They emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge nightly around sundown--first, a few who dart out to check the temperature and report back; then, clouds of them gliding forth, grouping over the river and heading east in one long, black ribbon, 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats, the nation's largest urban bat colony.
About the same time, tables fill up on the outdoor decks of Oasis Cantina del Lago, half an hour west of downtown, overlooking Lake Travis, the nearest of the Highland Lakes created in the 1930s by damming the Colorado River. The Oasis seats about 1,200 people on decks sprawling down the hillside. While the food (burgers, chicken breasts and the like) is of the you're-paying-for-the-view variety, few would be caught dead there without a margarita. Far below, specks that are sailboats and windsurfers pick up speed off Windy Point. Finally the sun goes down, lava-lamp orange against a milky sky, and everybody stops talking for a moment to applaud the spectacle.
Austin--state capital, university town (the 48,000-student University of Texas) and high-tech center--is where New Age and Old Texas collide most dramatically. With a population just under 500,000, it's a city where slackers, activists, students, techies, balding hippies, and artists and musicians now have nearly as much influence as developers and businessmen. The former group is well represented on the City Council--local politics resemble a contact sport--and set the tone culturally. A good sunset is worth a round of applause; bats are local heroes.
Austin is also a bastion of Lone Star pride, where the population is growing so fast that native Californians seem as plentiful as native Texans. Born in the Midwest and raised mainly in Southern California, I came here from New York 10 years ago, after a decade of regular journalistic visits. Austin was a sleepy town with great music, barbecue and Tex-Mex food--but my friends worried constantly about whether the Yankee invasion would overwhelm their inexpensive Hill Country idyll, where many lives were scheduled around the hours that one swam at Barton Springs, the naturally fed pool where the water is always 68 degrees.
Today, Austin is in the national spotlight, and the cost of living is going up; housing is scarce and traffic jams plentiful, and I worry about those same things. But many lives are still scheduled around Barton Springs, and Austin maintains an uncommon respect for tradition. It may mutate, but it doesn't die.
Austin has little in the way of conventional tourist attractions. But its large university and state-government population has always nurtured night life. It was a bohemian enclave before the rest of Texas knew what the word meant, and before the rest of America paid much attention to Texas. It's after sundown that the city defines itself.
Until a decade ago, nighttime began in Austin with a dinner of Tex-Mex, barbecue or diner fare--all substantial, but inexpensive, cuisines that virtually mandate informal dining. Today, the city's palate has broadened dramatically, but some things never change. Austin still specializes in restaurants that are casual and not too pricey; diners wear shorts and T-shirts and expect change from a twenty.
Earlier this year, former Alice Waters protege Mark Miller opened a branch of his trend-setting Santa Fe restaurant, Coyote Cafe, on West 6th Street downtown. He was the first celebrity chef to buy into the growing notion of Austin as a restaurant town, and he learned fast: Within a month, Miller added some less-expensive items to his tony menu. Reflecting the town's dichotomy, Austinites try to eat hearty and healthy; they want things both ways. Between them, two places that predate the recent restaurant boom embody most of the traditions and trends.
Threadgill's, a former gas station/beer joint that had been shuttered six years when owner Eddie Wilson took over, was already a local landmark. Original owner Kenneth Threadgill had the first post-Prohibition beer license in the city; he also played host to weekly song-swaps that attracted both old-line country pickers and university folkies. Janis Joplin made her public debut at Threadgill's in the early '60s.
Wilson had also been one of those folkies, and he went on to run Armadillo World Headquarters, the freewheeling '70s venue that put Willie Nelson and Austin on the national music map. When Wilson wearied of the music biz, he bought and expanded Threadgill's on Lamar Boulevard (the old highway to Dallas) north of downtown, converting it into a restaurant. But his clientele remained pretty much the same tradition-loving mix of old and new Texas that frequented the Armadillo. Threadgill's was the first comfort-food eatery to make everything from scratch, and to stress local produce; it was also the town's first theme restaurant, and the theme was Austin.
You might call it roadhouse moderne, with a killer jukebox and musical instruments hanging on the walls alongside old pictures of Kenneth and Janis. Threadgill's serves up meatloaf, steaks and seafoods, fresh-baked breads and biscuits, and traditional Southern deserts such as peach cobbler and banana pudding.
Nobody goes to Threadgill's just once; I rarely eat anything but the chicken-fried steak, a dish that tends to separate the Texans from the newcomers. It's a round steak tenderized by serious mallet-pounding, then dipped in batter and fried to a golden crunch, with a thick cream gravy poured over the top. Done wrong, which happens often with this dicey cut of meat, it's tough and tasteless. But Threadgill's does it tender and flavorful. It's best appreciated with mashed potatoes whipped with ample milk and butter--and something green. Go ahead and laugh, but this is how some of us achieve healthy and hearty.
Just as Threadgill's upped the ante on meat and potatoes, Fonda San Miguel in a quiet neighborhood on North Loop Boulevard went Tex-Mex one better. Founded in 1975 by manager Tom Gilliland and chef Miguel Ravago, Fonda San Miguel dropped the Tex from the equation entirely, and concentrated on food from the Mexican interior (especially the seafood of Veracruz, the moles and pre-Hispanic dishes of Oaxaca, and the pibil , or pit, cooking of the Yucatan, which Fonda emulates by baking meats in banana leaves).
They do not serve the tacos, tamales, chili con queso, refried beans and No. 2 dinners of Tex-Mex. They cook with huit la coche --a corn fungus often dubbed the Mexican truffle, awful to look at and wonderful to taste--and with an array of dry, ground chilis, used as much for flavor as for firepower. From the courtyard waiting area full of orchids and tropical plants, couches and coffee tables, to the two dining rooms with ornate metal lamps hanging overhead and Mexican art on the walls, Fonda San Miguel is classy without being extravagant; it's where I take visitors I want to impress.
It begins at dinner in many places and lasts well into the morning. Depending on how you define "regular," you can hear live music regularly at about 130 venues around town. (Most extract cover charges ranging roughly from $5 to $15, depending on the show.) Two factors make Austin so attractive to musicians. Local audiences appreciate original music (while most fledgling bands must play current chart hits to get jobs, they can develop their own songs at many Austin clubs). And Austin stays a roots-music town; though there's no lack of rock bands plying the most current trends or trying to set new ones, the holy trinity remains blues, country and folk (the aural equivalent of comfort food).
The Austin musicians to break nationally are almost always rootsy mavericks--from the good-rockin' blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds to the contemporary minstrelsy of singer-songwriters such as Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to the kaleidoscopic country stylings of Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel.
They're most at home in rooms such as the Continental Club on South Congress Avenue, which books some blues, some lounge and much country. In August, the club hosted its fifth annual Buck Owens Birthday Bash, honoring the Bakersfield country music giant, and seemingly every twangy band in town performed a couple tunes by Owens. But this time, after five years of hinting that he might attend, Buck rented a Lear jet and flew over to sit in. He stayed on stage in the cozy club for several numbers, backed by the sharp one-shot band of local pickers, who appeared even more wide-eyed than the spectators. Things like that happen in Austin surprisingly often.
The focus downtown is on 6th Street, once known as Pecan Street, and the city's oldest business district. Today, century-old buildings, restored less than two decades ago, house clubs and restaurants. The street is closed to automobiles at night, occupied by promenading hordes of students, tourists and conventioneers, weekend warriors from smaller surrounding towns, and youths whom patrolling policemen call "PIBs" (People in Black).
Most visitors rarely leave 6th Street, but to many locals, it's less Austin than it is Austin's idea of Bourbon Street. The emphasis is on copy bands, though worthy original sounds pour out of places such as Emo's (a grunge emporium), the Black Cat (blues and rockabilly) and Chicago House (acoustic singer-songwriters and poetry).
But probably the one don't-miss on the stretch is Esther's Follies, a satirical theater-and-music troupe that's been there since 1977. They perform in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, making themselves part of the street action and passersby part of the show.
Meanwhile, another cluster of clubs, brew pubs, coffee shops and restaurants has grown in the Warehouse District around 4th and Lavaca streets. And the clubs that most typify Austin music are scattered all over town. There's more rock at Electric Lounge, Hole in the Wall and Liberty Lunch; folk at the Cactus Cafe; Tex-Mex at Club Carnaval, El Pepe Polkas and La India Bonita; jazz at Cedar Street, or heavy metal at the Backroom. Then there's the roots rooms such as the Continental Club, where the regulars dress thrift-store rockabilly.
The hardest part of spending a single night in Austin is deciding where to go. The Broken Spoke, built in 1964 on South Lamar, is a classic South Austin (a.k.a. "Bubbaland") honky-tonk, with a dirt parking lot full of potholes and pickups. The front room--decorated with photos, most of them autographed, of pretty much everyone who's anyone in Texas country--is a bar-restaurant serving up celebrated chicken-fried steak. In back is the dance hall, where boots click on the concrete floor as two-stepping couples move in a stately counterclockwise circle. In between and to the side is what owner James White likes to call "my tourist trap"--a memorabilia display, the absolute highlight of which is a 50-year-old, half-smoked cigar of Bob Wills, the father of Western swing.
The best nights are the monthly Saturdays when Don Walser, a 61-year-old West Texas yodeler extraordinaire, spins out his seamless blend of cowboy, swing and honky-tonk (the three idioms Texas contributed to mainstream country). The dance floor is a two-stepping whir of boots, starched jeans and shirts, cowboy hats, long dresses and pantsuits. (If you want line dancing, try Nashville.)
"People come from out of state and they don't know how to two-step, but they wanna learn real bad," White says with a chuckle. "It's kinda comical to watch, but it don't take 'em too long to learn."
And if you're not feeling that intrepid yourself, relax: Dancing in Texas is also a satisfying spectator event.
That's especially true at Tejano Ranch, where the two-step has absorbed all manner of dramatic new spins, dips, twirls and hops. Tejano is Spanish for "Texan," and also applies to the contemporary, synthesizer-driven, pop sound that updates traditional Tex-Mex accordion polkas. The music had already grown so big in the state that it was beginning to attract major record labels before gaining national attention with the bizarre slaying of Selena, its biggest star, last March.
Tejano shares country's working-class soul, so they didn't even have to change the decor a year ago when a failing country disco on North Lamar called City Slickers was converted into Tejano Ranch. There's a row of cow skulls along one wall and a herd of neon mustangs over the bar; the seats are covered in cowhide. But when the sizzling rhythms coming off the stage accompany Patsy Torres, one of the few women in the music before Selena, or La Tropa F, who bring youthful flash to traditional accordion styles, there's no mistaking where you are. Then there's Antone's Night Club on Guadalupe Street just northwest of campus, only the most mystique-laden blues joint in America. In this era of blues theme clubs with a million bucks worth of "folk art" on the walls, Antone's ain't much. From the street, it's an anonymous, low-slung building with a small parking lot. Inside, the basic design is plain dark cavern. The sole attempts at decoration are a few beer signs and, over the bar, a black-and-white portrait of Muddy Waters, with his sad eyes, knowing half-smile, and high cheekbones. More often than not, the air-conditioning works.
But something happens when blues men take the stage there. Antone's has inspired some legendary blues shootouts since opening (originally down on 6th Street) 20 years ago, when many of the great electric blues men, including patron saint Muddy, were still alive. One night, an overconfident Albert King winced and got down to business after being outclassed by a then-unknown homeboy named Stevie Ray Vaughan. After years of estrangement, Jimmy Reed reunited with his longtime guitarist Eddie Taylor on Antone's stage. B.B. King played Bicentennial Night, July 4, 1976. Louisiana zydeco champeen Clifton Chenier routinely played raucous, two-hour sets.
With the yupping of the blues and the death of most of the legends, the vibe has changed. But one of my most sublime nights of the last year was spent perched on the planter box just outside, cooling off and listening through the open door as boogie man Junior Kimbrough took the music back to its most primordial Mississippi origins. This summer, former James Brown sax machine Maceo Parker, who always jams the place, played on a night when the air-conditioning broke in the midst of a heat wave. It wasn't merely shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder inside: People also packed the parking lot . I didn't hear any of them complaining, either. In the nighttime, Austin feels no pain.
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Two-Stepping in Texas
Getting there: There are no nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Austin. Fly direct on Continental and Southwest, connecting service on American, United, Delta and America West beginning at about $260 round trip including taxes and fees.
Where to stay: The Driskill Hotel (604 Brazos St.; telephone 512-474-5911) is a historic Western hotel built in 1886 and refurbished several times since. Doubles, $145 nightly.
The Four Seasons Hotel (98 San Jacinto Blvd., tel. 512-478-4500) is probably the most elegant lodging in town. Doubles start at $140.
Ziller House (800 Edgecliff Terrace, tel. 512-462-0100) is a small (four rooms/one carriage house), stylish B&B.; Room rates start at $100.
Austin Motel (1220 S. Congress Ave., tel. 512-441-1157) is a recently renovated motor court, with some rooms done in Saltillo tiles. Doubles start at $42.
Where to eat: Fonda San Miguel (2330 W. North Loop Blvd., tel. 512-459-4121); entrees are $8.95-$16.95.
Threadgill's (6416 N. Lamar Blvd., tel. 512-451-5440); entrees are $4.95-$16.95.
Nightlife: Continental Club (1315 S. Congress Ave., tel. 512-441-2444).
Antone's Nightclub (2915 Guadalupe St., tel. 512-474-5314).
Broken Spoke (3201 S. Lamar Blvd., tel. 512-442-6189).
Tejano Ranch (7601 N. Lamar Blvd., tel. 512-453-6616).
Esther's Follies (525 E. 6th St., tel. 512-320-0553).
For more information: Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, 201 E. 2nd St., Austin, TX 78701; tel. (512) 474-5171 or (800) 926-2282.