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2013CriticsArchitecture & Lodging

Best Alamo Drafthouse Yet
Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline

Once a lone outpost in Downtown Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse's initial experiment in moviegoing has grown over the years into a thriving enterprise, multiplying many times over within Austin and across America. Yet rather than seizing on a winning formula and engraving it in stone, owner Tim League and his colleagues keep tweaking the model and pouring what they’ve learned from each theatre into the foundation of the next venue. Each movie house improves on the one that came before, which makes the newly opened Lakeline multiplex the apex of the Alamo line … that is, until the one that’s under construction on South Lamar is finished next year.

Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline, 14028 U.S. Hwy. 183 N., 512/861-7070, drafthouse.com

Best Devilish Views and Hitchhiking Ghosts
Devil's Backbone

Idle hands don't have anything on this scenic playground. This drive snakes through Wimberley and Blanco, offering picturesque views of the 400-mile-long Balcones Fault (and some pretty lavish homes). But watch out for deer ... and hitchhiking ghosts who have been reported to take the forms of Confederate soldiers and pioneers. Don't believe us? Stop by the Devil's Backbone Tavern and hear the stories straight from the horse's mouth. Oh, did we mention that there are tales of ghost horses, too?

Best Horror House Doppelganger
Burkland-Frisk House

Before you shriek in terror, don’t run away from this adorable Victorian house just yet. It may look exactly like the home of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it’s actually its architectural twin. Both houses were built in Round Rock in the early 1900s in the “pattern book” style, and Burkland-Frisk was taken down and restored in Georgetown in 2006. With its embellished eaves and retro paneling, it’s like staring at an eerie gingerbread house – definitely worth a visit whenever you find yourself a bit to the north.

Best Narrative Art
Bobby's Sculpture Garden

Through a series of abstract yard sculptures, Austin-based artist Bobby Pearl re-creates the stories her grandmother told her about life in the shtetl through bronze abstract figurative work. "Pogrom!" interprets her great-grandmother's escape from the Cossacks, with a female relief hunched over a dangerous-looking, barren ground. Pearl created the narrative series, which traces her grandmother's courtship, marriage, and escape from Russia to the U.S., as a way to preserve and honor her family's history. She propels viewers through space and time with her art, creating work that also functions as living, breathing history lessons that gain nourishment from the small surrounding naturescape. Pearl's tinkling Bone Tree Sculpture Garden may honor the dead, but her bronze abstract figurative work honors the living; you can see fragments of yourself reflected in the faces of Pearl's sometimes faceless sculptures, and it's this intimacy that's inviting enough to get you out of your comfort zone and take a peek into someone else's private property.

Bobby's Sculpture Garden, 1410 Travis Heights Blvd., www.bobbyloupearl.com

Best Neighborhood Watch
West Lynn Gorilla

The concrete gorilla of West Lynn could put even the most die-hard fashionista to shame. This sexually ambiguous, inanimate piece of yard art always appears dressed to the nines in accordance with the upcoming holiday or local event – a UT win, a wedding, a tiki party. We salute you, West Lynn Gorilla, in your efforts to keep the neighbors' calendars and simian awareness in check.

Best Nothing Exceeds Like Excess
Gourdough's Public House Ladies' Room

Sure, the name Gourdough's is synonymous with overabundance, but who knew that their almost religious adherence to the ethos of excess extends to their ... ahem, royal residence? Go ahead, and sit on the throne in the ladies' loo. (You don't actually think we had the energy to pop a squat once we began to digest that "Big Baller" doughnut burger, did you?) There it is, right in front of you, a freakin' barge of toilet paper. Seriously, it's a case lot of rolls stacked as if to say, "Friend, we will never leave you wanting. Ever." The fluffy white cylinders luxuriate on a long-ass basket worthy of floating Moses down the Nile or keeping the Christ child warm in the manger. Which is exactly what they are concocting just on the other side of that wall: infant-sized mounds of masa and sugar served perchance with a wedge of lettuce? Some deep-fried bacon? And dared to be called a "salad"? Bastards. But don't hold it against them. Gourdough's only wants to keep you satisfied. And if the doughnuts the size of your face don't prove it, the bulk pack of TP will.

Gourdough's Public House, 209 W. Fifth, 512/645-0255, www.gourdoughs.com

Best Old New Hostel
Firehouse Hostel

Austin's latest alternatel is located right smack in the middle of the Dirty Sixth vortex, with some surprising upgrades for the budget-conscious traveler. Though outfitted in a clean, modern style, the features of its eponymous 19th century building are cleverly showcased throughout. With on-site laundry and breakfast included, this hostel gives travelers walking-distance access to all sights from Clarksville to the East Side. Just add bicycles, and it will give them the key to the city.

Firehouse Hostel, 605 Brazos, 512/201-2522, www.firehousehostel.com

Best Place to Take Your Stoned Boy/girlfriend for a Late Night Make-Out Session
Draka the Dragon

Next time you're stuck on southbound Airport Boulevard near 183, look to your right. You may catch a glimpse of Draka the Dragon, a 100-foot-long art car built on a Ford Econoline van and two flatbed trailers by artist Lisa Nigro and a team of metallurgists in 2000. Once a fire-breathing, wing-flapping titan, Draka, who is also furnished with a full bar, mirrored mosaic ceilings, and a trailer for music equipment in her tail, won art car competitions and traveled to Burning Man multiple times in her heyday. Now moldering impressively in the Brother's Produce parking lot on Springdale, her scales are rusted and her carpet's half rotted away, but the propane tank in her open maw connected to a giant red button on the dashboard recalls more glorious times. Draka appears to have retired from active service, but she keeps on giving: a beautiful, surreal piece of sculpture in an otherwise blighted landscape, she also appears to be the perfect locale for amorous stoners to get handsy in the middle of the night. Not that we would know.

Draka Arts, 210/785-0832, www.drakaarts.org

Best Pocket Park
Royal Blue on Congress

Two parking spots. That's it. It took two parking spots, a couple of gutsy visionaries, a brilliant planting plan, and the idea that Congress Avenue should be put on center stage to make the pocket park at Royal Blue one of Downtown Austin's premier business and social hotspots. The very best place to pull up a chair and watch the reinvention of the avenue. The craft beer, bottles of bubbly, and smorgasbord of gorgeous nibbles are just lagniappe.

Royal Blue Grocery, 609 Congress, 512/469-5888, www.royalbluegrocery.com

Best PoMo Place
Moore/Andersson Compound

When Charles Moore came to UT-Austin in 1985 to chair the School of Architecture, our city also became the beneficiary of a late, great work by the (still) undervalued postmodern architect. Take a tour, and you'll witness diverse materials shimmying playfully up to one another, bookshelves and walls displaying significant architectural tomes and folk art. Queerly patterned Moosehead capital columns, a hyper-masculine horny chair, and the bright blue gabled breezeway are only some of the masterful flourishes that make this compound a home only a true postmodernist could enjoy. A cause for envy: Today the compound plays host to artists, architects, and scholars in residence who get to live in situ.

Moore/Andersson Compound, 2102 Quarry Rd., 512/220-7923, www.charlesmoore.org

Best Real-Life, Locally Sourced Bar Rescue
Skylark Lounge

Devotees of the storied Airport Bar & Grill and the beloved Bernadette's may be in for a shock. While business owner John LaTouf completely stripped down and built back up the old building that housed both of those watering holes, he's managed to maintain the mysterious character that kept folks loyal. We're not talking some cheesy TV show makeover that ignores the context of Austin, either. LaTouf insisted on retaining the bar's feel by reupholstering many of the original booths and bar stools and appointments while upgrading it into a viable live music venue. There are some new touches, but the color scheme is the same, the little paper lanterns still light the bar, and the backyard is still cozy and a smoker's delight. However, now words like "ventilation," "sound system," "air conditioning," "structural integrity," and "no possums" are not just dreams, they are reality. And the new reality is grand, as every time we've visited the Skylark, old regulars from both the Airport Bar and Bernie's seem to coexist peacefully with new neighbors and live music lovers. The only things we recommend? Bring back the weekly Lizzy Caroloke nights, and don't completely rule out some sort of undergarment as ceiling decor.

The Skylark Lounge, 2039 Airport, 512/730-0759, skylarkaustin.com/

Best Roaming Artwork
Patrizi's

Nic Patrizi serves up a powerhouse of homemade Italian recipes (culled from his family's brick-and-mortar in Beaumont) behind the Vortex Theatre. Pastafarians have been flocking to this hidden gem like a moth to a flame, but the truck itself is a surprise gift to the sense of sight. Local artists decked out the exterior with an assortment of kitschy pieces à la Claes Oldenburg – abstract paintings of a zombie JFK, cockroaches, and the characters from Ghostbusters, to name a few. One intent loop around this unassuming gallery should take just enough time until your order is filled and your other senses start kicking in.

Patrizi's, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/522-4834, www.patrizis.com

Best Sign of Old Times
St-Elmo-Tel

One of the most distressing facts about a city that so proudly touts its state of funkified whackadoo weirdness is its lack of original motor courts and roadside motels still in operation. There are the odd flophouses here and there, but let's not go there. We can point to the twin beauts of SoCo, the Austin Motel and Hotel San José, but those have each undergone such extensive remodels as to render their status as travel courts moot. Down the road a piece, the St-Elmo-Tel sign marks the spot of an old mom-and-pop that dutifully stood at the corner of St. Elmo and South Congress until it was mowed down a few years ago. Some midcentury angel deemed to leave the sign in place, heralding days gone by, when the avenue was the yellow brick road to the violet crown.

Best Thing on the Capitol Grounds Without a Dome
Old General Land Office Building

One steep hike up a grassy knoll on the east side of the Capitol grounds lands you in a 19th century "castle" that once housed the Texas Land Office. The function of the old girl now is as a de facto visitors' center for the complex, if not the entire state; the Texas Department of Transportation's tourism center and an entire room dedicated to travelers' info for Texas Parks are both housed here. And for those who want to export some of this fine Lone Star shine to those unfortunate enough not to live here, one of the best Texas-themed gift shops in the city can be found on the second floor.

Texas State Capitol, 1100 Congress, 512/305-8400, www.tspb.state.tx.us

Best Wall of Sound
Boombox Gate

Once upon a time, the two-story house at the corner of East 17th and Alamo Streets in East Austin was nothing to write home about. Brown with darker brown trim and a line of half-dead bushes along the chain-link fence. But that was before Joe and Grace got their hands on the place and transformed it into an art piece extraordinaire: a bright green house accented by pops of red, a private skate park in the backyard (available for parties!) and, the icing on the fencing cake, so to speak – a large metal driveway gate shaped like the quintessential Eighties boombox, complete with knobs and cassette-tape-player buttons. No, you can't put it on your shoulder, and no, it won't blast Grandmaster Flash, but it does add a unique blast of personality to this increasingly eclectic neighborhood.

Best Way to Show Your Love
The Butter Half Mural

It popped up just over a year ago, on the side of the brick building on East Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard that houses the United Way for Greater Austin: a bright blue/green mural with a slice of white bread and a pat of melting butter with the message, written on each element, respectively, "You're My" "Butter Half." And, as if on cue, the couples came: from the neighborhood, from across town, out of the coffee shop just across the street, out of cars merely passing by. Created by website and graphic design agency, Creative Suitcase, and led by designer, now Creative Art Director John Rockwell, the Butter Half mural, as it's known, has, in short order, become a part of the ATX landscape: tweeted and blogged about, made part of a scavenger hunt and painted onto nail art. And, of course, has become the backdrop for countless expressions of love. What's butter than that?

Creative Suitcase, 1012 E. 38th 1/2, 512/326-3667, www.creativesuitcase.com

United Way Capital Area Headquarters, 2000 E. MLK, 512/472-6267, www.uwatx.org

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