Thousands of audiophiles flock to Austin in September for Austin City Limits, a huge music event where the fest-goers look like rock stars and rock stars look like they’d not rather be anywhere else. When you’re away from the stages, visit the other places that keep Austin beer-friendly and weird.
by Dan Oko
Deep in the heart of Texas, Austin offers a quirky hodgepodge of frolicsome college life, high-tech industry and an old-school cosmic cowboy vibe that never says die. The Lone Star capital also boasts Texas’ liveliest brewing scene. Live Oak Brewing’s (East Side, www.liveoakbrewing.com) European bent is best illustrated with its crisp, authentically Czech pilsner and malty seasonal Oaktoberfest, brewed with German malt and hops. You can also grab the brewery’s Big Bark Amber alongside an indie flick at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (Downtown, www.originalalamo.com). Founded by a pair of UT grads, Independence Brewing (South Austin, www.independencebrewing.com) opened in 2004. Its Bootlegger Brown offers a sweet mouthful of malt that’s perfect for fall days; snag one on the popular brewery tour that takes place the first Saturday of each month. And though it brews just four regular beers, brand-spanking-new (512) Brewing (South Congress, www.512brewing.com) has made a mark on the hearts of beer-loving locals; don’t miss the flagship Pale. Austin has a handful of brewpubs, too: Still smoky despite a citywide tobacco prohibition, dark ‘n’ dirty Lovejoy’s (Downtown, 512.477.1268) is mere steps away from coed-clean 6th Avenue. The joint has four randomly rotating taps, not to mention tattoo-covered, leather-clad regulars who loyally fill growlers. Now in its fifth decade, the Draught House (Rosedale, www.draughthouse.com) exudes an English cottage feel; cozy up on alfresco benches or gaze at the 70-plus taps inside. The pub offers five to 10 house-brewed specialties at a time; keep an eye out for the velvety Vanilla Porter.
True to Austin’s eclectic nature, local bars run the gamut from rundown to rockstar-ready. Grab a picnic table under the mist at the British-themed Dog and Duck (Downtown, www.dogandduckpub.com), and pair one of the 35 taps (which include selections from Real Ale, brewed in nearby Blanco) with the golden fish ‘n’ chips. On the South Congress “hip strip” known as SoCo sits the Continental Club (South Congress, www.continentalclub.com), which has hosted Americana, R&B and rockabilly acts since 1957; the no-cover Friday happy hour with band The Blues Specialists is a sure bet. But a visit to Texas wouldn’t be complete without real, live honky-tonk: The Broken Spoke (South Lamar, www.brokenspokeaustintx.com) takes its boot-scooting as seriously as its chicken-fried steak, so show up early for dinner and dance lessons. If you’d rather not risk the contents of your mug doing the Electric Slide, park yourself at legendary Ginger Man (Warehouse District, www.gingermanpub.com), whose mind-blowing beer selection features the likes of Avery, Magic Hat and Deschutes. A good compromise for groups with varying tastes is the off-the-path Opal Divine’s (6th Street, www.opaldivines.com), where every Monday is Belgian beer night, 30 taps sit alongside one of the state’s largest Scotch lists, and happy-hour margaritas are a steal at $3.
Thanks to the emergence of a sophisticated culinary subculture, Austin cuisine no longer flip-flops between Tex-Mex and barbecue. Foodies should hit the upscale sushi parlor Uchi (South Lamar, www.uchiaustin.com), housed in a tastefully refurbished cottage, where Japan-trained chef Tyson Cole infuses fresh fish flown in daily with pomegranate, pumpkin seeds and poblano chiles. Another leader in the shift from hot-sauce to hot-ticket dining is executive chef Ryan Samson at Austin’s top Italian restaurant, Vespaio (South Congress, www.austinvespaio.com). The artisanal, rustic-yet-sophisticated menu features handmade pasta, wood-fired pizza and house-cured hams and sausages Samson prepares with local pork. Don’t let the wait time stump you; order at the bar, or try Vespaio’s simmering bistro-style sibling, Enoteca, next door. Those with a yen for smoked meat but without the stamina for a Hill Country barbecue pilgrimage could do worse than Iron Works (Downtown, www.ironworksbbq.com). Since 1978, the former blacksmith shop overlooking Waller Creek has served up tender brisket, massive beef ribs and peppery pork tenderloin. Closing in on 30 years, Juan in a Million (East Side, www.juaninamillion.com) is a breakfast institution; choose between the migas and the patented Don Juan taco grande. You’ll feel like you’re on the outskirts of Acapulco at the elegant Fonda san Miguel (North Loop, www.fondasanmiguel.com), where cut-tin lanterns dangle from the ceiling and South-of-the-border ballads play quietly in the background. The meat-stuffed chile rellenos set the standard.
The vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers of the recently restored, 189-room Driskill Hotel (Downtown, www.driskillhotel.com) will make you swoon. The rooms are impeccable and appointed with antiques, and a top-shelf margarita at the second-floor piano bar perfectly jumpstarts an evening. At the poetic Hotel San José (South Congress, www.sanjosehotel.com), a converted SoCo motorcourt has given rise to a chic, Texas-zen home-away-from-home for touring musicians. Most evenings, the poolside gardens fill up with an affable mix of sleek professionals, cycling geeks and artists. Green travelers should snooze at Habitat Suites (Highland Mall, www.habitatsuites.com), where solar panels supplement the electricity, pesticide-free gardens make for a peaceful stroll, and breakfast is complimentary. A half hour outside town but well worth the drive, the Lake Austin Spa Resort (Steiner Ranch, www.lakeaustin.com) offers rejuvenation—for a price. Forty lakefront rooms spread over 19 Hill Country acres, and guests relax with yoga, aromatherapy massage and Japanese acupuncture.
Having nurtured the careers of country stars and alt rockers from Lyle Lovett to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Okkervil River, Austin is rightfully proud of its homegrown music scene—but if you’re here for the three-day, eight-stage Austin City Limits Music Festival (Zilker Park, www.aclfestival.com), you already know that. But after the Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam and the other 128 bands, the sounds carry over to Austin’s myriad live-music venues, where ACL acts have been known to play spontaneous late-night sets. Cactus Café on campus (University of Texas, www.utexas.edu) emphasizes acoustic music and singer-songwriters, while Stubb’s (Downtown, www.stubbsaustin.com) and the cavernous La Zona Rosa (4th Street, www.lazonarosa.com) lure national acts. If you miss the fest, book a trip in November and catch the smaller-yet-more-manageable Fun Fun Fun Fest (www.funfunfunfest.com), an indie-band event that spotlights Texas artists and spans underground hip hop and modern punk. When you’re sick of the crowds, cool down at Barton Springs Pool (Zilker Park, 512.476.9044), a 3-acre natural swimming hole (albeit banked by manmade concrete) that averages 68 degrees year-round. At sunset, there may be no better vista than from Mount Bonnell, the city’s highest point with dynamite views of downtown and Lake Austin. From April to October, the evening flight of some 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats from the colonies under Congress Avenue Bridge (Downtown, www.batcon.org) offers a spectacle of another sort; call the Austin-American Statesman Bat Line (512.416.5700) for nightly emergence times. •[Photo, top: Dan Herron]