Where Austin's music and food scenes come together
For many of the people visiting Austin this weekend, our city's reputation as a music mecca stems from their familiarity with the long-running PBS music series Austin City Limits and the wildly successful music festival bearing its name. In addition to a stellar musical lineup, Austin City Limits Music Festival promoters have also stocked the food court with some of the best representatives of our local culinary scene in keeping with their long-term goal to fashion an event that defines Austin music and food in much the same way Jazz Fest does New Orleans. (See the Chronicle ACL Fest Supplement feature "ACL's Food Court Continues to Expand Its – and Our – Horizons," for more.) Establishing that new musical-culinary convergence in Austin is a worthwhile goal we certainly support. But for going on nearly 30 years, locals have known that Austin's music and food scenes converge at Threadgill's, the Austin-themed restaurants that are the brainchild of entrepreneur/raconteur/historian Eddie Wilson.
The original restaurant, which Wilson affectionately refers to as "Old No. 1," is built around one of the cornerstones of the local music scene, Kenneth Threadgill's legendary gas station. Old man Threadgill had a genuine appreciation of the various forms of American folk music and was a fine Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeler in his day. A well-known tenet of local music legend is that Threadgill hosted regular Wednesday night shows, showcasing the emerging talents of performers such as Janis Joplin. Wilson was sometimes in attendance. "When I was still in high school, I dropped by the station a few times, bird-doggin' Kenneth's younger daughter. Later on, after I started at UT in 1961, my English teacher played there sometimes, and that's how I got introduced to the Wednesday night music scene," Wilson recalls. Fast-forward almost 20 years, and Wilson was back at the long boarded-up gas station with the vision necessary to turn it into a restaurant. Threadgill's opened in 1981, serving up made-from-scratch Southern home cooking in the meat and two sides format with hot rolls, cornbread, pies, and cobblers, complemented by the libations from a full bar. The price was right, the portions were generous, and just like at grandma's house, second helpings were offered at no charge.
Old No. 1 quickly developed a loyal customer base (myself included). We were so devoted, in fact, that we were willing to eat chicken-fried steak, San Antonio squash, and collard greens under a tent in the parking lot when fire temporarily closed the restaurant a few years after it opened. Renovations after the fire included the addition of a retro diner on the south side of the building and a small stage in the main dining room to showcase the resurrected Wednesday night music offerings. Keeping both the past and the future of Austin's music-food convergence alive is an important aspect of Wilson's life, and the most recent remodel of the original restaurant reflects that very purpose. The Threadgill and Joplin memorabilia are very much in evidence, and there's plenty of local mural art. The current menu was expanded a few years back when director of operations Dave Whitney joined the company – all the old favorite entrées and monumental selection of vegetable side dishes are still there, now joined by a selection of steaks, burgers, sandwiches, and salads. New Executive Chef Fred Geesin came on board to oversee the entire kitchen operation in 2005 and is also responsible for creating blackboard menu specials. The menu is still affordable and the portions still plentiful. The new main dining room is bigger and more comfortable, with a good-sized stage at the north end of the room and much improved acoustics. For months, Wilson has been describing it as "the sweetest small listening room in town. It's the first project I've ever done that I'm completely satisfied with. And for the early-show crowd, they can have a great supper and a first-class show in here and still be home before 10 o'clock." Enough said.
Threadgill's World Headquarters evokes another era of Wilson's career. The converted cafeteria just south of the river is literally only a stone's throw from the onetime location of the iconic Armadillo World Headquarters, another of Wilson's music ventures. It's no exaggeration to say that Austin City Limits and ACL Fest are here today in part because at one time there was an Armadillo World Headquarters – the place where rednecks and hippies drank beer together, listening to Willie Nelson, Greezy Wheels, Freddie King, Bruce Springsteen, and every touring act of the Seventies. The funky old armory with the cool vibe and the shady beer garden closed in 1980 and eventually fell to the developer's wrecking ball.
The best place to get some sense of the Armadillo today is in Wilson's Downtown Threadgill's outlet. (Be sure to check out the Armadillo World HQ plaque in the parking lot and Wilson's significant retro neon-sign collection while you're there.) The bar, dining room, and saloon are packed with Armadillo memorabilia – photos, posters, and mural art in addition to a jukebox loaded with the albums of artists who played the old venue. The menu and friendly service are the same as at Old No. 1, but the crown jewel here is the beer garden – a very inviting drinking and listening area several years in the making. It took a while for the strategically planted shrubbery to make the busy corner traffic completely disappear, but it's a secluded oasis now, with sturdy picnic tables facing a well-lit stage, surrounded by an acoustic shell. Hungry guests can order food at the bar inside and take it outside on paper plates to enjoy food, music, and drinks beneath the Texas sky and the watchful gaze of artist Jim Franklin's armadillos tucked under the roofline. That's about as Austintatious as it gets.
Wilson's next venture has been stalled for more than a year, but he hopes Threadgill's Cedar Park Depot will soon be back on track. He and partner Whitney are currently seeking investors to finance the suburban project's completion. Plans call for a Threadgill's restaurant and a new eatery called El Mojo Rojo Cantina, which Wilson describes as "a Tex-Mex/Cajun fusion joint, where, for the first time, I'll be able to serve people tequila in the complete absence of spinach and collards." The structures to house both restaurants and a new Cedar Park town meeting hall are built and awaiting finish-out. The Hill Country Flyer steam train boards nearby, and hungry suburbanites are reportedly very eager for the new town center to be completed. It's a pretty safe bet that music, food, and hospitality will converge there, too, when it's done. n
Threadgill's Old No. 1
6416 N. Lamar, 451-5440
Monday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday, 11am-9pm;
Bluegrass Sunday Brunch Buffet: 10am-1pm
Threadgill's World Headquarters
301 W. Riverside, 472-9304
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm; Sunday, 10am-9:30pm; Gospel Sunday Brunch Buffet: 10am-1pm; Howdy Hour: Monday-Friday, 4-6pm