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Austin: A Liberal City In A Conservative State

Jun 1, 2004
2004 / June-July 2004

For a friendly city, Austin, Texas sure likes to argue.

As longtime residents, we’ve experienced it firsthand. Business travelers see it in the traffic, the result of years of debate over everything from new highways (still in the plans) to light rail (often on the ballot but never in the plans).

Austin is a community pulled in two directions: toward and away from development. High-tech and other businesses are thriving, creating a boomtown economy that’s spilled beyond the city boundaries and encompassed the surrounding rolling hills, an environmentally sensitive area. Developers go head-to-head with environmentalists on a near daily basis.

But the economy-versus-environment debate is just one in a city that’s a Texas dichotomy. This is a liberal city in a conservative state-the stomping ground of both the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and President George W. Bush. It’s a world where holdovers from the ‘60s wage a well-publicized “Keep Austin Weird” campaign while high-tech firms lead the city into the future at the speed of light. This synergy creates a climate that at times is as heated as the city’s summer weather.

Maybe it’s the college student population, which tops 50,000. Maybe it’s the live music industry, which has made this city a haven for fans and performers alike. Or maybe it’s just geography: The city is situated on a downtown lake and perched at the edge of a hill-country windsurfing to sunbathing.

Whatever the reason, there’s one thing for certain: Austin is a town that doesn’t want to grow up. Like a perpetual teenager, the capital city is brash, sassy and sometimes downright silly.

Living here for the past two decades, we’ve found that our fellow Austinites use any excuse to toss off the ties and three-piece suits. Residents don elaborate costumes for an annual party in downtown’s Pease Park to celebrate, believe it or not, the birthday of Eeyore, the storybook pal of Winnie the Pooh. But those costumes are just a dress rehearsal for the Halloween party that’s considered one of the nation’s largest-some years drawing as many as 70,000 merrymakers.

To experience the city, you have to get here first. After more than a decade of debate about its construction, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) offers visitors their first glimpse of Austin. Located east of the city, the airport is on the site of a former Air Force base. Debate still rages about what to do with the old downtown airport. In true Austin style, the facility is now being used as a soundstage for moviemaking-one of the city’s top industries.

Like many Austinites, we miss the convenience of the old airport, but there’s no denying that today’s facility has true Austin style. The works of local artists fill the facility, from ceramic tiles in the restrooms to sculptures in the baggage area. No Muzak here: Texas tunes put a little perk in passengers’ steps as they move through the terminal. “Austin City Limits,” the longtime syndicated television show that helped put Austin’s music scene on the map, sells souvenirs in a gateside gift shop. Even the airport food feels right at home-limited to Austin-based restaurants that serve up everything from barbecue to breakfast tacos.

Flying into Austin, it’s easy to spot the distinctive skyline of the city: the state Capitol (built to Texas-sized proportions and 15 feet taller than its national counterpart); the soaring University of Texas tower; and Town Lake, a wide swath of the Colorado River that slices through the city.

We’ve been drawn to that greenbelt around Town Lake many an evening, joining residents and visitors alike who take to the waterside hike-and-bike trails. During warm-weather months, these shores also provide one of the city’s best evening activities: bat watching. The lake’s Congress Avenue Bridge is home to the nation’s largest urban colony of bats, and the lakeshore fills with onlookers every evening from March through October. More than 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their nightly exodus at sunset to feed on the insects of Central Texas. Several of the city’s top business hotels, including the Four Seasons, the Radisson Hotel and Suites Austin, and the Hyatt Regency Austin take advantage of their position overlooking Town Lake to offer guests and groups the chance to watch the action.

The nightly bat activity is also a draw for conventioneers at the newly enlarged Austin Convention Center. A $110 million expansion doubled the size of the facility; today the nearly 900,000-square-foot center contains Texas’ largest ballroom and, as might be expected in the city that spawned Dell Computer Corp. and is now host to a growing number of other tech firms, has all the bells and whistles needed for the most tech-savvy meeting, from satellite downlink to webcasting from the show floor.

All that technology keeps the meetings running smoothly but it’s what lies outside the convention center doors that may account for the center’s excellent repeat booking rate. Just steps away lies Sixth Street, the heart of the music district that has earned Austin the title “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Along Sixth Street, an east-west thoroughfare tucked between the Texas Capitol and Town Lake, the emphasis is on the fun and the funky.

Tomorrow’s another workday but, for this evening, we’re hitting the clubs. Nightclubs and restaurants tempt the steady pedestrian stream with music ranging from blues to country to alternative. The sounds spill out from Sixth Street to clubs on surrounding streets, encompassing the lower downtown region and the city’s top business hotels.

Walking along the bustling Sixth Street, it’s easy to understand what Willie Nelson once said about this city: “There’s a freedom you begin to feel the closer you get to Austin… it’s a great place to live.”

On that subject, there’s no debate.

Want to Go?

Austin is served by the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS), located seven miles southeast of the city. Unlike the hub cities of Dallas and Houston, Austin has fairly limited air service, although America West, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, United, US Airways and others do fly here. Via I-35, the city is almost a four-hour drive south of Dallas or a 90-minute drive north of San Antonio.

Several rental car companies are headquartered at Bergstrom. Although traffic and construction problems can snarl the city, driving is the top option for most residents and visitors. The city is laid out on a fairly standard grid, divided north to south by I-35, the city’s sole interstate highway. Several elevated expressways feed from suburban areas into downtown, including the north-south MoPac Expressway (also known as Loop 1 or simply Mo-Pac) and U.S. 183 (known on the north of the city as Research Boulevard and on the south as Ed Bluestein Boulevard). Congress Avenue is the dividing line for addresses east and west; the river (Town Lake) is the dividing line for addresses north and south.

Austin’s Capital Metro (tel 512 389 7400, www.capmetro. austin.tx.us) is the city’s public transit system. Capital Metro offers citywide service and an airport shuttle route.

Many Austin hotels offer complimentary shuttle service for their guests; for other travelers, services such as Super Shuttle (tel 512 258 3826 or 800 258 3826, fax 512 929 5688, www.supershuttle.com) provide door-to-door airport transportation.

For more information, visit the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Web site, www.austintexas.org, or call 866 GO AUSTIN or 800 926 2282. For information on doing business in Austin, visit the city’s Web site at www.ci.austin.tx.us.

Where to Stay

Four Seasons Hotel Austin

Guests at the Four Seasons, tucked between the Convention Center and Town Lake, can pamper themselves at the on-site spa, work out at the fitness center, take a dip in the outdoor heated pool, or just relax in one of the well-appointed guestrooms.
Four Seasons Hotel Austin, 98 San Jacinto Blvd.
Austin, TX 78701, tel 512 478 4500, fax 512 478 3117

InterContinental Stephen F. Austin

First opened in 1924 and reopened in 2000, this downtown hotel is still among the most popular accommodations for business travelers. The 189 rooms and suites of this high-rise hotel are equipped with the standard amenities, as well as marble baths and Ethernet connections. Within walking distance, guests can view the Texas Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion and the Sixth Street entertainment district.
InterContinental Stephen F. Austin, 701 Congress Ave.
Austin, TX 78701, tel 512 457 0800, fax 512 457 8896

The Driskill

Built by a cattle baron in 1886, this downtown hotel maintains its historic theme. Rooms feature 1880s décor but with modern amenities: three telephones, T1 computer lines, a minibar and plush terry robes.
The Driskill, 604 Brazos St., Austin, TX 78701
tel 800 252 9367, 512 474 5911, fax 512 474 2214

Hilton Austin

Opened in January, Austin’s newest business hotel lies next door to the convention center. The 800-room property boasts a 16,000-square-foot fitness complex that features an open-air lap pool, whirlpool, sauna, steam room, cardio and circuit training equipment.
Hilton Austin, 500 E. Fourth St., Austin, TX 78701
tel 512 482 8000, fax 512 469 0078, www.hilton.com

Hilton Austin Airport

Located near the Palmer Event Center on the south side of Town Lake, this high-rise hotel offers excellent views of downtown Austin and the lake. When it’s time to kick back, head for the outdoor pool and whirlpool overlooking Austin’s skyline, the full health club or the bicycle and jogging paths.
Hyatt Regency Austin, 208 Barton Springs
Austin, TX 78704, tel 512 477 1234
fax 512 480 2069

Hotel San José

Looking for something that reflects Austin’s funky style? Situated on Austin’s growing hot spot, South Congress Avenue, this boutique hotel calms with minimalist style. Don’t look for high-tech gadgetry here; this kitschy hotel offers bicycle rental, a rental library of music and movies, and a Remington Rand typewriter and old-fashioned Polaroid camera that can be checked out at the front desk.
Hotel San José, 1316 S. Congress Ave.,
Austin, TX 78704, tel 512 444 7322
fax 512 444 7362

Where to Dine

Oasis Restaurant.

Bring your sunglasses and camera, this lakeside restaurant is called “the sunset capital of Texas.” Located high on a bluff overlooking Austin’s Lake Travis, the Oasis serves Tex-Mex favorites and Texas fare, ranging from $6 to $14 per entree.
Oasis Restaurant
6550 Comanche Trail, Austin, TX 78732
tel 512 266 9242


This Austin institution serves tried-and-true chicken-fried steak and cream gravy on homemade biscuits. Janis Joplin used to sing here, perhaps lured by great vegetables and fresh home-cooking. Entrees such as Southern-fried Gulf shrimp, chicken-fried steak, or liver and onions run $8 to $16.
Threadgill’s, 6416 N. Lamar Blvd.,
Austin, TX 78752, tel 512 451 5440
fax 512 451 3256, www.threadgills.com

Texas Chili Parlor

The state dish of Texas takes center stage at this restaurant within walking distance of the Capitol. Saunter up to a bowl of red- and make that fiery “XXX” chili if you’re feeling especially brave. Other dishes include Tex-Mex favorites and burgers. Entrees range from $5 to $7.
Texas Chili Parlor, 1409 Lavaca St.,
Austin, TX 78701, tel 512 472 2828

Jeffrey’s Restaurant and Bar

For adventurous cuisine, this fine dining establishment in the historic Clarksville neighborhood takes high honors, indeed. For starters, try shredded goose on a small blue-corn taco sauced with fresh mango puree. Entrees range from $18 to $36.
Jeffrey’s Restaurant and Bar
1204 W. Lynn St., Austin, TX 78703, tel 512 477 5584
fax 512 474 7279, www.jeffreysofaustin.com

El Arroyo Restaurant
Named for the dry creekbed that carves through the lot, El Arroyo serves up popular Tex-Mex dishes and killer margaritas and Mexican brews. You can dine indoors or outside at this eatery that’s a favorite with many longtime Austinites. Entrees range from $6 to $10.
El Arroyo Restaurant, 1624 W. Fifth St., Austin, TX 78703
tel 512 474 1222, fax 512 474 9769, www.ditch.com

Getting Out

Nicknamed “The Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin showcases an eclectic scene powered by talent ranging from garage-band start-ups to internationally known names. The city’s clubs have spawned Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Kelli Willis, Pat Green and Robert Earl Keen. On any Friday, a mix of melodies fills the city, starting with the historic Sixth Street entertainment district. Energize for a night of music at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q (801 Red River, tel 512 480 0203, www.ilovestubbs.com), known for barbecue and blues. Stroll south to Sixth Street, a music lover’s dream. Clubs like Maggie Mae’s (323 E. Sixth St., tel 512 478 8541, www.maggie maesaustin.com) offer rock while the 311 Club (311 E. Sixth St., 512 477 1630) is known for its blues. Guests move to a salsa beat at Miguel’s La Bodega (415 Colorado, tel 512 472 2369).

Just blocks away, the Warehouse District was once filled with dilapidated storage facilities. Today, from its heart at Fourth and Colorado streets, this area offers everything from cappuccino to cigars to cabernet plus cool clubs. To reach the Warehouse District, hop on a Dillo, one of the trolleys that cart club hoppers until 3 a.m. on weekends. Dominating the district is Antone’s (213 W. Fifth St., tel 512 320 8424, www.antones.com), “Austin’s Home of the Blues” thanks to appearances by legends such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Moving west, blues, rock and country are showcased at the Austin Music Hall (208 Nueces, tel 512 495 9962, www.austinmusichall.com).

What to Buy

Many Austin shops reflect the relaxed lifestyle of the city. Downtown, several shopping districts are filled with funky boutiques, used clothing stores and unique gift emporiums. For a true Austin shopping experience, consider an afternoon on The Drag, the stretch of Guadalupe Street that runs adjacent to the University of Texas campus. This strip is peppered with shops aimed at the college student, from bookstores to cool clothing outlets. The open-air Renaissance Market at 23rd and Guadalupe streets is filled with the work of Austin artisans who sell handmade jewelry, woodcrafts, tie-dyed shirts, glasswork, toys, pottery and more one-of-a-kind items. This market claims to be Texas’s only continuously operated open-air arts and crafts market.

Another Austin shopping experience is found along South Congress Avenue, just south of Town Lake. Here eclectic shops selling everything from antiques to cowboy boots draw locals and visitors alike.

Modern malls, primarily Highland Mall to the north, the Arboretum in the northeast, and Barton Creek Mall in the south, offer high-end and mass-market shopping for national brands and designer labels on the suburban fringes of the city. For outlet shopping, many travel the half-hour south on I-35 to the city of San Marcos, home of the state’s largest outlet shopping area with two megamalls: Prime Outlets and Tanger Outlet Center.

What to See

o Texas Capitol, 14th Street and Congress Avenue, tel 512 463 5495, www.tspb.state.tx.us. Guided tours take visitors through the tallest capitol building in the nation.

o Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 N. Congress Ave., tel 866 369 7108, www.TheStoryofTexas.com. Three stories of exhibits explore the region from its earliest history through Houston’s days as a leader of space exploration.

o Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, 2313 Red River, tel 512 721 0200,www.lbjlib.utexas.edu. Located on the campus of the University of Texas, this is the largest presidential library in the country and includes a reproduction of the White House Oval Office.

o Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 LaCrosse Ave., tel 512 292 4100, www.wildflower.org. Located on the south side of the city, these expansive gardens showcase only wildflowers.

o Zilker Park, 2100 Barton Springs Road, tel 512 974 2000, www.ci.austin.tx.us/zilker/. Austin’s largest park is home to Barton Springs swimming hole, Texas’ fourth-largest spring, as well as a sculpture garden, rose garden and more.

Texas Barbecue

Longhorns and longnecks. The two-step and the 10-gallon hat. They might be symbols of the Lone Star State, but no other symbol gets quite the attention as does Texas barbecue.

At last count, Texas had more than 1,300 barbecue joints, ranging from roadside greasehouses with slamming screen doors to sit-down restaurants with beautiful vistas, air conditioning and even (gasp) wine lists. The business of barbecue rings up more than a half billion dollars annually, a cobweb of commerce that connects an otherwise diverse, sprawling state with a common mission: Go forth and seek good barbecue.

Unlike Kansas City, Mo., and Memphis, Tenn., Texas has no clearly defined capital of ‘cue. But Texas does have what’s sometimes nicknamed the “barbecue belt,” a smoky swath that runs through the central part of the state, with Austin right at the belt buckle. Where can business travelers find a good barbecue meal in Austin? Fortunately, visitors can find a plenitude of pits right in the city. The selection varies from pit to pit, but in most, tradition reigns. Meals of sliced brisket and spicy sausage are served with sides of cole slaw, pinto beans and spongy white bread, often on plates of butcher paper. Dessert, if found at all, is usually a scoop of banana pudding with a dose of vanilla wafers.

Adjacent to the Austin Convention Center, Iron Works (100 Red River, tel 877 410 4500, www.ironworksbbq.com) once served as a foundry; today it’s tops with movers and shakers who gather here for power lunch. Diners fill the restaurant and its deckside picnic tables over the banks of Waller Creek to enjoy tender brisket, smoky ribs, and sausage—a spicy combination of beef and pork. Nearby, Stubb’s Bar B Q (801 Red River, tel 512 480 0203, www.ilovestubbs.com) serves beef brisket cooked 16 hours plus favorites like turkey and ribs.

Another favorite with business travelers is County Line on the Hill (6500 W. Bee Caves Road, tel 512 327 1742, www.countyline.com). Folks decked out in three-piece suits sit side-by-side with those wearing Wranglers and Levis. For all its gentrified atmosphere, however, this restaurant serves up genuine Texas barbecue, with meat smoked for 18 to 20 hours daily, then trimmed of any fat. At County Line, housed in an historic rock building with a 20-mile view of the hill country, diners can sit on the stone patio and enjoy the menu favorites: beef ribs, baby backs, brisket and sausage. Another location, County Line on the Lake (FM 2222 near U.S. 360, tel 512 346 3664, www.countyline.com) offers ‘cue right on the banks of Lake Austin.

Regardless of the pit you pick, others will have an opinion on your choice of barbecue. A sign over the counter of one Central Texas barbecue joint says it all: “Bar-b-que, sex and death are subjects that provoke intense speculation in most Texans. Out of the three, probably bar-b-que is taken most seriously.”



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