Experience Austin Like a Local

July 24, 2019

In Austin, nothing is strange at all,” muses alto powerhouse and beloved local crooner Shelly King. She’s referring to the eclectic music scene on which Austin has built its reputation. But these days the notion sums up a city that’s evolving from a musical melting pot into a chic cosmopolitan metropolis with swagger, where you’re as likely to see a dressed-to-the-nines socialite as a rough-hewn cowboy. The passing traffic I observe while lingering over a cup at Jo’s Coffee, a buzzing, laid-back watering hole on perpetually hip South Congress, illustrates Austin’s multifarious makeup: There’s a pedi-cab pedaled by a guy named Rags Olsson (who I happen to know sports a business card that reads “funk guitarist/ pedi-cab driver/artist/golf caddy”); a fleet of Zipcars; a trio of serious road bikers spinning like it’s the Tour de France; some cruising Harley-Davidsons propelled by chunky, bearded drivers; and a black convertible Ferrari 458 Spider.

That last one slips into a parking slot as nimbly as a stalking jungle cat. A nattily dressed man steps out and heads toward Enoteca, an Italian osteria with Romanstyle pizza, dishes to go and a stellar wine list. Since I’m bound for the same place for some antipasti (fire roasted peppers, pistachio-speckled mortadella and the kind of lemony-garlic olives you can usually find only in Tuscany), I catch up with him and strike up a conversation. Turns out, he doesn’t own the car. Rather—and even better— he belongs to écurie25, a supercar club that debuted its Austin chapter last fall. The other seven locations can be found spread around the globe. Membership entitles access to a collection of more than 50 of the world’s most desirable cars, as long as you happen to be in one of the écurie25 cities. This rare Ferrari 458 Spider is available in Austin, but members living or visiting here can also take a Lamborghini Gallardo, an Aston Martin Vantage, or even a McLaren MP4-12C out for a spin. 

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The club also organizes social gatherings, motor sport events, parties and Grand Prix experiences for like-minded enthusiasts, visiting and local members alike. In November, when Formula 1—with its festive parties, bottles of gold-flecked Champagne, automotive demos and racetrack madness— takes over Austin, these automobile folk, and the rest of Austin, are in their luxe motor-head element.

Exploring SOCO  

Bag of antipasti in hand, I leave the Ferrari driver to his pizza and meander up South Congress. Called SOCO, located across the river and south of downtown, this area was once a dilapidated, deteriorating bit of the city awash in flophouses, decaying buildings and the sort of questionable characters that keep local police on their toes. Now gentrified, revived and buzzing with vitality, SOCO is chock-full of independently owned boutiques, unique cafes and compelling bars. 

With casual see-and-be-seen verve, it’s where the cool kids of all ages congregate. Here, you’ll find the iconic Continental Club, a boozy speakeasy that draws from deep Southern juke joint roots and hosts live musical acts every day of the week. Stores like Allen’s Boots, with shelves and shelves of jaw-dropping cowboy boots; Lucy In Disguise With Diamonds, a vintage clothes and costumes boutique; Parts & Labour, peddling clothing and accessories by some of Austin’s coolest designers; Blackmail fashion designers’ workshop with an all-black theme; and Stag, a menswear shop with a James Dean-meets-hipster-aesthetic define the drag. Home Slice Pizza, Guero’s and Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar offer plenty of places to nibble. On the first Thursday of the month, pedestrian-friendly SOCO revs up the action with its First Thursday street party. Stores stay open late and many offer free snacks and libations. Most restaurants, including food trucks, lure folks to stay awhile with extended happy hours or food specials. Throughout, on bare bits of sidewalk and in parking lots, a coterie of artisans set up booths to hustle their wares. It’s an inviting scene that unveils Austin’s creative, ebullient spirit—one that makes tourists feel like insiders.

But SOCO’s a bit quieter on this Thursday after – noon, which makes the sidewalk easier to negotiate and the shop fronts simpler to peruse. I’m en route to Kendra Scott Jewelry—perhaps the district’s most glamorous, glittering gem in Austin’s proverbial crown. A favorite stop for visiting celebrities, Kendra Scott brand has six stores nationally and a seventh slated to open in Newport Beach, Calif., this spring. Her successful flagship studio, however, sits in an airy gallery on South Congress. Opened in 2010, one year after Austin held its premier fashion week, its success reflects the burgeoning vim and vigor of Austin’s style scene.

Here, Kendra Scott herself custom cuts and hand sets colorful, textured stones into craftsman sculpted metal. Her designs, born from her personal style, embody a bold fusion of vintage and contemporary that’s both avant-garde and elegant— truly an evocation of Austin chic. “I take inspiration from Austin’s art, architecture, food, landscape and people,” she says. “Austin has an unlimited supply of all. It’s a mecca for art, and I don’t mean in the traditional sense.”  

Indeed, art in Austin is not limited to museums or galleries. It’s ubiquitous: as murals, outdoor statuary, graffiti in the experimental style of its populace and, as Scott says, among the “young artists selling their treasures on the street.” Already an Austin tradition, a stop at Kendra Scott’s to purchase jewelry appeals to women—and their escorts—of all ages. 

Wine & Dine

To reward myself for resisting a Byzantine-style necklace with purple stones, I cross the Congress Avenue Bridge and park myself at riverside TRIO at the Four Seasons for a glass of wine. At a table with a view, I natter with my friend, sommelier Mark Sayre, who helms the wine program here. He tells me his restaurant sells about 700 bottles of wine a month. “Austin’s wine scene is fearless,” Sayre says. “Buyers are unafraid to experiment, and diners are willing to do the same. Winemakers worldwide want to sell their wine in Austin because of this vibe.” Known for its wine events and dinners, TRIO pairs clean, contemporary small plates with wine that Sayre has carefully curated from small vineyards around the globe. “Dinners here are a communal celebration of what is right in the world of wine, regardless of region,” he says.

Think wines from Walla Walla, Wash., (Pepper – bridge or Waters) or Champagne and rich Bordeaux by the Gonet Medeville family. “My goal is to deliver producers who are on the cutting edge,” he says. I stay at TRIO just long enough to see the bats roll out en masse from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, like an undulating curtain of purplish black twilight. Their otherworldly chattering is a dissonant symphony and everyone watches in awe. Most people don’t know it, but Austin has the world’s biggest urban bat colony. At dusk, from April to October, they pour out from under the bridge to sate their hunger. A crowd-pleasing nightly tradition, the bats alone bring more than 50,000 tourists to Austin. To view this odd ritual, join the throngs atop the bridge, or do as I do and take a gander, glass of wine in hand, from TRIO’s lawn. Besides the bats and Austin’s touted live music scene (the city boasts more than 250 bona fide venues and hosts renowned music festivals like South by Southwest), Austin has most recently earned attention for gastronomy. 

With James Beard award winners and Bravo “Top Chef” participants, the city’s epicurean sensibilities lean toward the sophisticated. Take Lenoir, a Lilliputian bistro composed of repurposed wood and adorned with billowing fabrics. It delights local gourmands with a seasonal prix fixe menu that might include dishes such as fish curry with roasted squid and heirloom tomatoes. Or consider 24 Diner, bent on turning comfort food upside down. Not your granddaddy’s hangout, this all-day-and-all-night eatery stars “Top Chef” competitor and CIA New York valedictorian Andrew Curren, whose dedication to local products means farm-to-table cocktails at the bar and noshes like bruschetta with cauliflower puree, roasted mushrooms and herb salad. 

Curren’s 24 Hash— a concoction of house-cut Idaho potatoes, nitrate-free local pork and two runny eggs—is pure seduction. Just opened, Clark’s, a tiny oyster bar on West 6th Street, does a dazzling Gibson with house-pickled onions, offers plates of briny oysters flown in each day and does caper-topped Shrimp Louie that feels more Gulf Coast than landlocked central Texas. For three decades, Austin’s foodies have flocked to Fonda San Miguel for Mexican cuisine. In an art enveloped setting, mole (Puebla-style) and ancho rellenos stuffed with olives and roasted chicken keep the hoards coming back. Home to the original Whole Foods—along with a profusion of food trucks (more than 2,000 at last count) selling everything from bánh to barbecue—and abundant organic farms, foragers, family-owned food companies and farmer’s markets, the city draws from a food-obsessed foundation. Alchemist mixed cocktails, craft beer, homages to bacon, and sushi concocted from things such as blueberries and beef tongue set a voguish standard. And this liberal leaning town gobbles it up.

One of America's Most Fit Cities

Of course, if Austin’s denizens are going to enjoy food and drink so much, you can bet they’re equally obsessed with burning it off. Capturing a spot on nearly every “Most Fit City” list, Austin residents have earned the honor. There’s the extensive hike and bike path that winds around Lady Bird Lake, smack in the center of downtown. Nearby Barton Springs, a quarter-mile-long, natural spring-fed pool, beckons swimmers with its frigid waters (unceasingly set by nature at 68 degrees). It also harbors its own endangered species—a one-eyed albino salamander. 

A biker’s paradise, with a network of clearly marked paths, Austin embraces the two-wheeled lifestyle with gusto. Bike shops, like Mellow Johnny’s, offer visitors easy rentals, showers for post-workout cleanup and group rides that tour the city. Because so many lakes encircle Austin, water sports enthusiasts can kayak, canoe, boat, water ski—even paddleboard—to beat the heat. Sometimes, though, a gym calls—especially when summer temperatures soar. 

Mecca Gym & Spa, a sleek, urban oasis right downtown, has a mellow, tranquil mood and oodles of state-of-the-art equipment. Owner Jennifer Andrews says: “With our relaxed professionalism, meant to make people feel comfortable, we mirror Austin. Hey, we know you’d rather be doing something else more fun than exercising, but we’ll make the experience as pleasant as possible.” Accordingly, Mecca has a cafe (they even serve wine) and a gorgeous spa with unique treatments. Day passes are available. Lake Austin Spa Resort, a shoreside getaway ensconced within a wildlife preserve, offers another alternative for a day of respite. Posh, a top-rated destination spa, offers à la carte treatments and day packages as well as overnight stays. With a French chef, beautifully manicured grounds, three swimming pools and what may be the biggest spa menu in the world, Lake Austin Spa Resort is a threshold to another sphere. Authentic and as electrifying as a tonic, Austin marches to its own drummer. Visit, and you’ll feel the beat.