We make our way through the picturesque farm and ranch country of central Texas, headed for downtown Austin and then to the north shore of Lake Travis. It’s a spur of the moment road trip. An impulse to get out of town before the summer slips away, do a little wining and dining someplace fresh and different. We’ve come to the right place.
Downtown Austin and its surrounding neighborhoods are bursting with activity everywhere you look, yet somehow the city manages to rebuff the frenzied pace of its Texas siblings, Houston and Dallas. This is a pretty amazing feat considering that within a fairly small perimeter, you will find one of the largest universities in the country, the legislative bustle of the second largest state in the union, shopping that spans from resale to ritzy, historic homes, notable museums, extensive hike and bike trails, water recreation on Lady Bird Lake, a stellar live music scene, abundant nightlife, and, most importantly, scores of creative and fun places to eat. If you pick the right lodging, there’s lots to do, all within a laid back stroll of your hotel.
We pull into the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel on Congress Avenue. This 1924 historic property was completely renovated in 2000. Its central location provides a striking view of the state capitol building and easy access to 5th and 6th street dining and entertainment. We check in, then take a stroll down Congress for coffee, window shopping and people watching. No hurry, no place to be.
Austin is a city that generally does not suffer the pretentious or the ostentatious. When I’m walking around downtown, I don’t see a lot of flashy jewelry and giant statement purses. I don’t see thick makeup and belabored hair-dos. Austinites don’t seem to operate that way. Too showy. Too much trouble. And whether you’re eating at a vegetarian sandwich shop or an upscale bistro, people are going to be dressed comfortably, often in a sort of hybrid between California earthiness and East Coast edge. Flip flops, biker boots, vintage wear, western wear, hippie wear, not too self-consciously put together–like you just grabbed something trendy yet simple off the back of the chair in your bedroom and skipped out the front door without a thought of putting an outfit together. (I’m sure it’s not that simple, but it’s that sort of vibe!)
It’s rare for us to hit town on a vacation without already having reserved somewhere for dinner. But here you don’t feel that push and panic about getting a table. There is going to be good food available somewhere close by, even though its Friday night. Unless there is a big event going on downtown, making a reservation a few hours ahead of time will get you into most places. We make a brief return to our hotel before heading out for the evening.
Across the street from where we’re staying is The Driskill Hotel. Built in 1886, it’s the oldest operating hotel in Austin. The Driskill has hosted presidents and celebrities for well over a century. With its Texas ambience and inventive cocktails, The Driskill Bar is a great place to start the night. It seems to be on everybody’s list of great American bars, including Food & Wine Magazine and Garden & Gun Magazine. It was featured just a few weeks ago on the August 6th episode of the Esquire Network show, Best Bars in America.
I order The Batini, which our waitress informs us is the “official” cocktail of Austin. The Driskill makes theirs with Tito’s Vodka, hibiscus and ginger simple syrup, and agave sweet & sour. It’s a tart and refreshing cocktail, a nice choice for sipping on a hot August evening. The drink is named in honor of the largest urban bat colony in North America. You can watch these little guys swoop through the air at sunset each evening as they come and go from their perches under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.
After enjoying the live music, a little Western swing on piano and fiddle, we set out for our dinner reservation, exiting through the Driskill lobby so that we can get a good look at the ornate stained glass ceiling and inverted dome.
Just around the corner is our destination, the original Eddie V’s Prime Seafood on 5th Street, a smaller, more intimate restaurant than some of the dozen or so newer locations in Texas and elsewhere. There’s live jazz playing here almost every night in the restaurants’s popular bar, The V Lounge.
The service here is informed and seamless, modeled after what you would find at New Orleans eateries like Galatoire’s. Commander’s Palace and Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, where some of the waiters are as well-known as the chefs in town. Our server helps us pore over the wine and dinner menus. To pair with our meal, we settle on a nice burgundy, a 2009 Domaine Charles Audoin Marsannay Les Longeroies burgundy.
To some food writers, the “arugula and goat cheese thing” has become a bit hackneyed. Eddie V’s popular take on the salad is delicious enough to breathe new life into what could otherwise be a tired first course option. Their wild mushroom salad consists of arugula, sautéed shitake and oyster mushrooms, and a mound of warm goat cheese, all arranged inside the loving arms of a few creamy white leaves of Belgian endive. Simple, yet extravagant.
The restaurant has a full array of prime, hand cut beef, so John orders a nice filet. But for me, it’s all about the seafood. The list of fish on the menu is extensive, flown in daily from wherever the catch is best. Preparations emphasize this freshness, with minimal intrusion of heavy sauces, toppings, breading and other distractions. I take a bite of the special I have selected, a North Carolina flounder topped with a bit of sweet, jumbo lump crabmeat and a few well-placed greens–the fish is fresh, light, perfectly cooked and seasoned.
Well into the evening hours now, downtown Austin is lit in a multitude of colors, with the capitol building as backdrop.
We saunter back to the hotel, which is now edged in a purple neon glow.
The next morning, we take our time before setting out for the rest of our trip. Our last stop before departing is the Austin Wine Merchant on West Sixth Street. This locally owned shop has a formidable selection of wines and the knowledgeable staff to go with it.
You know you’re in a shop that is serious about its wine when you are offered a jacket at the door–for the sake of the wine, the whole pace is kept at a brisk 65 degrees year-round.
Our wine shopping done, we head out of Austin to the north side of Lake Travis, a few of our favorite bottles in tow. Later, we look out over the lake at dusk and uncork my favorite find from earlier in the day, a 2010 Domaine Rene Rostaing Cote-Rotie Ampodium. In a few short days we’ll be back home, but for now we enjoy the hill country sunset.
Can’t think of a better way to savor the last days of summer…
The Driskill Bar
(Inside The Driskill Hotel)
604 Brazos Street
Austin, Texas 78701
Eddie V’s Prime Seafood
The V Lounge
301 East 5th Street
Austin, Texas 78701
The Austin Wine Merchant
512 West 6th Street
Austin, Texas 78701-2806