We flew straight into Austin, and from the minute our plane touched down, things felt right. The airport itself was small enough to avoid unnecessary tumult, but large enough to be efficient and accessible. For me, the entire city actually felt this way.
I would tell you about our friends’ beautiful new home, but it would start a whole Manhattan-rent-versus-down-payment-and-mortgage diatribe. Plus, it would be creepy. Regardless, to my husband and I, the most important part of visiting any city is the food, and Austin has that down solid.
That was before the place opened its doors. Once they started hand-slicing meats by the pound for every individual patron in front of us, my empty stomach sloshing with cheap beer, it was back to impatient reality for this Manhattanite. My husband moved with the line as I paced in and out of it, and around noon, it was our turn. One pound of fatty brisket, six ribs, one sausage, a quarter-pound of pulled pork, potato salad, coleslaw, and another pound-and-a-half of brisket to go, for our friends. In the moment, this all made sense.
With the temperatures in the upper seventies that afternoon, our hosts thought we could use some time outdoors. First, we climbed up a short, rocky trail to catch the best view of the Pennybacker Bridge, which arches across Lake Austin and is pretty damn cool for a bridge. We then shot across town to Mount Bonnell, where we climbed up steps to one of the highest points in Austin, overlooking what felt like the entire city. Sun, warmth, quiet, and full tummies. So far, so good.
That night, we ventured out for dinner at Lenoir, a 34-seat restaurant inside of a charming little house near South Congress Avenue. The whole block of homes seemed to house food establishments, in a way reminiscent of side streets in Key West. Inside, the white-draped walls and shabby-chic décor made us feel like we were dining in the comfy cool kitchen of a Hamptons country home. The menu changes regularly based on seasonal ingredients and is generally fixed at $38 for three courses chosen from four categories: Field, Sea, Land, and Dream. Still feeling the effects of barbeque, I went for: green curry broccoli with beets, blue cheese, and breadcrumbs (a Field dish); nishiki risotto with oysters, squid, and shrimp sausage (clearly, a Sea); and the coconut and cardamom cream tart (worthy of the Dream category). We all agreed that some of the dishes were kind of like a western standoff: not big enough for all of the ingredients. My curry broccoli fell into this category, as did our friend’s grapefruit pound cake, with a big ‘ol piece of Roquefort cheese on top. But others, such as my nishiki risotto and the ultimate crowd favorite – sweet potato agnolotti with brown butter and toasted marshmallow – were the best kind of funky. All in all, there is something to be said about any restaurant taking risks and offering them to diners in the form of a reasonably priced tasting menu. Indeed, talking about the food was half the fun.
On Saturday, my college roommate drove up from Dallas for a ladies’ day. Her sister attends the University of Texas, so for her, it was a two-for-one deal. We started off the day at a luxury outdoor shopping area called The Domain, which is a real novelty to someone who has to walk a dozen blocks to hit up one retail store, let alone a whole block of them. It’s kind of a sick, twisted, New York thing – getting so excited to see Lululemon, next to Anthropologie, next to Madewell, but upon going inside, saying to yourself, “I have all of this at home,” and leaving, knowing you’ll never actually make it there at home, because it’s just too damn far.
Looking for something a little more “local,” we then headed to the main drag of South Congress Avenue; an area that I understand best embodies the plea to “Keep Austin Weird.” I noticed the struggle, with institutions of vintage stores housed next to upscale boutiques, and food trailers competing with oyster bars. I hate mentioning Brooklyn here, because those who disdain the gentrification of Brooklyn are the same breed that has a major problem with the direction that Austin could be heading. I hate comparing the two, especially because Austin feels authentically “weird,” the good way, in stark contrast to those aspects of Brooklyn that are forcefully “weird” in an ironic way (read: the guy with a handlebar mustache riding a unicycle through Greenpoint – like, why not just get another wheel?). As a vintage digger and lover of people expressing their true selves via wacky clothing and facial piercings (whom I would never have the balls to dress like but totally appreciate the art of it all), I loved every block of it. We indulged in Mexican vanilla ice cream at Amy’s Ice Creams, and there was no $12 pickled produce in sight.
So instead, we met back up with my husband downtown and discovered Rainey Street, where mixed-style homes effectively operate as the most legit block party ever, because the houses are now bars. Mentally relocating to 2002, we of course wanted to party in the nicest house on the block, so we chose Icenhauer’s, a renovated, modern spot that seemed more Malibu than Austin. I personally felt like Lauren Conrad on The Hills, which in secretly trying to relive my own big-state-school college nights, was awesome.
We only had a little over two days in town, and like most unfamiliar places, it certainly wasn’t enough time to do everything. We were too busy gorging to enjoy the live music scene, which is apparently the best around. But it gives us a reason to go back for more: more amazing meals, more time with friends, and more “weird.”