In just a little more than a week, Austin will be a madhouse in the best way possible. SXSW will be in full swing, and Waggener Edstrom folks will be in attendance to provide support for a number of clients who have a presence at the event. Hey, we might even have an announcement of our own to share (hint…watch this space)! In the meantime, let’s give you a primer of how you should be spending your time in the city.
Texas has its share of cities with reputations as big as the state, but few compare with Austin’s authenticity and quirkiness. Austin is an anomaly where “keeping it weird” is the standard, and my nearly seven years of living here make me believe (pompous as that may be) that I could have some insider insight into the gems we have to offer. Of course there are the well-known destinations like Stubb’s and Barton Springs, but I’ll do my best to point out a few spots that are off the beaten path and can provide the local flavor that you’re craving during your short, chaotic visit.
Best Hole In The Wall:
Hole In The Wall: A seemingly appropriate choice, this bar has added a very vintage feel to the University of Texas’ west campus area (a short, convenient cab or bus ride from the downtown area) since 1974. The neighborhood is undergoing a bit of a facelift over recent years with new construction — a lot of “out with the old, in with the new,” if you will. Despite its location, it’s hardly a college bar, but rather a collection of locals who appreciate good music via a rotation of local musicians and cheap drinks. It stepped up its game recently, and maybe solidified some relevance and longevity, through a partnership with Bravo Top Chef Season 9 winner Paul Qui. Qui is opening his first brick and mortar version of a popular food truck in the city — East Side King (Thai street food), which was selected as the best food trailer in 2012, according to the Austin Chronicle’s Readers Poll.
Worth Mentioning: Donn’s Depot, located on West 5th St. downtown, was built out of an old train caboose. You’ll see 50-somethings, 40-somethings and 20-somethings all hanging out, listening and two-stepping to live music – country and western. Real Austin.
You can’t really go wrong with a bar named after Johnny Cash lyrics. And while the Mean-Eyed Cat (also on West 5th St.) has seemingly become lost in a sea of modern development, it still seems to emanate Cash’s stubborn character.
Best Spot To Grab A Burger:
Hopdoddy: If you crave a good burger, but nostalgia isn’t your thing, then Hopdoddy is just a quick ride down South Congress and is one of Austin’s rising local favorites in the booming SoCo area. The menu features a great selection of meats (ground daily in-house) ranging from the traditional Angus to lamb, bison, turkey and tuna. There’s also a tasty black bean-corn patty for those wish to minimize their protein intake. And if you’re the kind of person who appreciates a good brew to complement a good burger, then Hopdoddy has you covered with a number of beers on tap that really highlight some local favorites.
Worth Mentioning: The good thing about Hut’s Hamburgers is its convenience to the downtown area, located on 6thStreet just east of Lamar. And if you’re a fan of greasy, occasionally messy diner burgers that throw everything under the sun on top, then this is a recommended stop to get food en route to a more permanent location. Hut’s has been in business in Austin since 1939, and they’ve been at the location on 6th since 1969. With 20 variations on the hamburger on the menu, there’s likely to be something for just about everyone.
Down on the other end of 6th, Casino El Camino is a dark, dingy, hard rock biker bar. But don’t be intimidated; they serve some of the city’s best burgers out of their back kitchen. I highly recommend the Amarillo Burger if you want one with some Texas spice.
Best Comfort Food:
24 Diner: 24 Diner on 6th and Lamar provides an elevated take on the 1950s diner experience with a great menu from Chef Andrew Curren, who was valedictorian of his class at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked alongside top chefs such as Danny Meyer and Jonathan Waxman. The chicken and waffles earn high praise, but the menu is deep with comfort food. They’re proud of their wine list, and they feature a nice rotation of seasonal selections on tap. And yes, it is open 24 hours…you just can’t drink for all 24.
Worth Mentioning: Magnolia Café has been a bit of an afterthought in the Austin Chronicle’s readers “best of” polls in recent years, but Magnolia exemplifies the essence of Austin. There are a couple of locations convenient to SX goers – South Congress, just north of Oltorf and just west of downtown, a short ride down 6th Street to Lake Austin Blvd. Magnolia has built its reputation as a late night destination, and you’ll always encounter an eclectic crowd.
Best Place To Hide:
The Elephant Room: The Elephant Room is a great little underground spot for jazz and drinks right in the heart of downtown in the basement of one of Congress Ave.’s old buildings. The bar has great ambiance and the music is live seven days a week. Duck in if you want to get away from the incessant noise that SX brings, but don’t expect your always-on mobile connectivity to remain. Frankly, that could be good for your health.
Franklin’s: Forger being the best BBQ in Austin, or even Texas. In 2010, Bon Appetit hailed Franklin BBQ as the best in all of America. Get over to the East Side (E. 11th Street) hours early, or you’re just not gettin’ any grub. Franklin’s only serves up a limited amount of prime brisket, ribs, sausage, etc. every day (save Monday), and locals are all over it even without SX going on. The best way to go about waiting out the line is to find some lawn chairs, bring mimosas or bloody mary’s and camp out first thing in the morning.
Worth Mentioning: While Franklin’s gets the hype, the La Barbecue trailer on South 1st is a sentimental favorite. Formerly called J. Mueller’s BBQ, the sister recently bought out the gruff former Franklin apprentice/competitor and the quality has not suffered. Where else in the country will you be handed a free Lone Star Beer while you wait in line?
Polvo’s: This is often a controversial choice when you’re arguing about the “best” spot with Austinites, but I almost always head to Polvo’s, down on South 1st. It’s a bit of a drive, but their authentic salsa bar, crammed seating layout and strong margaritas gives you the feeling that you’re really across the border. I’ll leave it at that.
Worth Mentioning: If you want to head to the hipster East Side, check out Takoba on East 7th. Their modern take on Mexican is fresh and thoughtful, and not nearly as expensive as the much-acclaimed La Condesa.