With scores of smart new hotels, restaurants and more, Austin is a more sophisticated destination than ever before. But don’t worry, it’s still quirky. By Daniel Renfrow
FAMOUSLY QUIRKY ATX has long been a favorite weekend destination for Houstonians who feel as if they know the city well. But the truth is, if you haven’t been to Austin lately, you really haven’t been to Austin. The growth in recent months has catapulted the city into a new era, capturing the attention of the national press, who can’t get enough. New boutiques, hotels and restaurants abound — all just a little weird, appropriately.
Situated in Austin’s increasingly lively Rainey Street Historic District and named after the state’s iconic Van Zandt family, which gifted the music world Townes Van Zandt, longtime Bruce Springsteen guitarist and E Street Member Steven Van Zandt, and lead vocalist and founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd Ronnie Van Zandt — among many others. Needless to say, the Hotel Van Zandt (605 Davis St., 512.542.5300) homages Austin’s music scene at every level. From the massive horn-inspired chandeliers that greet guests upon arrival to the carefully curated individual playlists that are selected for each common area and meeting room by the hotel’s director of music — yes, that is a job that exists — it’s hard to forget that you’re in one of the music capitals of the world. Where else can you find a hotel that pumps Bob Dylan and Lyle Lovett into their elevator speakers, or plays Lynyrd Skynyrd in their lobby? The hotel even has underwater speakers in the pool pumping out opera favorites, just in case a swimmer wants to catch a little Puccini on her way up for breath.
All 319 rooms at the Van Zandt are sleek and spacious, with views of either downtown Austin or Lady Bird Lake, both of which are accessible to guests on a leisurely ride on a custom-designed bicycle available in the lobby. Or, if guests prefer to tour the town with Fido — all pets are welcome at the Hotel Van Zandt regardless of breed, weight or species — they can stroll the area and check out one of several new bars popping up along the strip, like the delightfully divey Clive Bar (609 Davis St, 512.524.1623) or Bangers (79 Rainey St, 512.386.1656), a beer-lover’s haven with more than 100 on tap. And for those who don’t want to leave the hotel for dinner and drinks, the Van Zandt’s restaurant Geraldine’s offers a chef-driven menu of culinary classics with only-in-Austin twists. The restaurant’s Smoked Yellow Taco has Thai tomatillo sauce, taro root, candied garlic and cilantro.
A short walk from the hotel down Rainey Street will take you to Emmer & Rye (51 Rainey St., Ste. 110, 512.366.5530), a contemporary American standout that opened last fall. Helmed by Executive Chef Kevin Fink (French Laundry, Noma), who was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2016, the restaurant has a seasonal menu that changes daily. Here, you’ll want to start with some shareable dishes off the main menu — the Emmer Strozzapretti, which is a pasta made from wheat milled in-house, is served with confit pork, cabbage, kale and lemon — and also pick several small plates such as the dry-aged beef tartare (served with beets, plantain leaves and puffed Sonoran wheat berries) from the dim sum carts the servers taxi about. “The ultimate goal of the restaurant was to make this kind of fun food and local experience accessible to a lot of people,” says Fink, who notes that the Rainey Street-area location is as important as the food at Emmer & Rye. “We always wanted a restaurant that had energy to it, and this street has a ton of that.”
Meanwhile, downtown, accommodations include the brandnew, behemoth JW Marriott (110 E 2nd St., 512.474.4777). The 34-story, 1,000-room hotel, now the largest in Austin, is in the heart of the district and a short walk away from Sixth Street and other go-to destinations — so guests can enjoy time in the JW’s spa Austin on Record Clockwise from top left: The lobby of the Hotel Van Zandt; lamb tartare with puffed white sonoran wheat crackers at Emmer and Rye; “The Record Player Birds” installation by Paul Villinski in the Hotel Van Zandt lobby; a handpoured cocktail at Emmer & Rye. without worrying about how to get to the bar later! Or consider posting up at the hotel’s pool and patio area, which offers stunning views. If cooler weather has set in, don’t fret. Grab a drink at the patio’s rooftop bar and take in the view by one of the hotel’s fire pits. The hotel also has three dining concepts — the high-end Italian restaurant Osteria Pronto; Corner, a regional-cuisine restaurant with an excellent tequila selection; and Burger Bar, which touts handspun shakes and freshly ground burgers, which may just be the perfect cure for a hangover (just saying).
For the boutique-hotel set — and God knows they love Austin — Hotel Eleven (1123 E. 11th St., 512.675.0011), opened in April in East Austin as a lodging option with the best of both worlds. It’s just a mile away from the downtown conveniences and destinations, and it’s in the heart of one of the city’s most eclectic ’hoods. Breweries, bars and restaurants dot the streets of the district, and Hotel Eleven fits right in. The scenic — and sceney! — rooftop deck and lobby bar is lots of fun. Plus, with only 14 guest rooms, the service is uniquely personalized and attentive.
Beyond the booze, East Austin boasts several cool boutiques, like the bright and bohemian Aro (906 E. 5th St., Ste.106, 512.348.7094), which recently relocated from South Lamar. Owner Leslie Hernandez — one of the many, many New York expats who now call ATX home — worked for several independent jewelry designers on the East Coast, and her boutique has a stellar collection of funky jewelry from indie lines like MVaz Jewelry, LAB by Laura Busony and Lila Rice. Aro also carries a curated selection of apparel and artisan lifestyle goods like handcrafted Tactile Matter vases and Gemma Patford rope baskets.
Nearby, Juniper (2400 E. Cesar Chavez St., No. 304, 512.220.9421) is an chic-yet-homey, upscale eatery that opened late last year with a focus on Northern Italian cuisine. Nicholas Yanes, the former chef and creative director at the flagship Uchi in Austin runs the restaurant, which has an open-kitchen concept to create the feeling of an intimate dinner party in someone’s home. The best seats in the house are along the communal chef’s table, which wraps around the kitchen and the bar, allowing interaction with the chefs as they cook up rustic favorites like their version of Porchetta — a savory and fatty Italian pork roast served with butternut squash, rosemary and onions. “We wanted to do pretty straight-forward food that was interesting in its flavor combinations,” says Yanes, “and that were still true to central Texas and true to the heart and the idea of Italian cuisine.”
East Austin has a lot to offer when it comes to dining and imbibing, but those who seek to shop on vacation will be hard-pressed to find a more convenient place to roost than the South Congress Hotel (1603 S. Congress Ave., 512.920.6405). Located in the center of Austin’s famous SoCo shopping district, it is also less than a year old — and may be the best bet in town for shopaholics. The 83-room boutique hotel is already a top attraction for its high-end amenities — down to the Aesop hand soap in the bathrooms. The warmly decorated, minimalist-chic hotel is also home to three restaurants, a coffee shop, two boutiques and a high-end nail salon — which means one could basically spend an entire weekend in Austin without leaving the property.
Otoko, a 12-seat Japanese restaurant captained by James Beard Foundation Award and Top Chef winner Paul Qui, is the crown jewel of the property, and one of the hardest reservations in Austin to come by. Here guests can have the rare experience of a Kaiseki — a traditional multi-course, artfully plated Japanese dinner — and try dishes from a menu that changes daily but often features favorites like Hokkaido Uni, which is served with white sturgeon caviar and wasabi, or fresh Copper River King Salmon, which is plated with papaya, cilantro and shottsuru. Book early!
Meanwhile, the South Congress Hotel’s Café No Sé offers one of the best brunches in town — Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman’s crispy kouign-amanns, which are a type of Breton cake made with buttery and sugary viennoiserie dough, are a must-try. And Sunroom, the complex’s cool, beachy boutique that carries hard-to-find lines like Lisa Marie Fernandez, Brother Vellies and DEZSO, is so well curated that the owner, New York transplant Lucy Jolis, was called on to curate the hotel’s gift shop as well. South Congress may be the mecca of Austin shopping, but it’s not the only place to make hip discoveries. One surprise can be found even further west, off the beaten urban path, in the beautifully sprawling hills of Westlake. Houston’s (by way of Italy) Giorgio Borlenghi has expanded the Granduca Hotels to Austin. The boutique hotel’s Tuscan-villa design is an elegant counterpoint to the quirk — if only for an aperitivo.
Another of Austin’s hidden gems, Psyche Jewelry (1720 Barton Springs Rd., 917.202.5034), is a short drive away, on somewhat unexpected terrain. Located on Barton Springs Road at The Picnic, a bustling food-trailer park, Psyche Jewelry is housed in a petite airstream trailer in a grassy little yard dotted with pink flamingos. New York transplant Nina Berenato, the founder and designer of Psyche Jewelry, stocks her shop-on-the-go entirely with baubles of her own design — think geometric shapes, and pieces that run the gamut from intricate and dainty to bold and chunky. New this fall is her “Warrior” collection; dramatic statement pieces include a spiked, golden ear cuff and a ring that looks like a dagger.
Buying jewelry out of an airstream trailer is probably one of the most quintessential Austin things you can do, an experience that really mustn’t be missed in a city still full of idiosyncrasies.