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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 15, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 11
Austin - The shining star of Texas
Arts & Entertainment
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Austin - The shining star of Texas

by Andrew Collins - SGN Contributing Writer

Austin isn't just liberal by Texas standards - it's one of the nation's most progressive cities, as well as a luminary in live music venues, cutting-edge restaurants and bars, indie retail, and outdoor recreation. It's routinely cited as one of the coolest and most livable cities in the country, and it's steadily developed into a highly popular Gay and Lesbian destination, especially during key arts and cultural events like South by Southwest in mid-March, Gay Pride in early September, Austin City Limits Music Festival in early October, and the Austin Film Festival in late October. The city makes for a great visit year-round, though, as even during the hot summer months you'll find plenty of great ways to cool off, from swimming at Barton Springs to boating and sunbathing at clothing-optional Hippie Hollow on Lake Travis.

The Lone Star State's capital city, Austin (www.austintexas.org) continues to soar in population. It's grown from about 470,000 to 820,000 since 1990 to become the nation's 13th largest city. There's a sizable and very visible Gay scene, and many businesses around town are LGBT-owned, although the community is very well-integrated within Austin's as a whole - there's no specific Gayborhood, and at many of the city's top nightspots and restaurants you'll encounter a decidedly mixed crowd. Austin may also have more Lesbian-owned accommodations than any city in the country, including hip, design-driven boutique properties like the Hotel San Jose and the Kimber Modern.

Here's a look at some of Austin's favorite LGBT hot spots for dining, drinking, and accommodations.

DINING
The locavore food movement thrives in Austin. Many leading farm-to-table restaurants are in the trendy South Congress (SoCo) and South Lamar neighborhoods, a short drive across the river from downtown, and just across I-35 from downtown in steadily gentrifying East Austin. These areas also abound with cool food trucks. In South Lamar, you'll find the stellar gastropub Barley Swine (barleyswine.com), a bustling if cramped space serving first-rate food and hard-to-find beers and wines. Recent dishes have included a chicken-fried chicken egg, and duck foie gras with carrot, lavender, farro, and hibiscus. If there's a wait for a table, step next door to Henri's (henrischeese.com), a dapper little spot serving artisan cheeses, charcuterie, and wine.

South Congress Café (www.southcongresscafe.com) has been one of SoCo's hot spots for years, turning out delicious contemporary Texan cuisine like mesquite-grilled pork chops and (at brunch) carrot-cake French toast with cream cheese-pecan syrup. Owned by talented Gay restaurateur Lou Lambert, the Elizabeth Street Café (elizabethstreetcafe.com) serves creative Vietnamese food, including hearty noodle bowls and Texas-inspired kaffir-lime fried chicken banh mi sandwiches. Owned by the same team is Lamberts (www.lambertsaustin.com), a sleek downtown space that describes its fare as 'fancy' barbecue (think cold-smoked quail and oak-grilled Colorado lamb T-bones). For more authentic Texas barbecue, prepare to stand in line for a seat at Franklin Barbecue (franklinbarbecue.com), which is justly famous for its tender brisket and smoked sausage.

Across from two Gay bars in the Warehouse District, Peche (www.pecheaustin.com) is a romantic, cozy place with exposed-brick walls and high ceiling, serving pre-Prohibition-style cocktails and fine American and Continental fare. Nearby, Frank (hotdogscoldbeer.com) is a good bet for cold beer and hot sausages, with the Jackalope (antelope, rabbit, and pork sausage with cranberry compote, Sriracha aioli, and cheddar) a signature specialty. A few blocks away, head to stylish and contemporary La Condesa (lacondesa.com/austin) for artfully plated food inspired by Mexican street vendors, including ceviche, carnitas taquitos, and carne asada. Return to South Lamar to campy Maria's Taco Xpress (www.tacoxpress.com) for cheap and tasty Tex-Mex fare, from al pastor tacos to gorditas.

You might want to break up your exploring with a stop for sweets. A longtime favorite for its rich, creatively flavored ice creams (bacon-jalapeno popper, banana pudding, Mexican vanilla) is Amy's (www.amysicecreams.com), which has locations in several fun neighborhoods, including South Congress, downtown's Old West, and the UT district. Newer in town and receiving lots of attention for its superb artisan ice cream, Gay-owned Lick (ilikelick.com) serves such delightfully daring flavors as roasted-beets-and-fresh-mint, and goat cheese-thyme-honey.

Coffeehouses have a major presence in Austin. The cafe inside the famous and LGBT-popular Book People (www.bookpeople.com) bookstore is always a good bet. South Austin's Bouldin Creek Café (www.bouldincreek.com) has delicious fair-trade coffee and chocolates, plus excellent breakfasts (try the migas) and veggie tacos. And in East Austin, Texas Coffee Traders (www.texascoffeetraders.com) is one of the city's most respected artisan roasters.

BARS AND NIGHTLIFE
In downtown Austin, the Warehouse District has long been a favorite hub of Gay nightlife - it's home to long-running Oilcan Harry's (www.oilcanharrys.com), an always-packed stand-and-model bar that attracts a hot collegiate crowd and has a spacious back patio. Next door, Rain on 4th (www.rainon4th.com) has a lovely deck out back, a cozy billiards bar up front, and a mid-size dance bar in the middle. A couple of doors down, newcomer Posh (www.facebook.com/PoshAustin) restaurant and bar is rapidly become a popular option in the neighborhood. For a somewhat mellower scene, head across the street to stylish Halcyon (www.halcyonaustin.com), a Gay-friendly hangout serving everything from espresso drinks to cocktails, plus tasty food.

On the east side of downtown, Rusty's (www.rustysaustin.com) is an inviting, mixed guys/Lesbians venue with live music, often of the country-western bent. There's also a fun Latin party on Sunday evenings. Nearby Lipstick 24 (lipstick24austin.com) is the city's top Lesbian venue, although everybody is quite welcome here. Head for the attractive deck on warm evenings and enjoy the live entertainment, which ranges from local bands to poetry readings to belly dancing. A few miles north of downtown, 'Bout Time II (www.bouttime2.com) is a welcoming neighborhood bar in a relatively new and roomy space that has karaoke, dancing, and great drink specials.

On the west side of downtown, The Iron Bear (www.theironbear.com) is - you guessed it - a hot spot for bears, otters, and the like. It's an attractive space with cool bartenders and a no-attitude vibe. Also popular with the leather-bear set is Chain Drive (www.chain-drive.com), a rough-and-tumble bar that's been thriving on the edge of a sleepy downtown-adjacent neighborhood for years. This area, particularly its main drag, Rainey Street, has suddenly become a hot destination for drinking and dining, with a passel of cool hipster lounges and restaurants set inside converted Arts and Crafts bungalows. Favorites include Javelina Bar (www.javelinabar.com) for delicious bar food (green chile pork fries, miga burgers), and Blackheart Bar (www.blackheartbar.com) for live music and a great selection of bourbon and whiskey.

Some downtown clubs have Gay nights, including Barbarella (www.barbarellaaustin.com), which hosts a very fun TuezGayz party each week, and the Warehouse District's Republic Live (republicliveaustin.snappages.com), which often has Gay parties and events. And there's a slew of noteworthy mixed hangouts, including (to name a few) Gibson (www.gibsonaustin.com) on South Lamar, the sleekly decorated Hangar Lounge (www.thehangarlounge.com) in downtown Gay-popular Warehouse District, quirky Cheer Up Charlies (www.facebook.com/cheerupcharlies) in East Austin, and Spider House (www.spiderhousecafe.com), a funky bar and coffee lounge near the UT campus.

LODGING
In the heart of downtown, the wonderfully glamorous, significantly historic, and allegedly haunted Driskill Hotel (www.driskillhotel.com) is where dignitaries and celebrities often stay when in town. This gorgeously restored 1886 building with fine artwork lining the hallways has warmly furnished rooms, the acclaimed Driskill Grill restaurant, and an inviting bar that serves great cocktails and tasty snacks like truffled popcorn and house-baked soft-pretzel sticks. Other great options downtown include the swish W Austin (www.whotelaustin.com), with its striking contemporary rooms and see-and-be-seen bar and restaurant, and the 31-story Hilton Austin (www.hilton.com/austin), a great option for convenience to 6th Street music clubs and Rainey Street lounges and restaurants.

Across the river, you'll find another excellent lodging base in retro-trendy SoCo, home to the bargain-priced Austin Motel (www.austinmotel.com). Rooms at this quirky slice of '50s-style Americana have simple but comfortable furniture, and some have kitchenettes. A few blocks away, and owned by trendsetting Lesbian designer Liz Lambert (sister of Gay restaurateur Lou Lambert), the Hotel San Jose (www.sanjosehotel.com) is another vintage motor court, but it's been given a swanky postmodern, minimalist makeover - the spacious courtyard suites are especially posh. Lambert also owns the stylish Hotel Saint Cecilia (www.hotelstcecilia.com), which is nearby but on a quieter residential street. In the same area, partners Kimber Cavendish and Vicki Faust run the Kimber Modern (kimbermodern.com), a dramatic boutique hotel whose high-tech, minimalist rooms have such notable features as plush platform beds and sleek yet warm furnishings.

Austin has a handful of Lesbian-owned B&Bs, each with its own charm. In SoCo, the Park Lane Guest House (www.parklaneguesthouse.com) is a peaceful, eco-minded hideaway comprising three spacious cottages as well as a more affordable room in the main house. Not far away, Gateway Guesthouse (www.gatewayguest.com) is a striking 1918 beauty with six smartly furnished rooms or cottages. Co-owner Bess Giannakakis, a talented chef, prepares delicious breakfasts and teaches cooking classes at the inn. And in leafy Old West Austin, the Brava House (www.bravahouse.com) is an elegant 1880s Victorian within walking distance of downtown and a number of great restaurants.

For a relaxing yet potentially invigorating experience out by Lake Travis (near Hippie Hollow's popular Gay beach), book a weekend at Travaasa Austin (www.travaasa.com/austin), an 'experiential resort' where you can go on hikes or horseback adventures, take archery or yoga classes, enjoy a massage in the serene spa, take cooking or mixology lessons, or simply chill out for a few days in this rural setting that's just 20 miles northwest of downtown. The property comprises several clusters of buildings with upscale rooms, plus a terrific restaurant - Jean's Kitchen - that focuses on locally sourced cuisine as well as craft beers, wines, and spirits from Austin and the Hill Country region.

Andrew Collins is the editor in chief of the LGBT travel magazines OutAloha and OutCity, and he covers Gay travel for the website GayTravel.About.com. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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