March 7, 2008 -- If you're digging out summer clothes to take to Austin, Texas, this week, chances are you're packing a coveted SXSW badge as well.
So while much of your time will be spent at film premieres or possibly the Interactive Conference – and definitely at hundreds of live band performances when the music portion of the South by Southwest Festival kicks off March 12 – you've got to eat, at the very least.
Whether it's mixed fajitas or barbecued brisket, an improv comedy show or barefoot dancing, Janis Joplin's old haunt or Daniel Johnston's – you'd be remiss if you didn't see more of Austin than the interior of its music clubs.
Live Music Capital of the World
How did Austin come by this epithet? See for yourself at these local landmarks.
Auditorium Shores: Located on the south bank of Lady Bird Lake (formerly – and still often – known as Town Lake), this open space has hosted the likes of Willie Nelson and Austin's ReggaeFest, as well as an ever-present Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Texas-bred virtuoso is an icon to some, a god to others. Either way, his bronze statue is fitting, standing proud on Auditorium Shores, just west of the S. First Street bridge.
Threadgill's: Before Janis Joplin played Woodstock, or even recorded her first album, she could be seen blurring the lines between rock and country at this local comfort food eatery, just south of Lady Bird Lake. The pictures and memorabilia lining the walls bear witness, and after lunch here you'll forever associate "Bobby McGee" with "chicken-fried steak."
The "Hi, How Are You" Mural: Once painted by indie sensation Daniel Johnston, this famous frog mural was also the cover of his (highly underground) first album. Despite its lack of landmark status, the mural has survived several controversial attempts to demolish it and can still be seen along the Drag, the strip along Guadalupe bordering the University of Texas campus. The 2005 documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" and a stint of his artwork at the Whitney Biennial in New York the following year have brought Johnston – and his mural – further into the mainstream.
Eats and Drinks
The County Line: Choose between two locations – on The Hill (Bee Caves Road, just past Loop 360) or The Lake (FM 2222, just before 360) – and both are scenic. www.countyline.com
Stubb's: (801 Red River at 8th St.) Located right downtown, Stubb's doubles as a usual haunt for live music and CD release parties and is a SXSW venue. www.stubbsaustin.com
The Salt Lick: (18001 FM 1926) This one's a hike – a relatively short drive south of town to Driftwood, Texas. But for serious barbecue lovers and big groups (the ranch-esque dining scene can accommodate virtually any size party), it's worth the trek. www.saltlickbbq.com
Rudy's: (2451 Capital of Texas Hwy S.) From its small beginnings as a gas station, Rudy's is now one of Texas' most loved barbecue joints. www.rudys.com
Smoked meat isn't Austin's only culinary hallmark. Also vying for public favor are a slew of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants – yes, there is a difference. Where Tex-Mex uses southwestern flavors like cumin and tends to deep-fry everything right down to the tortilla chips, interior Mexican cuisine uses more fruits and vegetables – fresh tomatoes, just-cut cilantro and lots of red and green chiles.
It's a fine line, but when choosing a restaurant you really should be more concerned with the two great indicators: the freshness of the salsa, and whether the tortillas made on-site. Ones to try that pass the test:
Fonda San Miguel: (2330 W. North Loop) Interior Mexican cuisine in an upscale atmosphere. Sunday brunch is especially popular. www.fondasanmiguel.com
Curra's: (614 E. Oltorf) Also serving interior Mexican, but in a slightly more casual setting, just south of downtown. The famous tamales can be shipped to your door. www.currasgrill.com
Hula Hut: (3825 Lake Austin Blvd.) Tex-Mex with an island twist – and a sizable outdoor seating area overlooking scenic Lake Austin. The fish tacos and fruity margaritas are especially good. www.hulahut.com
Maudie's: (2608 W. 7th St.) This much-loved Tex-Mex spot has been winning awards since the 1950s. Though there are several locations, the Lake Austin outpost is closest to downtown. www.maudies.com
There are dozens – if not hundreds – more cafes, taco shacks and upscale eateries that have come to define the city. Here's a boiled-down list of where you can find the heart and soul of Austin on a plate:
Magnolia Café: (1920 S. Congress Ave.; 2304 Lake Austin Blvd.) Two locations: both on the edge of the SXSW scene, both open 24 hours. Try the Magnolia Mud (a hot mix of queso, beans and spices), and you might never leave Texas. www.cafemagnolia.com
Kerbey Lane Café: (3704 Kerbey Lane) Though other incarnations have crept up across the city, it's really worth visiting the original – a converted house on unpretentious Kerbey Lane. It's open 24 hours, but no matter what time you go, order the pancakes, largely considered to be the best in the free world. www.kerbeylanecafe.com
The Driskill Hotel: (604 Brazos St.) To actually stay at this historic downtown hotel during SXSW, call at least 9 months to a year in advance. But even if you're at La Quinta, at least stop in to have a drink and admire the opulent lobby columns, marble floors and stained-glass dome. Hard to believe it was once a cattle showroom when the Driskill first opened in 1886. www.driskillhotel.com
Shady Grove: Austin boasts about 200 music venues, but this Barton Springs joint is consistently voted the one with the best patio. And in March, that's exactly where you want to be eating. The burgers are roughly as popular as local radio station KGSR's unplugged music series, "Live at the Grove." www.theshadygrove.com
Sock by Sockwest: The second Sunday of each month (that's March 9 for SXSW-goers) the Scoot Inn (1308 E. 4th St) transforms into a high-energy sock hop. Kick off your shoes and dance like crazy to doo wop, rockabilly, ska, R&B, girl groups and more – all on a baby powder-sprinkled dance floor. http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=85556421
Improv Comedy: Austin's improv scene has long been heating up. Check out the unscripted goods at Get Up (http://getup.austinimprov.com), a two-person show starring two of Austin's most seasoned performers; Coldtowne (http://coldtowne.com), a slew of orphaned Katrina improvisers who've made Austin their adopted home; and the Hideout (www.hideouttheatre.com), the downtown home of Improvised Shakespeare, among other shows.
Alamo Drafthouse: Movies and beer? Yes. And a tasty food menu as well. Two downtown locations (320 E. 6th; 1120 S. Lamar; www.drafthouse.com), screen indie classics, cult first-runs and this week, SXSW selections -- all with discreet seat service of your favorite brews, pizza, salads and more. http://www.drafthouse.com/