.
UT Campus Tour
We eat lunch at The Pita Place near UT, a falafel shop with an American salad-bar type twist: add your own selection of toppings to your falafel with hummus. We stick to traditional lettuce and tomato, but the sandwich maker encourages cheese and other fattening middle America toppings.
We wander through Intellectual Property, a UT student bookstore.
Meet the Antones
We start to walk up Guadalupe to Antone’s, a highly regarded Austin record store, related to the club of the same name. We drove by the store yesterday and both of us thought the sign said “Flintstones.”
We are on 24th Street, and Antone’s is on 29th. Five blocks, right? But Austin blocks are not bound by New York City grid standards. By the time we hit 28th, we see that 29th Street curves around the bend so far we can’t see the end. We give up and walk back to the car in oppressive heat and drive the five long, curvy blocks.
At Antone’s, G. buys more vinyl and a couple CDs. We stop at a vintage shop two doors down that sells old camera and stereo equipment as well as vintage clothes in the 70s pimp-style. The proprietor of Antone’s shows up at Sonny’s Vintage and jokes with the dude who runs the vintage shop. Sonny, we presume.
Eating Italian, Drinking ‘Merican
G. and I go to La Traviata downtown for an Italian dinner. I start with a polenta cake covered with gorgonzola sauce and choose salmon on cannelloni beans with summer vegetables as a main course. Gene has a Cesaer salad and duck confit.
After dinner, we walk to the historic Driskill Hotel on 6th Street for a couple of drinks at the bar. The hotel lobby and bar are palatial. Dark wood walls are covered with large oil-paint portraits. Oversized chandeliers and stuffed animal heads provide the ambiance you’d expect from a Texas hotel from the 1800s.
The friendly bartender becomes absorbed by the needs of a little and loud Texan ala Ross Perot. The little guy wants to impress his four British guests. The Texan presses bourbon drinks on his guests (five Maker’s Marks and water, he demands) because he wants them to “drink American,” he said.
A ragtime pianist plays in the background. She is weak, and ragtime is not my favorite, so we head to our own hotel across the river for a nightcap.
At the big circular bar, we watch gymnasts compete at Beijing Olympics on the bar’s HD plasma screen. The Olympics are the backdrop of this trip; you hear its buzz everywhere. We strike up a conversation with a businessman from Atlanta, and stay longer at the bar than we intend.
Wednesday, August 13
Threadgill’s World Headquarters
We sleep until noon and it feels great. We skip breakfast and go to Threadgill’s World Headquarters for lunch. Threadgill’s south location near our hotel is not the place where Janis Joplin played in the early sixties before she hit it big. This second location (never go with a hippie to a second location!) became Threadgill’s in the 1990s when Ken Threadgill bought the Armadillo World Headquarters, a landmark in its own right.
Our waitress, and the entire staff, is dressed in red button-down shirts tucked into belted denim. G. throws caution to the wind and orders pecan-crusted chicken smothered in cream sauce. I opt for grilled tilapia with a pineapple pico de gallo on top. I have a side of steamed broccoli and lest I get too healthy, a side of mac n’ cheese.
This Must Not Be Bliss
G. drops me off at Milk and Honey for a Swedish massage and fifteen minutes of foot reflexology.
He heads back to Antone’s to return the Bob Dylan CD that had the wrong CD in the sleeve. G. picks up more music at Waterloo Records: Laura Nyro albums, Van Morrison, the correct Bob Dylan CD and Harry Nilsson’s The Point.
My first professional massage is fantastic and it hardly seems like an hour and fifteen minutes could have passed. Milk and Honey has a much warmer vibe than Bliss in New York, but is not as lush as Burke Williams in LA. I consider returning for a facial tomorrow.
Stone Crabs at Truluck’s
For dinner, we choose Truluck’s on 4th and Colorado, a seafood place that looks appealing from the outside despite lacking windows to see in. Citysearch selections all are shots in the dark anyway. The reviews tend to the extremes, so you just pick and hope you’re lucky. Tonight we are lucky:
great service, fresh stone crabs, and fantastic wines, of which we try several.
Truluck is a cavern of dark wood and glass, with deep dark booths around the perimeter. The bar has live piano music. The guy behind the grand piano is same Tony Blair-looking dude playing the upright in the Elephant Room Monday night.
Elephant Room Redux
We return to the Elephant Room after getting turned around on the empty streets. How did that happen? We were just a few blocks away. Not too many people mill around these streets on a hot August night before students return to the city for the fall semester.
Far fewer homeless people here than in New York, but the Austin homeless are more conspicuous. They want to interact more, and seem more dangerous that the lethargic New York homeless. Fortunately, we quickly find our way, our error caused perhaps by overconfidence. We see the basement neon of the familiar Elephant Room, now our home base.
Big Band Elephant
Tonight, the long narrow basement bar is set up for a big band. We arrive when the band is on break. We see rows of empty wooden chairs with horns resting against them, a stark contrast to Monday night’s simple set-up.
G. finds a table right beside the band that just needs chairs pulled over to it. We are sitting in front of a very old woman.
The band assembles. Before they start to play, a horn player leans over to us and says it may be too loud for us sitting this close. And boy, he isn’t kidding. The old woman is probably hard of hearing.
We retreat, looking for a back table, but end up sitting at the bar.
From this new vantage point, we notice the ceiling is papered with tacked and taped dollar bills, most with Sharpie-penned messages. The vertical post that presumably holds up the ceiling has dollar bills winding down its length, the bills held on with clear heavy tape. I worry that the tape is doing double-duty, holding the wooden post together as well as the entire room. I note a deep, wide crack down the length of the post.
How much time before the Elephant Room is shut down, another jazz club lost?
After a great set, the band takes another break and several of the musicians gather at the bar. The piano player strikes up a conversation with Gene. They chat for some time about music. One of the sax players breaks in to say that Eddie Griffin gave the Elephant Room a plug on his show. The sax player’s info is coming in via text message from a fellow musician. Chris, the sax player, suggests we come down to see his show at Eddie V’s on Friday.
We were going to see Joe Ely at the Threadgill’s beer garden, but how could we not accept this offer?
Thursday, August 14
Cheap Luxury Apartments
We visit the Camden Apartments on South Congress and look at two-bedroom apartments for rent. Parking, pool, clubroom, fitness room, closets upon closets for $1000 per month less than we pay in Manhattan. We drive further down South Congress to the Greystone Apartments where the spaces are even better. The pool is larger and the fitness room is twice as big. Tempting.
We stop at the Ruta Maya, a hippie hang across the street from the Greystone Apartments. We have mushroom empanadas that attract the interest of an adorable dog. We notice the Gentlemen’s Club across the street from the Greystone that the property leaser neglected to point out.
Back at the hotel, I sit at the pool, soaking in the heat, protected by my flapper hat and SPF 45 sunscreen while G. naps.
Tequila and Sunsets
S. picks us up for a trip to Lake Travis, to a restaurant called The Oasis that overlooks the lake, the best place to watch a beautiful sunset. The Oasis is a half hour drive out of the city. The building is garish, like a castle turned amusement park. We take a table for six on the second level. Some of S ’s new schoolmates will join us.
The Oasis is not nearly as crowded as Citysearch warned, probably because it is August in Austin. So we easily get a table with a unblocked view of the lake. The sunset is beautiful but quick, a cartoonish fireball dropping from the sky, just like the best place in San Francisco to watch the sunset (that I can’t recall the name of).
Queso, margaritas and business-school talk highlight the evening. Queso is key in Tex-Mex cuisine. I love queso. Queso is out of the question during real life in New York. But in Austin on vacation, I don’t mind scooping melted cheese by the dripping mouthful and not counting how many times I go back to the well.
We pose for a photo outside the restaurant and say goodbye to Suzanne’s new friends, both named Gaurav. I feel a little jealous of them and Suzanne, starting business school with a fresh slate, lots of enthusiasm, and a new life-chapter.
S. and G. banter about directions in the front seat. We have gone the wrong way again. But with more ease than we deserve, we find a road we know and navigate back to Austin. From S ’s car, we hear the band playing in Threadgill’s beer garden from an intersection away. She drops us off; she has a 7 am flight to Tahoe tomorrow.
One Perfect Song
The skinny kid working the Threadgill’s cash register waves us into the fenced-in garden. The band sings about red-headed women and advises if you don’t want a woman who drinks, then don’t meet them in bars. Are they one and the same? It is the band’s last song, explaining the waived cover charge.
We reconsider whether to go to Eddie’s V’s to see our sax player-singer friend from the Elephant Room or see Joe Ely at Threadgill’s tomorrow night. Because the vibe was just right, Threadgill’s will be the winner.
Friday, August 15
Texas History Lesson
We have a morning routine already: Starbuck’s coffee from Perks, mine iced and G.’s hot; a bran muffin for me and a chocolate croissant for G. We split a banana. Today I bring breakfast up to the room, but I prefer sitting at the outdoor patio. Skinny crow-like birds hover on the patio, unafraid. The birds look sick, their feathers dull and bent. Last choice: the comfortable, but icy lobby.
We tour the Texas State Capitol this morning and learn a little Texas-style history. Is any state’s history more colorful? I didn’t know that six different flags have flown over Texas and that is the origin of the “Six Flags over Texas” amusement park name. So how could anyone think “Six Flags over New Jersey” or “Six Flags over Ohio” ever be okay?
Much of what the guide says sounds familiar, like facts that may have been in my fifth grade social studies book I glossed over (and lost). I remember Davy Crockett, because of the tv theme song: “Davy, Daa—vy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.” The lyrics repeat in my head as I gaze at the oversize portrait of a young man in a coonskin cap who bears no resemblance to Fess Parker, the star of the series.
G.and I are fascinated by Sam Houston, who accessorized his frontier wear (or maybe it was a suit) with a Cherokee blanket.
We eat lunch at Stubbs, a casual order-at-the-bar place that is on everyone’s must-try Austin BBQ list. By now, we know we are not going to get to Salt Lick BBQ or the Broken Spoke on this trip despite the recommendations. So we have to do Stubbs, the third member of the BBQ triumvirate.
G. eats a Fred Flintstone-size portion of pork ribs he says beats Rendezvous in Memphis, a powerful endorsement. I stick to my non-meat ways, but I order a side of mac n’ cheese, last one before I return to my regimented world of cheeze. We check out Stubbs’ back patio, and gaze at the deserted sandlot. We imagine the nighttime and weekend crowds. A deep stage, painted black, a bar in the back set up like Threadgill’s, only much larger.
Daniel Johnston’s Mural
We look for the LBJ Presidential Library. I know it’s on Red River but it could be MLK (18th) or 35th, I’m not sure. My laptop died last night before I wrote the directions down. We like our history in small doses, so we give up easily.
We’re focus more on returning to Guadalupe and getting a photo of the Daniel Johnston mural. (Must-see documentary: The Devil and Daniel Johnston.)
Traffic on Guadalupe is thick, and left turns are prohibited at every intersection. We figure out how to turn around and find a metered parking spot. It is starting to rain, but this Austin rain is only a few fat splotches on our windshield, then nothing.
If it’s not Records, it’s Books
On our way to the hotel, we stop at Book People, “an independent bookstore,” the signs state proudly at their entrance on 6th and Lamar.
Book People is huge and cozy with a fat staircase and an oak banister. The steps are lined with Hello Kitty products and similar money wasters. But oh the books!
How dare we even walk into a bookstore when we have discussed whether we need to FedEx our record albums home? And when I have a gaggle of Barnes and Noble gift cards in my wallet?
But a bargain is a bargain and G. finds a Jane Goodall biography and her treatise on “mindful eating,” Harvest for Hope, on the bargain table for me.
G. picks up a Warren Zevon bio and a Willie Nelson bio from the discount table too.
A Question of Queso
I’m feeling like Mexican for dinner (or do I just want a queso fix?) Threadgill’s over Eddie V’s Steakhouse is a done deal. We will stay on the south side of the river tonight.
The Hyatt cocktail waitress recommends Guero’s, a short cab ride down South Congress. Guero’s hostess quotes us 1 ½ hours wait, which might have been okay if I hadn’t already drank a glass of Chardonnay.
We start walking back up South Congress and we see cool places along the way: vintage shops and clothing boutiques, closed for the night. We pass more crowded restaurants with long waits. We see the Hotel San Jose, which I hear is touring musicians’ favorite hotel. The rooms are often booked a year in advance, according to Conde Nast Traveller. The hotel is obscured by ivy; you could easily miss it as you walk by.
We will have to save all these places for another visit.
Music at Threadgill’s
Soon enough, we’ve walked to Threadgill’s where the multiple dining rooms can accommodate the Friday night crowds. We wait only ten-minutes. G. orders chicken-fried steak with cream gravy. And why not? It’s our last artery-clogging night. I have a spicy veggie burger, and just one more mac n’ cheese side (really, last one).
By the time we finish eating, the beer garden is filling up and the lawn chairs are all taken. We lean against a wide tree trunk and listen to the opening duo. The singer is a little too sincere and too cliché in his lyrics. His choruses do not inspire any foot stomping.
We wait for Joe Ely and accordion player, Jo-el Guzman. Gene spots Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the crowd, the guy who played Smokey the bowler in The Big Lebowksi. We think the kid from the opening act is Gilmore’s son. Joe Ely draws many dedicated fans tonight in the audience. And he is great.
The night is perfect, warm with a breeze. It was great to be outdoors on this beautiful night, our last night in Austin.