Dining in the Heart of Austin
The three stoned college students were chilled after their late evening bike ride and began looking for someplace to stop for coffee. They rode through the deserted Capitol grounds and down lonely Congress Avenue, stopping at the corner of Sixth and Congress to discuss their options. Down in the 300 block of the dark, quiet street, two pools of light spilled into the night, indicating business activity and the possibility of coffee. One of the pools of light belonged to a beer and conjunto bar called The Green Spot, probably not the most welcoming atmosphere for long-haired hippie college kids. The other light emanated from a new business they'd never seen before and they rode down to check it out. They found The Old Pecan Street Cafe at 314 E. Sixth. Soft light and the aroma of coffee brewing enticed them inside for a late night snack and cups of freshly ground imported coffee. They rode back to the Ramshorn co-op and regaled the rest of us with tales of the great new place they'd discovered on a pitch dark deserted street downtown, of all places. The year was 1973. Before long, we'd become regulars at Pecan Street -- some of us even cooked or waited tables for a time before graduation. We had an almost proprietary feeling about the place because, after all, it was our discovery. The quaint little cafe was in a long, narrow building that boasted more than 100 years of colorful history. The walls were rough limestone and the floors were well-worn hardwood. The room had two levels and a lovely little courtyard out back dominated by an ancient grapevine. It offered one of the first "continental" menus that Austin had seen, with some interesting sandwiches, a daily special, crepes with different fillings, good cakes, and truly wonderful coffee. The coffee was a big attraction because Pecan Street purchased exotic (at least to us then) imported coffees from another new business called Anderson & Co. Interesting new food and wonderful coffee made a trip to Pecan Street worth it, even though it was located in what was then a pretty unsavory neighborhood after dark.
Austin was a sleepy college town in the early Seventies, with a decaying downtown where many buildings were boarded up or occupied by slowly dying businesses in need of rejuvenation. There wasn't much business activity in the daytime and even less at night. During the first years Pecan Street was open, bums still slept unmolested in doorways up and down the block. But then the personality of the street began to change. Following Pecan Street's example, young entrepreneurs began to snap up the cheap real estate and new businesses began to sprout in the restored historic buildings: a billiard parlour called Gordo's that served drinks and food, a club housing the hilarious young comedy troupe Esther's Follies, Wylie's bar, the original Antone's location, and the first fern bar/restaurant, Paradise Cafe. The seeds of the current entertainment district were sown in those businesses.
The original Pecan Street Cafe grew and changed ownership a few times. With growth, the business expanded into the building at 310 E. Sixth, gaining an upstairs banquet facility in the bargain. The original space at 314 served as Pecan Street's bar for several years and finally became Shakespeare's Pub. Shakespeare's is a full-service bar with a small game room and the same vine-covered courtyard out back. Perhaps it's one of your discoveries. In preparation for this issue, the members of the Chronicle food staff went looking for some new discoveries and here are some of the things we found. -- Virginia B. Wood
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
409 Colorado, 867-1839
I'd been very curious about the logistics of this new cinema/dining concept from the day Tim and Karrie League opened the Alamo Drafthouse in a remodeled warehouse last year. The evening I spent there recently gives a whole new meaning to the experience of dinner and a movie. The movie prices are cheap ($3.50), leaving plenty of money to spend on dinner. Here's how it works: You arrive about 30 minutes before showtime to have time to get situated comfortably, peruse the menu, and fill out an order blank. The friendly waitstaff circulates among the rows of seats, picking up the order blanks from metal holders. (The menu itself is relatively uncomplicated, offering popcorn, appetizers, salads, sandwiches, individual pizzas, desserts, sodas, a respectable selection of wines, and beers on draft, by the pitcher, the bottle, and the bucket.) Food and drinks are brought by the waitstaff and placed on long, bar-like tables in front of each row of seats. My advice is to eat before the movie starts or you run the risk of being festooned with salad bits or pizza toppings when the lights come up again.
Dinner and drink service continues through most of the movie. The flexible waitpeople slink quietly between the rows and tables, managing to extract order blanks from holders and distribute food and drinks without obstructing the view of the screen. It's an impressive service feat which requires stealth and agility and is well worth the tips. During the last third of the movie, tables are cleared and checks distributed. The only problem I had was accomplishing so many transactions in the dark, though I guess it's possible to wait until the lights come up to settle up with your waiter.
One idea that intrigued me about this place was customizing menus to complement scheduled movies. Tim League told me that they'd done some of that, offering Cajun and Creole specials with A Streetcar Named Desire and spaghetti with Spaghetti Westerns. They hope to feature such theme dinners at least once a month. More elaborate meals, such as a multi-course dinner to accompany, say, Babette's Feast or Big Night or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, would require a much more sophisticated kitchen operation and probably generate logistical nightmares.
The "dinner and a movie" theatre concept is growing around the country. The Leagues had their first experience with it in an old arthouse in Bakersfield, California, and are acquainted with operators of similar moviehouses in Dallas and Portland. Most are located in old single-screen downtown theatres, long abandoned in favor of suburban multiplex cinemas. "We looked for an old movie theatre before we decided on this place," League explained, "in fact, we were very interested in Cinema West on South Congress, but we just couldn't work out a deal there. We wanted to be part of a thriving entertainment scene and this building was in the right location and just barely tall enough to do what we wanted to do."
Nestled snugly between two restaurants just up the block from the center of the bustling new warehouse district, the Alamo Drafthouse could hardly be in a better spot. They'll be adding a digital sound system soon and within the next few months, a new cafe and billiard parlour will open downstairs from the theatre. What could be more entertaining than that? -- V.B.W.
The Burger Search Continues
And these complaints/tips would be expected and welcomed, since even food writers can only eat a finite number of burgers in the line of duty. But much to our surprise, we only received a few letters from the burger faithful, and those posts consistently pointed us in the same direction -- downtown. So after a rest from the plastic basket scene, we're back in the saddle searching for quality patties in the shadow of the Capitol. Oprah and mad cows be damned.
To be honest, we're not that surprised that we missed Mike's Pub -- a thoroughly undercover joint located on the second story of a car park on Seventh near Congress. Even standing outside the place, the only outward sign of life is a daily special board balanced in front of blasted-out window panes. Walk past the faded signs and up a sooty circular stairwell to the Pub itself, and you've found a good place for a downtown dive burger.
Mike's is a classic dive -- a deep, narrow lounge with a few booths and a long formica bar to the left -- that's been in operation since 1963. From the second you pass the doors, there's no doubt about the house specialty. The line forms immediately to the left, where George Lavas (the current Mike) tends a busy and well-seasoned griddle. The menu is simple: variations on burgers and fries, with the occasional chicken special thrown in for good measure.
The consistently flavorful patties -- not too thick but plenty substantial -- cover the large buns with diameter to spare. (Hardcore carnivores can jump to the double meat level should they require a bigger burger.) In keeping with tradition, the buns spend a bit of time on the griddle before being smooshed into a flavorful mess -- the true state of the American burger.
Don't bother to specify toppings while ordering (other than cheese or grilled onions), because the Pub works on a build-it-yourself system. While the handy condiment bar is light on fresh vegetables (standard-issue iceberg leaves and tomato slices), you can slather your creation with all manner of sauces and marinated delights (including jalepeños, pico de gallo, steak sauces, and two kinds of pickle relish). Make 'em messy, make 'em neat -- you'll still need plenty of napkins to keep the juice from running down your elbows. Burger bliss that's well worth the search....
The other neglected contender sits hidden in the middle of Sixth Street -- a tiny grill deep inside Casino El Camino (517 E. Sixth). Again, it helps to have inside information, since the Casino kitchen, like most Thirties speakeasies, requires prior knowledge to spot. In the barroom's perpetually dim light, it's easy to spot the kitchen window. It's the only bright spot that's not a video screen. No signs, no visible menus -- just go up and place your order. Then you wait. And you wait. But a little lingering is a small price to pay for one of the town's best barfood bargains.
To be blunt, "huge" doesn't even start to describe these burgers. They weigh in at three-quarters of a pound and are lovingly hand-mashed by a patient cook in a coonskin cap. These are the burgers that your dad makes when he cooks for himself. If you're not careful, a Casino burger can completely alter your sense of culinary scale. After years of eating four- to six-ounce patties, you may not be prepared to scale these 12oz mountains of meat. There is no controlling this portion -- it qualifies as a force of nature. (For light eaters and the easily overwhelmed, the cooks will thoughtfully reduce the patty size upon request.)
Pure mass notwithstanding, Casino's burgers are also remarkably tasty and come cut in two -- probably for insurance purposes. They come cooked a pleasing medium-rare on top of a toasted wheat bun and take a while to work through. In addition to the usual variations (not even listed on their one-page photocopied menu), the kitchen churns out locale-specific specialty burgers topped with everything from serrano chiles to shallot-spiked mayo. The Buffalo Burger -- soaked in the Casino's fiery chicken wing sauce and bleu cheese dressing -- wins points as most interesting (and messiest) combination with varying levels of cayenne afterburn. And at $4.75 a pop (add a side of crispy, hand-cut fries for another 75 cents), it may be the perfect drunkfood challenge for extended nights on the town. And the kitchen is open until 1:30am every night -- the next best thing to a 24-hour drive-through.
To all of you who wrote in, thanks for the tips. We couldn't have found these places without you.... -- Pableaux Johnson
Dining in Style
As a rule, we don't dress up in the city of slack. Maybe to go to work, probably on Valentine's Day, and if you showed up at the opera in a suit, you certainly wouldn't attract any flustered stares. But by the same token, you wouldn't be as shunned as you would be anywhere else if you decked out for Don Giovanni in rumpled khakis and your best shower sandals.
For the most part, it's a good thing to live in such a laid-back place. But sometimes the urge to get fancy does strike, so it's nice to be aware of a few options. And for the rare occasions that you do want to wear something you have to iron, what better place to do it than downtown?
Sullivan's Steak House, Ringside
300 Colorado, 495-6504
One of the swankiest places in town, Sullivan's caters to cigar-smoking, steak-eating politicos and their escorts -- er, make that friends and family. We restricted our order to coffee and dessert, and were presented with a trough of creme brulee with a healthy crop of raspberries balanced on the crisp caramel. Deee-licious. Can't wait to go back for the Sullivan's special: a 20oz hunk of steak for one. Ringside, the adjoining lounge, offers live music (jazz for grown-ups), leather upholstery, and a grandiose wood-hewn bar in a moat surrounding the elevated stage.
310 Colorado, 472-6670
Totally unrelated to the infamous Mezzaluna in Los Angeles, our unbesmirched restaurant of the same name is an upscalish nouveau Italian place with a large wine list, concrete floors, and dim, understated lighting, to say the least (just try to find the door out of the bathroom.) If you've got a hankering to don your deluxest digs and eat a nice piece of fish in near darkness, Mezzaluna is the place to go.
Bitter End Bistro and Brewery
311 Colorado, 478-2337
For dinner at the Bitter End -- an integral part of the see-and-be-seen scene that also includes Mezzaluna and Sullivan's -- you may dress up or down. Secure in the knowledge that it's a comparatively expensive, full-bar restaurant with a semi-pretentious atmosphere that serves some of the best lamb in town, go ahead and slip into some thigh-highs and a cocktail dress. Or focus on the brewpub aspect of the Bitter End to justify wearing your burlap sack once again.
Miguel's La Bodega
415 Colorado, 472-2369
This upscale Mexican restaurant/bar makes you feel like you're in a city instead of someone's hometown, so dressing to impress seems only appropriate. And if you're planning on salsa-ing or tango-ing the night away on the dance floor, you might not want to do it in anything less than a feather boa and some strappy high-heeled shoes.
412 Congress, 476-8017
Speakeasy is a three-story bar known for having a strict dress code and a misleading address. The dress code actually only discourages "baseball caps, T-shirts with crap on the front, and junky jeans," according to a phone spokesperson, but it could take a bloodhound to sniff out the location, on an alley between Congress and Colorado, behind Gilligan's. Speakeasy is a club that wielded far less of an attitude than anticipated, and we ended up marvelling at the extraordinary bar on the roof. A patio with a tiled fountain, heavy iron furniture, ceiling fans, and a killer view of the Spaghetti Warehouse proved to be one of the nicest spots for a drink in Austin. Other options are to stay inside playing pool, dancing, or crowding around small tables with tiny charming lamps on the romantic second floor.
912 Red River, 472-2873
Though the Caucus Club seems like a place that might turn a clodhopper away at the door, the dress-code situation is de facto rather than de juris: "Most of our clientele does like to dress as nicely as possible, though there is no specific code," said one employee. This bar gets points for providing fine acoustics and the opportunity to swing dance, but loses some for a menu of fusion-style martinis -- we ordered one with coffee beans, vanilla vodka, chocolate, and tuaca, but we got a maraschino instead of the coffee beans, and margarita-salt caked in with the chocolate surrounding the rim of the glass. (We also got an embarrassed apology from the waitstaff, who were undeniably eager-to-please.) Check out the outdoor patio.
106 E. Sixth, 476-2010
The vision of a woman in an alpaca coat and our waiter asking us, "Is that y'all's gold Mercedes out front?" would have made a trip to Louie's 106 worth it even without the tapas and wine. Order off the dinner menu if you're so inclined, but sharing the tiny, inexpensive ($2.50-$5.25) portions of fried calamari, duck liver pate, blue point oysters with crab and champagne sabayon, and carpaccio with basil, olive oil, and mustard is less of a commitment and much more entertaining.
Jean-Luc's French Bistro
705 Colorado, 494-0033
Jean-Luc's is the only restaurant in its block and may sometimes get overlooked as a result, which makes it far more charming for those who do find it. A bistro, by definition, is not particularly fancy, but looking good for mussels steamed with fresh herbs and bacon (or your date) is apropos.
311 W. Sixth, 476-8100
In the past, Sfuzzi has been synonymous with uptight and upscale, but the opulently eyelashed Nathan may be the sweetest and most indulgent waiter alive, and he guided us to some great chianti and a laid-back but gratifying eating experience. Getting snazzy is recommended, getting snooty is not. Entrées range in price from $8.50 for a pasta dish to $18 for fish or veal. I'm going back ASAP for a go at the spinach salad with pancetta dressing vinagrette.
600 W. Sixth, 477-8550
Star Bar runs the gamut from upscale at happy hour (when everyone is still in business duds) to downright casual with sports on TV later in the evening. It may not be a place to get decked out for, necessarily, but it's the antithesis of a dive.
Tocai of Austin
601 W. Sixth, 457-8880
The atmosphere at Tocai is intimate and rather formal, and the wine list includes some unusual varietals (we chose a Piedmont Nebbiolo). And after the calamari at Tocai -- prepared with a spicy batter, a single-batch frier, and a very light touch -- we finally understand that it's not only as good as the sauce. -- Meredith Phillips
The Driskill Hotel Dining Room
604 Brazos, 474-5911
Hotel dining takes many forms, from the locally lauded cuisine of Elmar Prambs at the Four Seasons to tourist favorites like the fajita-slinging La Vista at the Hyatt. Austin residents may not think of choosing a hotel dining room when it comes to an evening meal out downtown, but for many strangers to the city, hotel restaurants define the taste of the town.
The restaurant at the historic Driskill Hotel succeeds at feeling like a veteran downtown establishment, one that has played host to more than its fair share of power dinners and romantic rendezvous, despite its recent facelift and menu overhaul. The restaurant is dark beyond dim, with deep mahogany woodwork, heavy plantation shutters, gilt-framed portraits, and tiny little lamp sconces that cast an intimate, golden glow on each formally set table. Banquettes line the walls, and plump upholstered chairs complete the seating. Plush, forest green carpet dotted with "Lone Stars" silences foot traffic, and upon arrival, a strict maitre d' escorts diners to the table, suggesting a pre-dinner cocktail or glass of white wine. For locals, it's not difficult to imagine who might be a regular customer at the Driskill: an affluent widower upward of 60 who at once appreciates the pampering of personal service and relishes a meal free of social intrusions.
The restaurant's menu is decidedly more contemporary than its atmosphere, and "new Texas cuisine" -- a cuisine inextricably linked to designer chile peppers and decorative herbed creams -- figures prominently. There are several "old Texas" standbys, of course, among them three grilled steak possibilities with potatoes. And the menu also features a surprising number of game offerings, from the wildly popular wild boar sausage served at several locations around town to rarely seen rabbit. Wines by the glass are limited, but the restaurant's list should not leave anyone (anyone with a plump wallet) wanting.
My dinner began with a round of appetizers, the favorite a wild mushroom and leek crepe garnished with asparagus and afloat in a chive cream sauce ($8.95). The leeks were finely diced and still slightly crisp, and the crepes were artistically folded to resemble kerchiefs and topped with a shaving of smoked gouda. The sauce, although tasty, was not as delicate as expected due to a liberal, although not entirely unwelcome, dose of black peppercorn. A quesadilla stuffed with rabbit -- (an aside for the uninitiated: Yes, it tasted like chicken) -- green chiles, and Monterey jack cheese ($8.95) turned out to be less notable. The tortillas were golden and bubbly, but the zig-zag of cilantro cream and small mound of pico de gallo failed to provide ample moisture to the mix. Next time I'll opt for the roasted boar sausage with a dried cherry demi-glace ($8.95) or the grilled lobster and corn enchilada with New Mexico chile, pico de gallo, and cilantro sour cream ($9.25).
Dinner brought duck and lamb to the table, the duck dish certainly the more unique of the two. Shredded duck confit matted together with barbecue sauce came served piled high atop a birthday cake-sized wedge of jalapeño cornbread swimming in grilled corn cream ($14.95). The architectural entrée was of mammoth proportions, and my only complaint with it was that the barbecue sauce tasted naggingly like a standard bottled variety. The lamb -- four thick chops ($20) -- was encrusted with pumpkin seeds and herbs and sat in a dark pool of ancho tomatillo demi-glace from which a mound of garlic mashers and baby greens arose. Although it arrived at the table considerably undercooked and was sent back to the kitchen, the plate promptly returned as beautifully presented as it had originally been. The lamb was tender and juicy, and the slightly tangy, caramel-colored sauce elevated the dish beyond the ordinary. Although I didn't sample it, at least one of the entrées at the Driskill pushes the fusion food thing a little too far in my book, but deserves mention simply because it might please the more adventurous. A seared tuna steak ($22) comes served atop ancho polenta and blanketed in a beurre blanc laced with blood orange juice. If that's not enough, a mango vinaigrette finishes the dish.
Dessert, unfortunately, turned out to be a miss. The maple pecan pie ($4.50), which was among our server's recommendations, exited the kitchen as little more than a pecan praline in a pastry shell. The pie lacked body, and the crust was marred by a heavy hand with the salt.
Would I recommend the Driskill to Austinites in search of a dinner location downtown? Sure, why not? Despite a few kinks, my evening there was enjoyable, and the restaurant's refined, Old World atmosphere certainly offers a diversion from competing spots in the heart of town. It must be said, though, that out-of-towners who dine at the Driskill in hopes of discovering the pulse of Austin's food scene are sure to get a rather unusual, perhaps out-of-date, picture of the city's personality. -- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry