Deep in the heart of Texas lies the Live Music Capital of the World. Austin is the Lone Star State’s vibrant capital and university seat set on four artificial lakes along the Colorado River at the edge of the “Hill Country.” Known for the award-winning live-music television program Austin City Limits and as the birthplace of the career of blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughn, this town of upwards of 700 venues offering live music knows very well how to carry a tune.
But no less varied and abundant are great eateries. So we decided to find the best places where one can catch a live show and have a great meal at the same time. Here’s what I came up with:
Once a feed and seed store, the building still shows the rough wood floors and corrugated rooftop. But now it’s a Mexican food haven with a self-serve salsa bar. You’ll find fresh tortillas, hand-shaken margaritas, and a full range of tacos, enchiladas and the like, but also vegetarian options, breakfasts, and some house specialties. Consider the Huachinango, broiled red snapper with butter and fresh garlic. Bill Clinton once visited and his order became El Presidente: a chicken breast taco, a beef taco, a tamale and guacamole. As the menu points out, “He ate all of his.” You can eat outside in the jardín as well and catch evening shows under the reaching branches of an oak tree.
Charlie Goodnight invented the chuckwagon, the first “restaurant” for cowboys on cattle drives back in the 19th century. The tradition of great steaks lives on here at Hill’s. The original structure was built by the Goodnight family in 1941 as a coffee shop, but a couple disasters later (fire and flood), we have the present-day rustic restaurant and an Austin classic. Chicken-fried steak is hand-grilled, not deep-fried (though you can request it that way) and the hamburger was rated best in Austin in 2005. All meat is fresh, never frozen, and for a taste of proper smoky flavor, there’s a BBQ pit outside. After your meal gather in the courtyard for a live band, kick up some dust on the dance floor or watch from the treehouse right above it. Music is free, children are welcome, and the food is, of course, delicious.
See my Austin video
When Clyde Stubbs first brought his barbeque to Austin, he was selling it out of a motel room. It was an immediate hit (though not entirely legal) and now the restaurant smokes brisket overnight in a smoker that holds just under 1000 pounds of meat. Stubb’s has its own special sauce, available to take home, and the music venue here is the most professional of them all. Imagine a concert shell in your neighbor’s backyard, complete with light show. The Pit, as it is called, is a grassy slope holding up to 2,300 people and boasting acts as big as Willie Nelson and the late Stevie Ray Vaughn. Celebrities Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle have been known to stop in for a meal. If you don’t want to stay out late, come on Sunday for one of two seatings for a gospel brunch. Don’t be ashamed to lick your fingers.
Whether you like country music or not, this is a cultural experience. The Spoke is the quintessential honky-tonk. The food is that home-cooked variety and the chicken-fried steak ranks up there with the best. Afterwards wear off the calories with a bit of Texas swing dancing in a long, hardwood-floor dance hall.
“Blues is the common denominator of Austin music,” says manager Will Bridges, and Lamberts pays tribute to it. Located downtown in a once-condemned but now restored historical building, the restaurant bills itself as “fancy barbeque.” Portions are Texas-sized and come with house BBQ sauce, hot mustard, and hot sauce. The fried green tomatoes with crab meat and mizuna is a popular appetizer, and the bar mixes up top-notch mojitos and caipirinhas. There’s a pleasant dining room downstairs and a lounge-style bar area upstairs infused with red neon light. For something really special, check their online schedule to see when local regular Gary Clark Jr. is in the house. This talented young blues player is a one-man band: one foot on a hi-hat, one on a bass drum, a harmonica hanging around his neck, and some serious blues picking.
On Thursdays there is nothing much nicer than Unplugged at the Grove. The setting for the music is outside beneath the spreading arms of an oak tree. For popular acts, crowds gather on blankets in the grass of the front yard. A couple trailers sit alongside the outdoor dining area (there is also indoor seating), and people of all walks of life find themselves comfortable here. The menu is creative, to say the least. Don’t miss the walnut-crusted catfish with a spicy cheese sauce. The chili cheese fries are a delectable specialty and the twice-baked potato comes with the kick and tang of pickled jalapenos. The signature drink a Shady Thang, a sort of margarita made with Peruvian pisco (a sort of brandy). Finish off the meal with some ice cream cake – maybe peanut butter flavor? The menu is successfully daring, and vegetarians will find relief here from the steak and brisket traditions.
In Austin, there’s a menu for every palate and a tune for every ear. If you’re hungry and hankering for some music, this city is definitely the place to be.
The Austin Chronicle chronicles who’s playing and where: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Calendar/MusicListings
Want to be in the audience for the next taping of Austin City Limits? http://www.austincitylimits.com
Get vacation planning information from the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://www.austintexas.org
Check out my blog posts from Austin!
See the video from my Austin trip!
If You Go – Austin
If you’re going from Madison, WI, there are flights connecting through Chicago or Dallas to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, so you are looking at a 2-hour flight plus a 25-35 minute flight. Austin’s airport is very highly rated and easy to navigate.
August is HOT. Some of the outdoor free live music venues run shows from about March/April through October. South by Southwest is a weeklong music festival showcasing up and coming bands in March. Austin City Limits (a must-see in itself) has their own big music festival in September.