When one thinks of Texas, the first thoughts are probably of cowboys and cattle. However, the capital of Texas has neither the feel nor the look of what one would think of when they imagine a Texas town. Austin is both youthful and vibrant, with a strong presence of music and believe it or not, counter-culture. Centered at the city is the main campus of University of Texas and that student body spills into the rest of the city.
With several bars and live music venues on 4th, 5th, and 6th streets downtown, there’s a scene for everyone. For the college students looking to get sloppy, go to East 6th Street (it’s the called the Dirty 6 for a reason, trust me. Think Bourbon Street style messiness at night). For the older crowd, head to
4th street for a little more sophisticated scene. For the hippies in the crowd, head across the Congress Ave bridge (where you can witness the Congress Avenue Bridge Bats 364 evenings a year at sunset. We must’ve been there that 365th day they decide not to come out) to the South Congress area to check out the alternative stores, venues, and for me get a really refreshing snow cone at one of the several food trucks.
Also, The Texas History Museum, Texas Capitol Building and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library are all easy to get to and each worth visiting for a few hours a piece. And let’s not forget the BBQ and Tex-Mex, both of which can be had at plenty of places in the city. Here are a few of the food/bar highlights below.
This doesn’t include the several bars we walked into for one drink and moved on. The bar hopping is SO easy to do in downtown Austin. If you don’t like one place because of the music or whatever, just move onto then next. Or the bar you’re in might just turn into the one you want to go to. For one example: Bat Bar earlier in the night was quiet, dark and probably had 20 people in there and there was a solo guitarist with a cellist singing Radiohead covers. We left, tried a few other places, and on the walk back about 3 or 4 hours later. The place had a line 30 people long, you couldn’t see inside anymore because of the dance party, fog machine pouring smoke out the door and windows with laser lights flying all over the place, there was go-go dancer at the window getting dollars thrown at her feet, and a 300 lb. black dude DJ-ing some serious techno beats. It was like night and day.
On to the other highlights:
Not technically in Austin, in order to get some of this really, really good BBQ you’re going to have to drive out about half an hour into what you would picture Texas to stereotypically look like – lots of sand, flat and space (if you’ve ever watched Friday Night Lights, its pretty much what Dillon, TX looks like on TV). But the trip will be worth it if you make it to one of the Salt Lick locations. This place is no-nonsense BBQ eating and you can smell the aroma the second you park your car. The seating area is just one big banquet hall with picnic style tables. The plates are like the hard-plastic, weird pastel colored, tri-indented ones you get at summer camp. And the meat (oh man, so good) comes out in one big pile if you and your party each get the “All-you-can-eat” for $20 – which we did…and one of the three of us almost didn’t make it out of there because he ate so much. The food was excellent, all the meats were savory, juicy and everything you’d expect from real southern BBQ. It’s really not worth wasting any of your stomach space on the bread or the sides and the place is BYOB so don’t hesitate to bring your own beers if you want. Make sure to check out the pit where the pounds and pounds of pork, brisket, and chicken are slowly cooking away. If you do encounter a wait, they have a nice little winery next door where you do a wine tasting of some of their wines for $5 and a Bocce ball court with balls out back (Driftwood was location where we were at so I’m not sure about the other locations). Food Grade: B+, Experience Grade: A-
Cedar Street Courtyard
208 West Fourth Street
Austin, TX 78701
Cover charge – varies
Great venue for live music. The bar is essentially split into two identical halves with a spacious courtyard in the middle to watch the live music. If the band Suede happens to be playing when you’re there, you’re in luck because these guys do a pretty good job of rockin’ the house. Don’t let the fact that the 6 of them look like their in their mid-40’s. They’ll play everything from classic Jimmy Buffett and Boston, to crowd-pleasing Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and Journey, to current songs from Adele, Pink, and Katy Perry, hard rocking songs from Guns and Roses and Aerosmith, to the just plain weird – Insane Clown Posse (yes, they sung a rendition of the Insane Clown Posse) all in one night. Literally. It was like someone’s Ipod on shuffle, but sung by 40 year-old dudes – and it was awesome.
Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar
421 East 6th Street
Austin, TX 78701
Cover charge – varies
I love a good piano bar, and this place didn’t disappoint. Loud and raucous, lead by the highly entertaining pianists, this place offers crowd pleasing music along with great showmanship. A great place for a larger group, the pianists take offers to play certain songs and the tips can go as high as $100 to hear someone’s favorite tune (I was pretty shocked that these guys probably rake in on average about $30 every five minutes). Throw in a few raunchy happy birthdays and bachelorette/bachelor parties, the place can get wild. One of the most clever ways the pianists make their tips is to start getting the college marching songs competing against one another (I believe by the end of the night the Florida State alums had outbid the Michigan and Texas A&M alums $90 to $60/$60).
Iron Cactus Mexican Grill & Margherita Bar
606 Trinity St.
Austin, Tx 78701
Solid, but not spectacular mexican food, this place really isn’t much different than any of the really good Tex-Mex places around the country. But if there is a reason to go, it’s for the 2nd floor balcony overlooking 6th street. Grab yourself a seat out there, order yourself a nice, cold margarita and enjoy the people watching (We saw Darth Vader and Boba Fett harassing a bachlorette party). Grade: B-
Halcyon Coffee House Bar & Lounge
218 West 4th Street
Austin, TX 78701
If you’re looking for a place to unwind, Halcyon fits the bill. Located around West 4th Street’s bar scene, this little place is a cross between a bar, cafe, and dive-y art spot. With a decent food menu (including a pretty awesome s’mores with fire, sticks and everything offering) and a full service bar, those who want a place to just chill out with a cup of java for a little bit can find that here.
Iron Works Barbecue
100 Red River Street
Austin, TX 78701
Compared to the Salt Lick, this place isn’t really as good (or Stubb’s down the street for that matter, which I’ve also had in the past). However, the food is decent enough and the rustic interior venue cool and located conveniently enough that I’d say it’s worth trying only if you’re in that area of Austin, but don’t go out of your way for it. Grade: C+
3825 Lake Austin Boulevard
Austin, TX 78703
Located a short drive away from downtown Austin, Hula Hut provides a pretty decent location to enjoy some Tex-Mex by the waters of Lake Austin while sipping on some cold libations. Nothing overly amazing, much like the Iron Cactus, the Hula Hut’s scene is definitely for the folks who want to sit on their makeshift dock bars and get drunk watching the boats come in and out (but mainly to get drunk. And probably sunburn). I will say that the fish tacos that I had were actually very good, so give those a try if you head out that way, but since we were there to meet up with a local friend, I have a hard time seeing why you would be out that far. Grade: B (but not worth specifically driving out to unless you’re planning on boating or meeting a local who lives around there)