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HIP AND FUNKY AUSTIN
 
(2016 - Fall Issue)

Writer: LAURIE BRYANT DAGHIGH



Several years ago my sister moved to Austin, Texas, and immediately began telling me how great it was. 

She raved about the weather: long hot summers fading into warm fall days. I heard about the amazing range of outdoor activities available right in the middle of town: dragon boat racing, kayaking in sight of the State Capitol and more than 300 kilometres of cycling paths. She went on and on about the food and the very happening live music scene. I was hooked.

Austin has plenty of memorable places to stay, both upscale (the beautiful Driskill Hotel, a cattle baron’s 1886 bid at immortality) and “funky” (The Austin Motel, beloved for its landmark red neon sign and its retro Route 66 ambiance). I had my heart set on staying in the South Congress Avenue (SoCo) area, within walking distance of several legendary bars and stages. I found an elegantly restored and well-appointed 1920s bungalow right in the heart of SoCo, complete with a backyard hammock, local maps and recommendations.

A VIBRANT MUSIC SCENE

Austin’s live music reputation is legitimate. At the airport (the airport!), six permanent stages in the terminal feature local bands every afternoon. My sister picked me up curbside and we headed to Threadgill’s, an establishment that started out as a filling station in 1933 and evolved into the quintessential beer joint that flourished well into the ’60s. Saved from the wrecking ball in 1980, it reopened on New Year’s Eve 1981 and has since become legendary for its Southern cooking—chicken-fried steak, fried okra and collard greens.

Then, it was time to explore that legendary Texas music scene. Self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, Austin boasts 900 local bands and more than 250 music venues (not counting the airport). The sizeable Thursday-night crowd at the Continental Club demonstrated local enthusiasm for live performances. A gritty dive bar and premier music venue in SoCo, the Continental has been presenting music from country blues to rock and indie pop since 1957. The vibe is quintessential “old” Austin: small venue, hot music and cold beer.

That night we lucked out with a performance by the Whiskey Sisters (I like Rob Bleetstein’s description of the duo: “a double shot of Austin-based roots rock drenched in gutsy blues”). As the Sisters rocked it we paused beside the stage, knocking back a Lone Star and marvelling at the diversity of the audience, which ranged from college kids and hipsters to aging hippies and cowboys adorned with shiny belt buckles. A timeworn pool table dominated the back room, where old licence plates nailed to the walls vied for space with vintage concert posters and tin ads for motor oil.

A WHEELING FOOD TOUR

Food trucks are “in” throughout the United States, and Austin is ground zero for the food-truck craze. More than 2,000 trucks offer up a dizzying variety of food, serving lowbrow to highbrow and everything in between, with catchy names such as PsychoDelhi (Indian food) or Hey! You Gonna Eat or What? (Monte Cristo sandwiches). It was time to sample an array of Southern-influenced fare.

I located the meeting point for the Austin Foodie Tour at a shop called Rocket Electrics, and soon found my (usually sedentary) self pedalling off in a cluster of shiny Pedego electric bikes. Maintaining a feeble last place, I appreciated the battery boost that allowed me to keep up with the others.

Our moveable feast commenced at the Blue Ox with smoky barbecued tri tip and pork accompanied by a choice of barbecue sauces: sweet-sharp vinegar and tangy mustard. This carnivorous indulgence was followed by Asian fusion at the East Side King truck. The toothsome home-fried beets came in small cubes, a contrast to the crunchy and spicy-sweet Brussels sprout salad. We wobbled on to sample Detroit-style pizzas from Via 313, a food truck cleverly parked behind a beer emporium. This arrangement invited food-and-ale pairings from the 54 regional offerings Craft Pride has on tap.

The evening concluded with fancy coffees and shared desserts at the casually elegant Bonneville, featuring the elaborately named “coconut cardamom panna cotta with house-made peach pickles.” After such a gastronomic marathon, the road back to Rocket Electrics seemed longer than it should have...and I appreciated that battery the whole way.

KEEPING IT WEIRD

On the last day, we browsed the shops along South Congress Avenue. A wander through Uncommon Objects (“like your eccentric uncle’s attic on steroids”) uncovered a treasure trove of trophy-mounted heads, handmade and vintage jewellery, archaic medical instruments and other nostalgic oddities. Other finds included Allens Boots, long-time purveyors of western gear, and Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, a costume shop of mind-boggling proportion. The city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird” and SoCo does its best to uphold that mandate.

Austin celebrates its uniqueness. Though proudly Southern, it is a Liberal-minded enigma, a blue island in a conservative Republican sea. I visited in (usually) mild November, but if you like music, food or festivals, the city’s year-round schedule of celebrated events makes any time a great time to go to Austin.

Travel Planner

Air Canada (aircanada.com) offers direct flights to Austin from Toronto.

The Austin Visitor Center (austintexas.org) offers information on the music scene.

For more information, visit:

Austin Foodie Tours/Rocket Electrics: rocketelectrics.com

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds: lucyindisguise.com

The Continental Club: continentalclub.com/Austin.html

Threadgill’s: threadgills.com

Uncommon Objects: uncommonobjects.com

 
 
 
 
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