A city that's as weird and laid-back as it is authentic
While Austin is booming and topping national lists as a number one place to work and play, the city's laidback vibe remains—even with its population growing to nearly two million hard-working people. After all, it is a city where flip-flops are considered business casual and a decent pair of boots always pass as formal attire. It's a mecca for musicians, software engineers, artists, environmentalists and creative entrepreneurs. Home-grown businesses like Dell and WholeFoods have driven the enterprising spirit in the Texas capital, and each year the SXSW music festival reinforces Austin's bragging rights as a world capital of live music. While the University of Texas football team stirs the passions of loyal fans and alumni who faithfully return during football season, Austin is not a tourist town. The city lacks a single main attraction that most larger cities offer, and instead offers uniquely appealing surprises in every neighborhood. The "Keep Austin Weird" mantra is a successful campaign to promote local businesses, and demonstrates a commitment to support authenticity. With this ethos comes the freedom to create, the freedom to prosper and the freedom to wear whatever you please. It's a city to truly be yourself and explore in any way you like.
Known by locals more for the outdoor amphitheater in the back than for the BBQ served in front, Stubb's is the largest music venue in the Red River Street District. While the traditional table service BBQ lunches and dinners are impressive, the big draw here is usually the popular bands that come through town to perform on a hillside stage behind the restaurant. This well-oiled machine consistently delivers great sound and because an ordinance prevents bands from playing outdoors too late, these shows begin and end on the earlier side. With no seating in the amphitheater, wearing comfortable footwear and having an easygoing attitude go a long way. Stubb's is both a reliable hub for touring acts and a springboard for up-and-comers, so its smaller indoor stage shows can go well into the night. Within a block, noteworthy music venues like Mohawk and Club DeVille book impressive lineups for discriminating fans, making it hard to throw a stone in the Red River Street District without hitting a good show—or a musician. Sunday mornings at Stubb's are sacred, so regardless of what happened on Saturday night, come back for Gospel Brunch. With a rotating cast of spirited traditional gospel and family bands, reservations fill up quickly for the 11AM or 1PM show. Book early and bring your appetite. Whether you're into the gospel music or not, the buffet will surely impress: Brisket, enchiladas, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, eggs and plenty of Stubb's famous BBQ sauce to top it all off.
When Deeyn Rhodes and Lonzo Jackson moved back to their home state of Texas, they brought a love of colorful, clean lines with tastefully modern treasures from all over the world. With a passion for great design and a keen eye for detail, many of the goods they carry aren't sold anywhere else in the US. The atmosphere of Nannie Inez is a bright and cheerful, and the small store is chock full of hard-to-find international home goods on display alongside works from favorite local designers like Alyson Fox. You're sure to leave with something fresh and colorful to spruce up your home. While you're in the area, have a cup of coffee at Fair Bean, thumb through the stacks of records at End of an Ear, or pop into one of the many great vintage stores on South First Street.
Austin is a town that's growing up, but a good haircut and great pair of jeans is still all you need to succeed. Enter Traveller Denim Co.—the city's only purveyor of custom jeans in handmade, bespoke raw denim. Selenia Rios and Erik Untersee are on a mission to outfit Austin men and women with apparel that's as stylish as it is durable. Their cozy shop is tucked away deep in East Austin and designed for warmth and quality time for each customer. With backgrounds in film, wardrobe-fitting and carpentry, the owners deeply value quality workmanship and hope to expand in the near future to offer custom-fit jackets and shirts. Starting with top-notch selvage denim made on shuttle looms, they use vintage sewing machines to carefully stitch handmade works of art. Old-world construction methods prevail and they make each pair based on 20 measurements taken at the store. Ready-made jeans starting at $250 are also an option through the online store, but good things come to those who wait; your custom made-to-measure jeans (starting at $350) arrive within five to six weeks. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 11AM to 7PM but keep in mind that Sundays and Mondays are by appointment only.
The fine dining scene in Austin is relatively young, but the old guard and heart of it still reside at Jeffrey's. Located in the quaint downtown neighborhood of Clarksville, this house-turned-restaurant consistently comes up as the locals' favorite spot for a special occasion dinner. Partners Ron & Peggy Weiss and Jeff Weinberger opened Jeffrey's in 1975 to bring elegant dining to the neighborhood, and the restaurant has since garnered international praise. The warm atmosphere and outstanding service attract a loyal clientele, and a recent renovation ensures its standing as the city's first choice for a celebratory steak and lobster. Politicos and well-heeled locals flock for dinner, and young chef Larry McGuire delivers—combining hearty regional tastes with locally-sourced seasonal ingredients and dry-aged steaks from three Texas ranches. The full-service bar menu offers similar attention to detail and an impressive sampling of smaller bites. In addition to flawless table service, Jeffrey's offers complimentary car service to and from the restaurant, within the downtown area.
The history of Texas and its namesake university are boldly on display at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center on the University of Texas (UT) campus. Whether you attended UT or not, it's easy to appreciate the powerfully appointed setting and spirit of what locals call “The University” that commands the respect of students and visitors alike. With its soaring mid-century rotunda, art deco accents and many nods to tradition, the complex honors the accomplishments and generosity of the school's distinguished alumni. Be sure to walk through the building to the Mr. and Mrs. James R (Jim Bob) Moffett Library, which holds noteworthy works on the Texas frontier and the university's history. On a recent visit during lunch, a student was cheerfully playing a baby grand piano while coffee drinkers clustered at nearby tables and club chairs. It is a memorable place to rest and rehydrate while exploring the Harry Ransom Center, the Lyndon Baines Jonson Library and Museum, and shopping at the official UT Athletic Store. The center is open to the public Monday to Friday from 9AM to 5PM and on non-home-game weekends.
Historic East Austin has undergone dramatic changes in the past 10 years, with new and exciting restaurants and bars popping up on nearly every corner. At Rosewood and East 11th Street, cafe-style Hillside Farmacy serves up New American brunch and dinner, with oysters available all day. If you're not up for standing in line for hours to have BBQ at nearby Franklin's, this less meat-heavy cafe is a lovely choice. Outdoor dining in Austin is nearly a year-round preference, and the friendly awnings of Hillside provide a nicely-shaded front patio for casual meals. Go on a Monday for half-price oysters and $5 cava all day. Menu highlights includes a fried egg breakfast sandwich, freshly-baked pastries, baked oysters and steak frites. The restaurant attracts a wide range of customers from all over the city and has become a friendly place to connect on the East Side. The surrounding area is home to the beautifully-maintained Texas State Cemetery and historic French Legation, the 1840 home of France's representative to the Republic of Texas. Rich in history and quickly gentrifying, Austin's East Side is keeping pace with new favorites like East Side Pies, Quickie Pickie and Franklin BBQ to nicely complement the old standards like Long Branch Inn and the historic Victory Grill.
South of Austin in Driftwood, you'll find some of the most beloved BBQ in the Texas Hill Country. With BBQ pits built in 1967 and techniques based on a century of family tradition, the original Salt Lick experience continues to be a favorite among locals and visitors alike. The Roberts family has steadily grown the business, and continues to serve up a crowd-pleasing menu to BBQ lovers from all over. Recently expanded—but still just as rustic—the restaurant is set on a shady stretch of hill country and, on a hot summer day, they might be serving freshly-squeezed lemonade, and local singer/songwriters often perform in the shaded courtyard. Family-style plates include brisket, sausage and ribs, along with German potato salad, sesame coleslaw, southern beans, white bread and of course plenty of extra sauce. The friendly staff will even let you order your brisket lean, marbled or with burnt ends—often a rare treat for BBQ enthusiasts. Lighter options like turkey, chicken and combo plates are available, but it's usually worth going all in.
In Austin, music and BBQ can be more divisive than politics or religion. When tensions run high, head for Lockhart for generous portions of meat to satisfy any palate. With a population of 11,000, this small town just East of Austin is touted as the BBQ capital of Texas. A trip to Lockhart is truly one for food lovers in search of the ultimate taste sensations; the town is home to three of the best BBQ restaurants in the country. Smitty's, Kreutz Market and Black's each have their own loyal followings, but their respective distinctions come down to what individuals most love about BBQ—and a need for sauce or utensils, for that matter. While beef brisket is the flagship dish of a good Texas BBQ plate, the sausage, ribs, chicken, turkey and sides play equally important roles. If you make the pilgrimage to Lockhart, you'll be able to properly discuss your own Texas BBQ preferences, so pace yourself and try all three if you can. To get there, take highway 183 South, preferably in the springtime when wildflowers blanket the roads. In this small town, Sunday is still observed as a day of rest—so keep in mind both Kruetz Market and Smitty's are closed—and enjoy a day of relaxing wandering.