By Stirling Kelso Neff
Photography by Buff Strickland
Austin has always had good culinary bones—after all, Whole Foods was founded here—but for too long the city’s dining scene felt limited to barbecue, Tex-Mex joints, and the occasional café with tired waiters by day/musicians by night. But now Texas’ little blue star is hardly recognizable, and not just on the foodie front. For the last four years, Austin has ranked as the fastest-growing city in the U.S. Tech companies such as Google, Facebook, eBay, and RetailMeNot have followed a path paved by Michael Dell and set up offices. New high-rises dot the skyline as more residents seek a relaxed, arts-filled, pedestrian-friendly lifestyle. And, with 250-plus venues offering tunes every night of the week and more festivals than you could shake a tambourine at, the city will have you dancing for days. Here’s a look at some of Austin’s best attractions.
Of Late and Local
New restaurants are popping up throughout the city, but a few neighborhoods are especially prolific. In South Austin, check out Odd Duck, a food trailer turned swish brick-and-mortar spot helmed by Food & Wine magazine darling Bryce Gilmore. He’s got Moscow mules on draft—mixed with housemade ginger beer—as well as shareable small plates such as carrots roasted in hay and topped with chèvre and pistachios.
Down the street, James Beard Award winner Paul Qui currently straddles Austin’s choice culinary real estate with his East Side King. The casual diner serves made-to-order steamed pork buns and crispy brussels sprouts. And in East Austin—an area dominated by artists and entrepreneurs—his eponymous Qui restaurant pays homage to the city’s diverse talents: Resident potter Keith Kreeger was one of many artists who made the dishware, and area farms provide ingredients for menu items such as Rabbit 7 Ways, cooked with meat sourced 25 miles southwest of Austin.
Also on the east side, sultry French Justine’s Brasserie encourages 11 pm dining and pairs expertly crafted steak frites with well-priced bottles of wine. The neighborhood’s latest addition is the French provincial-style laV. Launched by a team of three women, the elegant wine room, lined with chartreuse leather banquettes, is a favorite for bubbly and conversation.
Due to its college-town roots and serious summer heat, Austin is notoriously casual and owes its distinctive fashion sense to local designers and independent boutiques. While travelers are attracted to South Congress Avenue’s funky collection of shops—Uncommon Objects lines its shelves with whimsical collectibles; the landmark Allens Boots is a pit stop for all things cowboy—South Lamar, just west, is also getting attention for a slew of recent openings.
“We’re excited that this neighborhood is becoming more pedestrian-friendly,” says Lucy Jolis, owner of clothing and accessories shop Sunroom. Her well-edited collection includes hard-to-find brands such as Tori Praver swimwear, Valley eyewear from Australia, and Dezso jewelry, made with such distinctive materials as fossilized coral and hand-carved stones.
North of Sunroom, Mockingbird Domestics sells handcrafted furniture, coffee-table books, and handsome vases by Austin-based designers. Men and women can both shop designer consignment at Moss; look for labels such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Prada. The innovative owners also preview one-of-a-kind acquisitions on the shop’s blog.
Live Music and Libations
Despite (or maybe because of) the city’s rapid growth, Austin continues to live up to its nickname, the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Many bars and restaurants host regular gigs, and you’re likely to see a pop-up stage in the middle of a farmers’ market or even planted among a group of food trucks. The classic venues have the most soul: At The Continental Club, which originally opened in 1957, catch local acts such as James McMurtry and Redd Volkaert. “The Saxon Pub is one of my favorite places to watch a band,” says singer-songwriter Bob Schneider. When Schneider isn’t on tour, he plays in the well-loved (and a little worn) establishment on Monday nights.
For bigger performances, get tickets to the three-year-old Moody Theater. Connected to the downtown W Hotel and anchored by a bronze statue of Willie Nelson, the venue is also where PBS tapes its live music show Austin City Limits.
Downtown Sixth Street may be overrun with college kids and bachelor parties, but a few laid-back lounges are worth seeking out. Bartenders roll martini carts down an aisle of leather booths at Midnight Cowboy, a speakeasy housed in a former brothel. Easy Tiger has beers by Austin-based brewers on draft; opt for a table on its sprawling creekside patio.
Festivals and Cultural Draws
You’ve heard of the Austin City Limits and South by Southwest music festivals, but these events are just two of dozens that dot the capital’s calendar, with subjects ranging from books and beer to film and food. Formula One takes over the city every November; when Europe’s glitterati aren’t occupying the bleachers, you can count on concerts and comedy shows at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, just 13 miles southeast of the city.
History buffs should make a trip to the recently revamped LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas. Exhibition halls have a replica of the former leader’s Oval Office, as well as his beloved limousine. Across campus, the Harry Ransom Center houses an extensive collection of manuscripts, films, and rare books by authors such as James Joyce and Norman Mailer. Along with rotating exhibits, keep an eye out for displays such as Edgar Allan Poe’s writing desk and a Gutenberg Bible, one of only 21 complete versions in the world.
For a relaxed ending to a packed weekend, catch a flick at the downtown Violet Crown, a polished movie theater that plays indie films. Book the (almost) lie-flat seats in the front row and order cocktails and gourmet snacks during screenings.
“Searsucker restaurant serves excellent fruit-infused cocktails and small plates—duck-fat fries and tomato jam, spicy shrimp with cheddar and bacon grits—in a relaxed bar area. The best part? Happy hour (4:30 to 6:30, Monday through Friday), when select drinks are $5.” —Keith Waldon, travel advisor, Austin
Capital Cool: Your travel advisor can choreograph a long weekend that includes at least a few of these hot spots.
Allens Boots 1522 S. Congress Avenue; 512/447-1413.
Mockingbird Domestics 2151 S. Lamar Boulevard; 512/677-4004.
Moss 705B S. Lamar Boulevard; 512/916-9961.
Sunroom 2324 S. Lamar Boulevard; 512/326-1499.
Uncommon Objects 1512 S. Congress Avenue; 512/442-4000.
East Side King 2310 S. Lamar Boulevard, Suite 101; 512/383-8382.
Henri’s 2026 S. Lamar Boulevard; 512/442-3373.
Justine’s Brasserie 4710 E. 5th Street; 512/385-2900.
laV 1501 E. 7th Street; 512/293-6048.
Odd Duck 1201 S. Lamar Boulevard; 512/433-6521.
Qui 1600 E. 6th Street; 512/436-9626.
Searsucker 415 Colorado Street; 512/394-8000.
Culture & Nightlife
Circuit of the Americas 9201 Circuit of the Americas Boulevard; 512/301-6600.
The Continental Club 1315 S. Congress Avenue; 512/441-2444.
Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden 709 E. 6th Street; 512/614-4972.
Harry Ransom Center 300 W. 21st Street; 512/471-8944.
LBJ Presidential Library 2313 Red River Street; 512/721-0200.
Midnight Cowboy 313 E. 6th Street; 512/843-2715.
Moody Theater at the W Hotel 310 W. Willie Nelson Boulevard; 512/225-7999.
The Saxon Pub 1320 S. Lamar Boulevard; 512/448-2552.
Violet Crown 434 W. 2nd Street; 512/495-9600
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life magazine, May 2014.
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