Austin is an oddity in Texasi. Even though our major cities tend to be little blue islands in a sea of redii, Austin ...well, Austin goes the extra mile. It's proud of its weirdnessiii and takes great pains to convince you of it. However, for all of that need for attention (being the little brother of the Houston-Austin-San Antonio triangle), Austin does have an authentic flavor that is undeniable. All that being said, I love the place. What it does well, it does very well. And what it does well is dive bars, barbeque, and musiciv. I relish the chance to explore this city, and recently had the chance to do so for an evening with an ex-resident in a tour of some of the finer dive bars of north Austin.
A month ago, I took a job-sponsored road trip out to New Braunfels for a conference on bacteria source tracking in surface waterv. This is the first time in a while I had a colleague along, a gentleman of fine taste in music and drinking establishments. After the conference, while deciding where to eat locally, he suggested we take a short road trip and catch some music. Now the logical thing for us to do would be to go out with the rest of our work acquaintances in the local cantina. The slightly less logical thing would be to drive to San Antone, right down the road a piece. The completely illogical thing would be for us to drive all the way to Austin. So Austin it was. Road trips aren't road trips if they're sensible.
We planned to catch a late show, so we had some time to kill. My imminently wise colleague suggested a tour of his old haunts, which turned out to be a true connoisseur’s tour of choice dive bars of Austin. There is just some thing about a dive bar. That heady scent of beer, sweat, and mold mixing with the ozone of badly wired amps and desperation coming from the no-name bands plying their luck with the listless regulars. And nobody does dive bars like Austin.
We started at Trophy's Bar and Grill, an unassumingvi little place that ended up being my favorite for the night. It was straight ahead Austin, no frills. A bar stocked with Texas beersvii, a rundown stage with an equally rundown alt-country act playing to yet even more rundown locals. The bartender, one of the epic alternative girls who seemingly exist only as baristas in independent coffee shops and bartenders, could tell we, or at least I, were tourists, but was pretty cool about it. Austin's good like that. Trophy's was the California side of Austin; laid back, spinning its wheels, but not getting too stressed about it.
The next stop was the Carousel Lounge. Words fail me. The Carousel was that fine line where irony and sincerity drunkenly two-stepviii. There was a pronounced, and inescapoably creepy, circus theme, including an elaborate bar, and décor that seems to have gone unaltered since the 60's. But the beer was cold, so, actively avoiding the stare of the clowns scattered throughout the room, we had at itix. There was an odd bit of performance theater taking place on the other side of the lounge, with a scruffy alterna-gent speaking in serious tones about his art with a small and equally trendy group of youngsters. It amounted to him playing a video of some art piece, so it was a bit anticlimatic, but that's ok..we weren't in the mood for pretentious art that evening. In terms of dive bar aspects, the Carousel embodied the creepy side of the dive bar experience. Not as enjoyable as the Trophy, but part of the overall experiencex.
The Carousel décor, and some experimental pretentious music somethingorother.
The third sojourn of our dive-bar hat trick came as the result of a conversation with a grizzled old regular at the Carousel. Unamused by the pretentiousness expounding in the back room ,she began to talk to us about other places and what a shame it was some of them weren't around. During the conversation she mentioned a place that sparked my colleague's attention. They talked about “Lala's” as if it were a mythical lost city. I knew as soon as I saw the spark in his eyes, we were headed there hell or high water. After a bit of searching we finally found itxi. Well, if this place was truly the stuff of myth that the old gal had made it out to be, it was likely a myth from a people with somewhat subdued expectationsxii. , because the reality was a bit..understated. It was fairly ho hum. More like the small town bar and grill places I grew up withxiii. Except the Christmas decorations. It seemed the place was lit solely by the never-ending heaps of Christmas lights, santas, trees, and collected kitsch. Even more so than the Carousel, it was anyone's guess if a season's lazinees in taking down the lights devolved into irony, or whether it was specific fetish of the ownerxiv. For whatever reason, Santa watched us drink a single beer, and then hastily beat a retreat for the door. In the fashion of the other bars, I would say that Lala's is the element of desperation and loss inherent to a good dive bar. A misplaced whimsy for time gone by as life passes youxv.
Lala's interior – lit by the light of a thousand tiny LED suns.
Having completed our study of the various aspects of divebar lore in Austin, it was time for a quick dinner before the main event. We stopped at Threadgills, a local fave, and as much as the BBQ enticed me, I went with the equally Texan, equally heart-clogging chicken-fried steak.
Threadgills and a Chicken-fried steak
It was almost time for the show, so we meandered back to the center of town and made our way to the Continental Club for the showxvi. Sadly, the act we were there to see wasn't able to make it because of an injury. We stuck around anyway for the replacement act, which ended up being fairly goodxvii. AWe are even pretty sure that the small beareded gentleman in sunglasses who made his way from the private rear entrance at the Continental (with a decent entourage) was one of the guys from ZZ Top. He was pretty cool about it, if he was. He walked in, gave a nod to the music act on stage, and to the bartender, and then walked past us.
The Continental Club, and a short snippet of main act David (pronounced Dah-veed) Garza.
All in all a good night...3 dive bars, a damn good steak, and a show. Counts as a good road trip in my book.
The only thing we ended up missing was the notable Gruene Dance Hall in New Braunfels. I stopped by for a picture, but it was closed.
iThat would have probably been better worded as “San Antonio is an oddity, EVEN FOR TEXAS.”
iiWhich completely doesn't jive with the virulently red State governance that squats atop the hill overlooking the City proper. It's been argued quite energetically over the years as to whether the wrought iron gate around the Capitol is designed to keep Austintonians out, or legislators in.
iiiEven though it's not quite as weird as it likes to think it is. More of an alt-country Portland.
ivA friend was planning a trip through Austin, among other cities, as she and her fiance prepared to be wed. I did not hesitate to give a three word answer (followed by a three page explanation) for Austin recommendations. BBQ, Music, Dive Bars. The holy trinity, though it's a matter of theological debate as to whether Music is the Father, birthing the Dive Bar, in that metaphor, or vice versa. Either way, BBQ is the Holy Ghost. It's somewhat hard to really comprehend, but it's presence is felt even after it's gone, and it can change your life. Sacrelicious.
vAnd here you thought this was going to be a Hunter S. Thompson-esque road trip story. We we there for SCIENCE ™, but got some shenanigans in on the side. Not Fear and Loathing, by any means...more along the lines of “Mild disquiet and General Antipathy in Austin”
vi..and deservedly so.
viiWhich are polarized between horrible swill (Lonestar, Pearl) and truly transcendant goodness (Real Ale, Independence). And a Shiner Bock to rule them all.
viiiIt really was impossible to tell if this was earnest at one point, and decayed into irony, or was irony taken to the nth degree.
ixLest that sound more rambunctuos than it was, “having at it” was not an alcoholic free-for-all. It was a beer. There was bacterial DNA analysis to ponder the next morning.
xAt this point in the evening we, or at least I, had decided that this was not just a tour of bars to waste time...this was observational/participational sociological study at its most honed. I was not just having a Shiner in a weird bar for lack of somehting better to do...I was having a Shiner in a weird bar FOR POSTERITY.
xiNone of these places were in especially good parts of town, but Lala's...well, I was pretty happy not to get shiv'd on the way to the front door. And most of the folks there were seniors...
xiiUnlike the Norse with their clashes of powerful gods at Ragnarok, or the Greeks with epic war heros and jelaous deities, the myth of Lala's is apparently more along the lines of “Yeah, one time Zeus saw this really cool tree. Yeah, that's it.”. In other words, not exactly cosmogenic.
xiii kind of depressing little joints with a lot of old pensioners and dust forming distinct strata on the unreachable high surfaces. Almost universally dark; threadworn of carpet and customer.
xivDear Hoarders, Do you give a finders fee?
xvAs Stevie Smith said of the celts, Lalas is like a lady “who was beautiful once, but is not so much so now.” I have no idea why that popped into my head. Especially since I thought Kipling said that...
xviThere seems to be some debate as to whether the Continental Club is properly classified as a dive bar. It has dive bar elements, but I'd say it's too nice and too prominent to be a dive bar. Or maybe, it's simply the Ur dive bar...the archetype for dive bars taken to some fantastic extreme.
xviiApparently the opening act was sort of a stuck-in-the-60's sort, so at first, a lot of the leftover clientele from her show were a bit of a mismatch for the current act, more of an alternative south by southwest feel with some jazz influences, etc.