Southern Living (Digital)

Southern Living (Digital)

1 Issue, May 2023



Buc-ee's-Texas' I was polishing off a brisket sandwich from native gas station and snack emporium when the skyline finally rolled into view after I'd spent two days trekking across the South from Georgia to my new home. It was late July, and the heat made everything in the distance appear to dance. "Ten years ago, none of those high-rises were there," deep-rooted Austinites have told me with a hint of...not quite bitterness but perhaps wistful nostalgia. For many decades, the tallest building in Austin was the state capitol, which stretches 14 feet higher than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Texas has never really shied away from making a rousing statement.

Austin isn't a slow-burn kind of place. It hits the senses immediately with its musicians and cosmic cowboys, flashing neon and brightly colored murals, tacos and barbecue, and quite the rebellious streak. What was once a sleepy hippie town welcomed the birth of an underground live-music scene in the 1970s with future legends like Willie Nelson at the helm. It's changed a lot since then, becoming an unexpected tech hub as well as one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, spurred by a steady stream of newcomers arriving over the past decade. I can't blame them because I'm one of them.

The Texas culture and tunes are still here, and so are the hippies and the cool kids. The kayakers still mosey around Lady Bird Lake, which flows smack-dab through the middle of the city, and swimmers jump off the scrubby diving board at Barton Springs Pool, a 3-acre natural lagoon that stays below 70 degrees all year long. Just as the state capitol building exists peacefully in tandem with the rising skyscrapers, the past and present are more intertwined here than first meets the eye-and both draw new residents every day. To sum up the best things about this lively city would be impossible, and everyone's list would surely capture a different view. Here's my roster of particularly poignant, seemingly trivial, or unmistakably Austin things.

1. Mini golf is just as fun when you're an adult, especially at Peter Pan Mini Golf. It's been around since 1948 and is BYOB. Bring friends too. 2. The very friendly man riding around town on a horse is affectionately known as the Sixth Street Cowboy. Wave hello. 3. There's a tiny mezcal speakeasy called Techo that sits above a TexMex restaurant in East Austin. The coziest table there is in a refurbished closet. Ask for the house special. 4. You can visit the Blanton Museum of Art for free every Thursday. So go. 5. The most memorable parties are the ones you happen upon, including the midnight martini fetes at Justine's and bring-your-own-dog hangouts at Zilker Metropolitan Park. Seek them out. 6. Finally, don't let anybody tell you where the best tacos in town are. Find your own favorite.


When Lee Miller moved to Austin on a whim to begin an apprenticeship at Texas Traditions boot shop in 1977, he didn't know what to expect. "I knew nothing about Austin other than that the music scene was hot and Willie Nelson was here," he says. "But you just don't turn down the opportunity of a lifetime to work under someone like Charlie Dunn." Now, Miller has made Willie's boots.

Dunn, called the "Michelangelo of boot making," became famous after inspiring Jerry Jeff Walker's country song "Charlie Dunn." A fourth-generation boot maker, he taught Miller until retiring in 1986. Miller and his wife, Carrlyn (whom he met while both were working at the shop) took over Texas Traditions that year. Since then, they've continued its success-so much so that there's a five-year waiting list for customers wanting his handmade creations, which are considered wearable art and are heirlooms in a world full of machine-produced goods.

Miller has crafted cowboy boots for the likes of Lyle Lovett, Tommy Lee Jones, Harry Connick Jr., and countless others. He can recite the owner and story behind practically every pair that's come out of his shop, and not just for the big names. He's one of few keeping the heritage of boot-making alive by teaching apprentices, just like Dunn did. "Long after I'm gone, I hope this won't be forgotten. Hopefully, people will still wear cowboy boots a hundred years from now," he says, laughing.

The art scene looks a bit different in Austin, delightfully chaotic, diverse, and not confined to museums and galleries. Decades ago, neon became a trademark of the city, crowning the storefronts, bars, and music clubs on every popular street. Before long, it was a craft honed by a small band of creators. "When people think of neon, they don't necessarily know it as art," says Sharon Keshishian, who has made vibrant signs and sculptures all over the city since opening her studio in 1986. She's been bending neon in Austin for more than 35 years, and her work includes the Austin City Limits Music Festival guitar that greets concertgoers each fall and the often photographed rainbow "atx" sculpture on North Lamar Boulevard. Along with other neon artists like Todd Sanders of Roadhouse Relics, she continues to share the unique medium with the community. "Austin has always been open to the unconventional, but there are definitely more rules around how art can exist now," says Keshishian. "I'd like for us to keep pushing the boundaries."


On Sunday mornings, the line of people at Bird Bird Biscuit in East Austin snakes around the parking lot. Everyone is here for the same thing: biscuits. The whole menu is dedicated to them. Order one alone with homemade jam, smothered in gravy, or turned into a sandwich layered with enticing ingredients: eggs, bacon, house-made sausage, or crispy fried chicken. The latter is their specialty.

Opened in 2018 by longtime friends who spent two years tweaking the recipe to get it right, Bird Bird Biscuit now sells upwards of 6,000 biscuits a week. Brian Batch, co-owner and head "biscuit whisperer," is to blame for the mania. "When we first started, we were up there until two o'clock in the morning every night making biscuits to keep up," he says, laughing. "It was wild, but we got it done!"

The amalgam of James Beard Award-winning chefs and trendy one-of-a-kind concepts that Austin has become known for is a newer flex. The dining scene was originally humbler, rooted in street-taco trucks and barbecue. There are those who still carry the torch, such as Discada, a food truck run by Anthony Pratto and Xose Velasco. They've introduced a method from Northern Mexico that involves meat cooked for six hours in a modified tractor plow disc. Nearby, chef Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria took home a James Beard Award in 2022 for his vegetable-forward taco menu, proving you can exist on both sides of the culinary pendulum.

The barbecue behemoths-Franklin, La Barbecue, and relative newbie InterStellar BBQ-have weekend lines that are longer than ever. Odd Duck veers Texas-haute with a constantly changing dinner menu; Gati wows with over 40 flavors of Thaistyle coconut ice cream; and hyper-seasonal Lutie's, on the grounds of the Commodore Perry Estate, is among the hardest reservations in town to get. (Formerly the home of Edgar "Commodore" Perry and his wife, Lutie, it is now a Ken Fulk-designed hotel with 10 acres of gardens.) At Bird Bird Biscuit, you'll still often find Batch standing at the pickup window, slinging flour, rolling dough, and passing on his biscuit-whispering ways to his team. To answer your question: Yes, they really are that good. With a golden crunch on the outside and pillowy perfection on the inside, they could slap your mama, and she'd still come back for more.


"I've been told that I've got the best BS meter this side of the Mississippi," says Dianne Scott, The Continental Club's bouncer and designated in-house historian. She has worked the back door at the venue on South Congress Avenue for 30 years. As if on cue, she hollers across the room at a man who almost mistakenly went into the women's restroom. Nothing gets past her.

Nicknamed the "Granddaddy of Live Music Venues," the historic spot has been around since 1955, starting as a gentlemen's dinner club, briefly segueing into a burlesque club, and finally transitioning into a full-time concert venue with shows every day of the week. It's a little bit country, rock, jazz, blues, and grunge, topped with a "no one's famous here" attitude.

The eclectic music scene goes beyond The Continental Club and stems from the time when Austin was where people went to earn their dues or get out of Nashville. Throughout the 1970s and the following two decades, bands and singers of all kinds frequented hazy haunts like Antone's Nightclub, the Broken Spoke, Charlie's Playhouse, and others. Most of those clubs are still operating, even as over 250 venues are now scattered around town and the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival has become one of the biggest in the nation.

Once inside the scarlet doors of The Continental Club, any sense of new-gen entitlement falls away and the clock gets murky. It could be 2 p.m. or midnight, 1978 or 2023. They have regulars who play each week, along with up-and-coming bands on weekend gigs and the occasional head-turning drop-ins. Johnny Depp was once a frequent visitor while filming scenes for What's Eating Gilbert Grape in 1992 and has even performed there; Wanda Jackson has had birthday bashes there; and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who's played at the venue twice, has been known to sneak in through the back door and post up at the bar. He knows Dianne by name.

On any night, it's still a great time to be listening to music in Austin. The good ole days haven't ended-they've just changed their tune.

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