Austin: Join The Queue
On-trend dining, hipster culture, a bad-ass music scene and gay boys everywhere – is this really Texas? Phillip Portman touches down in Austin.
If the cities of America were in high school, Austin would be the quirky kid in the corner strumming on a guitar. Sure, everyone wants a piece of New York with her jazz hands and musical theatre numbers, and we’re all talking about that gay kid San Francisco, but there’s something intriguing about Austin. He’s a little bit mysterious and cool without really trying. You know he’s got some killer stories and that people would like him a whole lot more if they knew what he was really about.
The same can be said about the real life city of Austin. On a quick trip to the Live Music Capital Of The World earlier this year, I discovered that Austin may just be the coolest fucking city in America.
It’s around 6pm on a Wednesday and our car has pulled up to the hotel just off Austin’s bustling Sixth Street. We’ve already passed some peculiar street art and I’m excited to see more of what this city has to offer. The temperature hasn’t dropped below 36 degrees Celcius [97 degrees F] and the humidity feels like it’s at least 86 percent, but that doesn’t seem to be deterring locals from their evening plans. There’s a Friday night feeling in the air as Austinites gather in groups to deliberate where their evening might take them. They’re not letting a little thing like the Texan heat or the middle of the working week get in the way of a good time.
There are some 250 establishments around town that boast local live music and endless possibilities when it comes to restaurants and bars. Live music can be found everywhere from the airport to gas stations and even the supermarket, not to mention the massive busking culture on city streets. Our group decides on dinner at Swift’s Attic, a trendy downtown joint with a hipster vibe. There’s not a hot dog, hamburger or chilli cheese fry in sight as we munch on blistered shishito peppers, grilled cauliflower, goat shoulder and squid fries. It’s a different cuisine to what I expected and although I’ve only been here for a few hours, it’s clear that Austin prides itself on being different.
Locals are sexy, quirky and friendly (they like to say “y’all”) and take full advantage of the 300 rain-free days per year. They love their music and art, there’s a thriving hipster culture (Austin thanks its bearded buddies for transforming the once scary East neighbourhoods of town into the most trendy) and they’re usually up for anything, as long as it involves being social. Seriously, Austin is a city that loves to party and will use any excuse for a good time.
Of the more bizarre excuses is the annual Bat Fest where locals party and wait for millions of Mexican free-tail bats to make their first flight of the year. Or the tribute charity concert held in honour of Geraldine the guinea fowl, a beloved Rainey Street district mascot killed by a car. An upscale restaurant at Hotel Van Zandt would later be named after the bird.
If you’re looking for a gay old time or want to snag a Texas cowboy, your best bet is to travel to the calmer Warehouse district. Other parts of Texas can be quite conservative but the state capital has embraced the LGBT community. There are no gaybourhoods, but you will find gay guys all over town. I end up making friends with Patrick, a cute guy I met on Grindr who suggests we catch a drink at Highland Lounge on Colorado Street. Lady Gaga is blasting through the speakers and drinks are dirt cheap. I tip the bartender $10, mainly because the drinks only set me back $2 but also because he’s really hot. It feels like most guys in this city are hot, even the fellas with sleeve tattoos, well maintained moustaches and tunnels in their ear lobes. There’s a strip show on the main floor and guys that could easily be DNA models are getting their kit off for the chance to win $500 cash. A sassy drag queen is emceeing the event and the crowd is very laid back.
There’s also a string of gay venues along nearby 4th Street. An HIV testing van is pulled up outside the most popular bars and is setting up for a busy night. In addition to rapid HIV testing, the crew hands out condoms, lube and valuable info to Austin’s gay partygoers. HIV rates are on the rise, increasing over 40 per cent between 2006 and 2012 in Austin. While things are quiet now, guys will be lining up to check their status as the evening progresses.
I’m also surprised to find people asking me about Tony Abbott. “What’s his deal?” drawlled one guy. I can only offer that most Aussies don’t share the Prime Minister of Australia’s points of view, especially when it comes to gay marriage.
Back to the clubs, Oil Can Harry’s, or OCH as it’s known, prides itself on being Austin’s friendliest gay nightclub. This is the place to hit up if you want to check out Austin’s drag scene. RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni, including Pearl and Courtney Act, have performed here. Rain On 4th is an upscale gay lounge with big dance floors and go-go boys. There’s also The Iron Bear on West 8th Street, which is great for bears, otters, cubs and any other hairy animal in the gay kingdom. The gayest week in town is usually the last week of August during Pride. It’s a weeklong celebration with a festival, parade, parties, celebrities and more. Hit up AustinPride.org for info on next year’s event.
Travelling to the other districts of town will also give you a uniquely Austin experience. Each district has a different atmosphere and a district story to tell. Of all, the Rainey Street Historic District is probably the trendiest. Old bungalows have been transformed into uber cool bars and restaurants and the area is renowned for its live music scene. The SoCo district (South Congress) is more touristy but definitely worth checking out if you love shopping. There’s a huge St Vinnies if op-shopping is your thing, the best candy store I’ve ever been to, a great bookshop, and Lucy In Disguise With Diamonds is a must-see. This is a flamboyant costume shop where Bob Dylan used to buy his crazier outfits. It’s also perfect if you’re a drag performer or looking for a kickass Mardi Gras costume.
If you find yourself hungry along SoCo, the South Congress Café is a favourite. They’re famous for their carrot cake French toast, Migas and infused Bloody Marys. Get in early as it’s not uncommon for Austinites to queue for hours to get into their favourite restaurants. You’ll see long lines forming around town at all hours of the day and night as locals wait for their favourite noodles, burgers, barbecue and more. Where you’ve eaten becomes a badge of honour here. It’s not about a place being fancy or boasting an expensive menu, it’s about good food, having a great time and socialising.
Speaking of eating, the food truck culture here is booming. There are said to be around 600 food trucks operating within the city limits. There are roughly 200 spots around town but only 30 are up there with the best. You can literally find any cuisine you’re looking for. I recommend checking out Barton Springs Picnic, which offers everything from cupcakes to tacos and sandwiches. The food trucks also have hilarious names like Beer As Cold As Your Ex’s Heart, Hey… You Gonna Eat Or What? and Girls Girls Girls… Just Kidding.
If you’ve come to Austin in search of music it’s never far away. Sixth Street is probably the biggest strip for music and there are blocks and blocks of venues. It’s hard to recommend just one place but I had a really great time at the Elephant Room, a small underground bar on Congress. There was an eight-piece jazz band playing on the night I visited and while jazz isn’t usually my thing, it had a really awesome vibe to it. The ceiling is covered in dollar bills which patrons have graffitied. It’s hard to say how many notes are stuck to the ceiling and our friendly barmaid shrugs and quips, “I’d love a dollar for every time someone’s asked me how many dollar bills there are in here,” as she free-pours the vodka. The city hosts music festivals all year round and some of the most popular include Austin City Limits Music Festival, SXSW, Rodeo Austin and the Fun Fun Fun Fest.
Although it isn’t a massive city like New York or Chicago, there’s plenty to see and do and you’re probably going to need a car to get around. The heat can be extreme in summer and public transport hard to navigate, especially if you’re a tourist keen to check out the hotspots. We opted for an Access ATX tour, a company that delivers on its promise to show you the real Austin. Our driver Meagan is young and hip, knows all the ins and outs of the city and is full of the interesting stories. One of the highlights is a visit to the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a must for anyone who loves street art and graffiti culture. It’s a community art project and one of America’s biggest outdoor graffiti galleries. On our visit there’s a shirtless guy working on an extravagant piece. This wall is his canvas and, amazing as it is to witness his art come to life, it won’t be long-lived. The gallery is like a chameleon and forever changing. The art you see will likely be replaced by a new piece within just a few weeks.
If you can handle the heat, love a music and hipster culture and have a healthy appetite, this is one American city you need to visit. I found myself feeling sad as we departed for the rest of my American adventure. Austin offers a different American experience that Aussies are going to love. They’re laid back, they tell it how it is, and they know exactly who they are.
More: From December 15, Air New Zealand will be flying from all Australian capital cities to Houston via Auckland. Austin is a two-hour drive from Houston or easy flight connections are available. Head to www.airnewzealand.com.au for flights. Phillip flew to the USA courtesy of Air New Zealand.
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