AUSTIN, Texas—The University of Texas is a perennial power in the annual listing of the nation’s top party schools, and seemingly every one of the 50,000 students was roaming the sidewalks and bars of the Sixth Street entertainment strip on this fall weeknight.
There were coeds in high heels, frat boys in cargo shorts and sandals, and couples with matching chopped orange hair and tattoos doing their best to “Keep Austin Weird.” But if you want to sample the real flavor of the Lone Star State’s funkiest city, here, based on four days and nights of exhaustive research, are my Top 10 picks of the honky-tonks, restaurants, museums and other distinctly Southwestern attractions that you won’t want to miss.
1. Mexican free-tailed bats
When the Congress Avenue Bridge over Lady Bird Lake near downtown was renovated in 1980, Mexican free-tailed bats found a cavelike home in an inch-wide, 950-foot expansion joint on the bottom. After the colony grew to about 1.5 million, the city panicked and called for the exterminators.
Cooler heads prevailed. What once was seen as a threat is now a city symbol and tourist attraction. There’s a bat sculpture as public art, and the local hockey team is the Austin Ice Bats. From March through October, when the bats are visiting, folks gather on the bridge and below it to watch the stream of hungry bats exiting at sunset.
I’m not sure how they counted, but the bats are said to eat up to 30,000 pounds of bugs each night.
2. Allens boots
South Congress Avenue has rebounded from its seedy period, and Allens Boots, circa 1977, is one of the institutions that has survived. Sales associate Rogelio Adame showed me boots made of alligator, crocodile, ostrich, African antelope, goat and calf, with prices starting at a couple of hundred and topping out at $6,000 a pair.
There were boots with skulls and boots with real cobra heads on the toes. The favorite of UT fans featured a longhorn on the front. Recent celebrity customers included Paulie of “The Sopranos” and Arnold of California. So what was Adame wearing?
“These are crocodile, and they’re 25 years old,” he said. “They were my dad’s. He gave me them a while back. They’ve been resoled twice.”
3. Broken Spoke
Beer cost a quarter when the Broken Spoke opened in 1964. The sign out front says, “Through this door pass the best country dancers in the world.” A small museum inside has cowboy hats that belonged to LBJ, Willie Nelson and George Strait. A plaque inducting Bob Wills into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame is on the wall.
Nearby is a UPI news story from 1988 that says the movie “Urban Cowboy” had inspired a short-lived rise in Texas dance halls. “Cowboy Bar Fad Dies Out” was the headline.
Don’t tell that to Jesse Dayton and his band, who were belting out the classic “(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone” (Charlie Pride, Doug Sahm), while a mass of dancers moved, counterclockwise, around the floor. Grab a cold longneck Shiner Bock is the local beer of choice and a partner and join in, even if your Texas two-step is a bit rusty.
Texas two-steppers whirl and twirl at the Broken Spoke, Austin’s venerable dance hall. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
4. The Continental Club
The Continental Club also is a South Congress survivor and the granddaddy of Austin’s wealth of live music venues, serving up legends since 1957. The Continental opened as a private supper club with acts such as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.
In the `60s, Candy Barr and Bubbles Cash were the stars as the club offered Austin’s first burlesque shows.
In the `70s, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman played there. On this sultry night, a “Kinky for Governor, Why the Hell Not” bumper sticker was still on the wall, and Dale Watson, billed as the heir to the throne, was on stage. With long sideburns, a blond pompadour and thick dark eyebrows, Watson looked like a rockabilly version of James Dean.
5. Austin Motel and Driskill Hotel
You’ll need a place to stay, and the Austin Motel and Driskill Hotel are the yin and yang of lodging in this city.
The Austin Motel is down the street from The Continental Club and has been in business since 1938. Not a lot has changed. As the vintage neon sign says: “So Close, Yet So Far Out.” Rooms start at $62 and go to $137 for the two suites. My single had an Egyptian theme with pyramids and hieroglyphics on the sofa and wall hangings, a black-and-white tiled bathroom and a clunky window air conditioner.
On the flipside, the Driskill was founded in 1886 by cattle baron Jesse Driskill and quickly became the city’s social and political center. With marble floors, stained glass domes, cast-iron columns and Western decor, the luxurious hotel still attracts Austin’s finest. If you’re lucky, you might even run into one of the hotel’s ghosts. A package for two starts at $225 a night and includes breakfast. Beware, a couple can easily spend that on dinner in the hotel’s five-star restaurant.
6. Waterloo Records
Waterloo Records on Lamar Boulevard has CDs by every imaginable artist in alphabetical order, from ABBA to ZZ Top. Yes, it was Nirvana for a music lover. What a Rush! I was in Dire Straits for cash, but It’s A Beautiful Day when you pull out the credit card.
The place was full of Austin’s weirdest. Guess Who I saw? There were 10,000 Maniacs, a White Zombie with Nine Inch Nails, a Queen and plenty of Stooges. Two girls were so tall, They Might Be Giants. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I felt a bit Old & in the Way, kind of Asleep at the Wheel. One of the girls asked me, “UB40?” Actually, she was a Gentle Giant.
I found what I was looking for, a vintage album by Doug Sahm, the Cowboy Mouth of the Southwest, the Cream of the crop. I paid the cashier and headed out the Doors for some fresh Air, away from the Animals. I had been in Bad Company, but I found the whole experience interesting. U2?
7. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Lady Bird Johnson had a vision. The nation’s vast federal highway system would be used to showcase America the Beautiful. Unfortunately, greed got in the way, and many states allowed billboards to blot out the scenery.
Another of the former first lady’s projects, however, was in its glory during my visit. Actually, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a tad more spectacular when the bluebonnets are blooming in spring. Still, there was plenty of color on a walkthrough with Damon Waitt, the senior botanist, who explained that the center’s goal is to educate people about the value of native plants by displaying them in several settings.
“We only grow what was here originally,” he said. “But we have a big palette to chose from with more than 2,400 species in the region, and about 700 featured prominently in our gardens.”
If you want to see how Texas Hill Country looks at its best, hike one of the short trails that wind through the 279 acres.
Senior botanist Damon Waitt looks over the native plants at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
8. Texas State History Museum
The Texas State Capitol was impressive, with a cavernous rotunda displaying 51 portraits of former governors, including George W. Bush and James Stephen Hogg, who named his daughter Ima.
But the best show was up the street at the Texas State History Museum, which has a 15-minute video called “The Texas Spirit.” As we went in, spokesman Robert Hicks warned that “nothing in Texas is subtle.”
The video started at the Alamo with cannons booming and smoke flowing from behind one of the three screens. When it told of the hurricane that struck Galveston, a misty rain fell in the darkened auditorium. When a plague of grasshoppers flew across the screen, a whiff of air made it seem one had just grazed my neck. And when a rattlesnake coiled to strike ... well, hang on to your cowboy hat. I guarantee you’ll jump in your seat.
9. Ranch 616
Guero’s Taco Bar has great Tex-Mex, including the “El Presidente” platter named for Bill Clinton, who ate the whole thing. The Magnolia Cafe serves killer eggs Benedict. And the first Whole Foods Market is in Austin, so you need to stop by for a healthy lunch.
But my premier dining experience was at Ranch 616 on Nueces Street, which had a giant rattler with neon fangs on the outside wall and Lucas Hudgins and the First Cousins playing inside. I ordered the camerones rellenos, which had applewood-smoked bacon wrapped around shrimp stuffed with cilantro and cheese, and the crispy oysters, which have been named the South’s best oysters by Southern Living magazine.
Because both were technically appetizers, I had room for a dessert of caramel pecan flan with chocolate and caramel sauce, topped with pecans and big, fat dollops of whipped cream. Oh, my.
The start of a perfect evening begins with a 30-minute drive from downtown Austin to the Oasis, which proclaims itself the “Sunset Capital of Texas.” The Oasis is a restaurant that has risen from the ashes of a fire started by lightning in June 2005.
The decks that cascade down a bluff overlooking Lake Travis have been rebuilt, and the place is once again serving terrific views with its margaritas and chicken fireballs appetizer. There are more than 40 decks, but you might get there an hour or so before sunset to get a good seat.
Some tour buses with lousy timing were pulling in as I headed out in the dark for some baby backs at Artz Rib House. There, I was soon up to my elbows in barbecue sauce and tapping a toe to Michael Ballew on acoustic guitar.
A walk under a 35-foot-tall bronze star leads into the Texas State History Museum. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
IF YOU GO:
WHERE TO STAY:
Austin Motel 1-512-441-1157, www.austinmotel.com
Driskill Hotel 1-512-474-5911, www.driskillhotel.com
The Hotel San Jose (1-512-444-7322, www.sanjosehotel.com) is across from The Continental Club on South Congress Avenue and offers sleek, minimalist rooms in a quiet, landscaped setting. Rates start at $90 and go to $370 for a courtyard suite on the weekend.
MUSIC, SHOPPING, FOOD, ETC.:
Music festivals: The city bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Austin City Limits shows are taped at KLRU studios on the University of Texas campus. The hotline is 1-512-475-9077. Austin City Limits Music Festival (www.aclfest.org) has some 130 bands on three days each September. In mid-March, thousands of musicians and fans converge on the city for the South by Southwest Music, Film & Alternative festival (www.sxsw.com).
Waterloo Records: 1-474-2500 and www.waterloorecords.com
Allens Boots: 1-512-447-1413 and www.allensboots.com.
Broken Spoke: 1-512-442-6189 and www.brokenspokeaustintx.com
Continental Club: 1-512-441-2444 and www.continentalclub.com/austin.html
Oasis: 1-512-266-2542 and www.oasis-austin.com.
Ranch 616: 1-512-479-7616 and http://ranch616.ypguides.net
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: 1-512-232-0100 and www.wildflower.org
Texas State History Museum: 1-866-369-7108 and www.thestoryoftexas.com
For more information: The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau is at 1- 800-926-2282 and www.austintexas.org
AND THE BATS:
For everything you need to know about the city’s bats, visit www.batcon.org.