Austin Food & Wine Festival

Photo credit: Carlos Delgado.

The Austin Food & Wine Festival kicks off tonight with its casually elegant Feast Under the Stars, at Auditorium Shores (the luxuriously green parkland on the left in the above photo). This separately ticketed dining experience is a five-course meal of locally sourced ingredients prepared by award winning Austin chefs. Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommelier Michael Jackson has carefully curated a wine pairing to compliment each course. The #AFWFest has generously offered a Weekender Pass to me, to enjoy the festival, but I purchased my own spot at this once-in-a-lifetime dinner. I’m very much looking forward to enjoying this al fresco dining celebration of the culinary arts.

A little shade, a little wine, a perfect day.

Saturday, the festival opens its gates and immediately pours on the charm, with Toyota’s global street fair, Stella Artois’ Airstream trailer, and High West Distillery’s copper bar, deck and Yippee Ki-Yay photo booth. Don Julio’s gorgeous blue truck makes the perfect Instagram backdrop, as does Rodney Strongs Vineyards’ pool party vibe and decor. I’ll be heading to the Tasting Sessions tent early on, to “discover the world of Bordeaux wines.”

I’m very curious about the whiskey and art exhibition sponsored by Nine Banded Whiskey. Nine Banded Whiskey, blended and bottled in Dripping Springs, has brought in muralist Fabian Rey whose works can be spotted around town and beyond the U.S. The creative additions key vendors bring to the festival are what gives it a unique flavor, and add so much more fun to an already fantastic event. Fest goers know to expect delicious bites from the Fire Pit (expanded this year), Chef’s Showcase and the many vendors as you sip and stroll.

Lick Ice Cream adding a scoop of horchata ice cream to my Guinness’ 200th Anniversary Stout at #AFWfest 2018.

I highly recommend setting up a schedule of what you’d like to do, see and taste, but leave it loose, as cooking demos and tasting sessions fill fast. Remember to hydrate (looking at you, Topo Chico tent), and use the spit buckets to dump liquids that just aren’t your thing. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t forget your (non-aerosol) sunscreen, and comfy shoes. Pro tip, if you want fest swag, buy it upon entry on Saturday because the coolest tee shirts always sell out fast. If you’re used to carrying a purse, make sure you heed the bag guidelines because size does matter at the fest. No bag? Skip on over to the No Bag Express Lane entry at the festival entrance. If this is your first #AFWFest, be sure to explore the Guide on the festival website, as it has all the info you’re sure to need, in one place.

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Ghosts & Good Eats

I was watching one of those ghost hunting shows over the weekend, when a host mentioned he was hungry. That led me to think about Austin’s ghosts in places where you can also get good eats. The most famous location that combines the paranormal with pigging out is the Driskill Hotel.

The Driskill is home to the excellent Driskill Grill, as well as the 1886 Cafe & Bakery. The Driskill Grill is the type of place you’d take your parents when they visit you for a weekend of UT football and to ensure you aren’t partying away your scholarship, or to impress your girlfriend’s parents. It’s also seen thousands of business deals closed before dessert, and many a politician has worked his or her angles at its tables. The restaurant is all oxblood leather chairs and marble-topped tables, a very tasteful, highbrow steakhouse. The Driskill Grill is seriously into decadent meats, and has its own dry-aging room where they age to perfection their wagyu beef ribeye. The 1886 Cafe & Bakery is no slouch, despite its more casual atmosphere (order the Hangover Burger).

Portrait of a young girl, hanging on a wall in the 4th floor hallway at the Driskill Hotel.

Almost every Austinite knows that the Driskill is haunted. Hotel staff are well-versed on all the stories, and are happy to share. So happy, in fact, that the hotel has a handout it gives to guests that is filled with tantalizing tidbits such as room 525 was the location where not one but 2 brides committed suicide, twenty years apart. Many guests have claimed they became dizzy or felt ill after examining the painting of a young girl that hangs in the 4th floor hallway. I’ve experienced the odd phenomena of smelling cigar smoke near the giant portrait of Col. Jesse Driskill, which is one of the most often reported paranormal events for the hotel. It’s nice to believe that Col. Driskill is checking in to ensure all is running smoothly after he lost his hotel to bankruptcy and a tragically bad hand in a poker game.

Guests report that lights and ceiling fans come on and turn off spontaneously, lending to more reports of the paranormal (or faulty electricity, but where’s the fun in that potential explanation?) and a few middle-of-the-night requests to change rooms. Famous singer-songwriter Annie Lennox had an experience where a friendly spirit helped choose which outfit to wear to her concert that night, when in Austin on tour. Leaving two dresses out on her bed while showering, she re-entered the room to find one had been put away.

Combine these stories with that of guests reporting hearing children giggling and playing in the hallways but upon checking, there is no one around, and you have one spooky hotel. Given that a Texas senator’s daughter, four year old Samantha Houston was chasing a ball near the grand staircase, and fell to her death, the stories of heard-but-not-seen children are very unsettling. None of these stories are so unsettling as to scare me away from the cafe’s absolutely delicious Helen Corbitt’s Cheese Soup, named after the chef and cookbook author known as the “duchess of Texas cuisine.” A girl has priorities, you know, and cheese is one of mine.

Photo credit: Thomas Bougher

Going from luxury living to a more casual aspect, The Tavern is my favorite haunted pub. I used to hang out here often, and would hear the staff talk about the many paranormal experiences that have occurred over the years. There’ve been issues with the televisions turning off and on randomly, but in a building dating back to the early 1900’s, that is easily written off. It’s not as easy to ignore tables and chairs moving when no one is around, and odd shadow figures scaring the staff in the storage room and office area. The Tavern was built as a general store, then became a restaurant, a speakeasy and brothel during prohibition, and later a pub.

Perhaps Emily, as the Tavern ghost is known, is stuck in our earthly realm and wishes she could eat some of those addictive White Wings, washed down with a cold, cold beer. At any rate, the story goes that Emily was a prostitute who was killed during a brawl on the premises. Another story says she is the daughter of a prostitute who was killed on the premises by an angry client. Yet another story says that Emily was the daughter of a prostitute who was killed on the premises, but adds in that Emily was murdered at the brothel by a pervy client who had his way with her, then silenced her the most permanent way possible.

Photo credit: Aaron Vazquez. This corner of the main bar is my favorite spot in the pub.

Even creepier are the stories from the ladies’ restroom which range from patrons getting locked inside, the room suddenly turning super hot, to being in the restroom and receiving strange cell phone calls filled with the sound of static and a girl crying. No, thanks.

Continuing in the vein of ghostly kids, The Clay Pit is a fantastic Indian restaurant in a building that has been designated a historic site. In 1853, German immigrant Rudolph C. Bertram purchased the city block and built a compound including a trading post, saloon, wagon yard with a wheelright, blacksmith shop, and hotel on the land. During the Civil War, Mr. Bertram ran a bakery as well as a restaurant, employing three clerks and two cooks — all of whom lived with the family.

Mr. Bertram found love shortly after starting his growing business empire, in the form of Bertha Krohn. They married in 1860, and had eight children, four of whom died in 1880 during a diptheria outbreak. Heartbreaking, but not unheard of, in those times.

In 1866, Mr. Bertram built what became known as the Bertram Building. This stone building housed the Bertram family on the top floor with a general store operating on the first floor. The building has a cellar, which is uncommon in Texas. The cellar has long-closed tunnels which purportedly led to the nearby state Capital, and allowed politicians a private route to the store and saloon, as well as access to the pretty saloon girls who worked there. Gotta keep those indiscretions on the down low, then and now.

Reportedly, the ghost of a little boy plays hide and seek on the second floor, with diners catching a glimpse of him often. Restaurant staff are routinely asked about him, and will oblige with a quick, fruitless search upstairs (used mainly for private events). The Clay Pit has a bar area at the bottom of the stairs leading to the private event area. Some trickster spirit likes to lob small pebbles at the bar, an unexplainable act when the rocks come from the vacant second level.

The cellar itself has activity, with some saying there is a spirit of a murdered saloon girl in residence. Some report feeling an oppressive presence, or possibly just reacting to the low ceiling. Whether you encounter something otherworldly or not, the food is fantastic. Get the curried mussels to start, and the Kothmir salmon or the Mughai chicken, both excellent choices.

Photo credit: Texas Historical Commission.

Austin Pizza Garden in Oak Hill, a suburb of South Austin, also served as a general store, as well as a post office and a Masonic lodge. Along with tasty pizza, beer and wine, this restaurant serves up ghostly footsteps, fleeting sightings of someone on the staircase, objects moving around, and a general feeling of having someone or something there with you when no one else is around.

A former staff member recounted a story to me of when she was showing the second floor to a patron interested in renting it out for a private event. Once upstairs, they passed a few chairs that had been pushed against a wall, for storage. Crossing into the event room, they stopped for a moment to discuss the number of guests it would accommodate. As they spoke, a chair was pushed suddenly and violently away from the wall. Not missing a beat, the employee continued to convey the room’s attributes, and the services the restaurant offered. When the patron asked, “are we going to ignore that?” The employee smiled, and explained that sometimes odd things happened, but offered assurances that the event would be all the client hoped for, and more. She booked the room.

Austin Pizza Garden delivers on that promise, with delicious pies and a fun, oftentimes spirited atmosphere. Carnivores should order the Colossus (Pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham, mushrooms, red onions, green bell pepper, and black olives) or Texas Fajita (chicken or beef) pies. Veggie lovers, please try the Genova (fresh basil, eggplant, mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, and goat cheese) pizza.

While these aren’t the only haunted restaurants in town (check out the Milonga Room, and Capitol Grille), they’re certainly worth visiting, and revisiting, in the hopes of meeting someone from the beyond, or just for super yummy desserts. I’m sure to have missed some hot spots for haints, so leave me a message and let me know where I should go next for dinner and a show.

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#SXSW? Read the Rules

Photo by Carlos Delgado on Unsplash

So you came to #SXSW, huh? You’re excited to hit the sidewalks, trek around downtown Austin and see what our city has to offer. But first: read the rules.

  1. Don’t litter. Yes, we know that many times the first trashcan you see is overflowing, but keep that litter in hand until you find the next one. The #SXSW volunteers and the city will be doing their best to keep things clean, and we expect you to do your part.
  2. Be kind to anyone serving you anything, whether it’s a free PBR or a paid meal. If service is abysmal, reduce your tip. If it’s free and service is abysmal, think about how that person with the ‘tude has to deal with masses of people clamoring for freebies. Who knows, maybe their cat died last night but they’re out there anyway, doing their job. Cut everyone some slack. Use “please” and “thank you” for extra credit.
  3. Don’t take a scooter. Let me repeat that. Do NOT take a scooter. Yes, you probably can ride one. Yes, you probably do have good intentions of leaving it in a proper place instead of strewn willy-nilly wherever it may fall. Just walk. Walk. Downtown isn’t huge. Or take a pedicab, bus, Lyft, Uber, bicycle. The scooters in Austin are a huge nuisance and dangerous. My blind friend Jake (who does not fault me for saying “blind” instead of “vision-impaired”) approves of this message, and beseeches you to think of those who cannot easily see when a scooter has been left lying across a walkway. He knows, as well as I do, that in a city with the state school for vision-impaired students, these scooters will end up seriously injuring someone who stumbles over them. And yes, vision-impaired people attend #SXSW and drink free PBR, too, so please give them safe sidewalks. We’ve already had one scooter rider die, and APD may just hand you a ticket for unsafe riding.
  4. If a venue is full, don’t turn your frustration and fury onto the door person. That unpaid volunteer (or minimum wage venue staff) is simply the messenger. Every venue knows that the fire marshal will be making the rounds all day and night in order to ensure that the venues are not packing y’all in like sardines. It’s safety, ya know?
  5. When the thought of yet another almost cold mass-produced breakfast taco or slice of pizza kicks off the search for a great meal, go local. We have so many top tier restaurants in town, in all price ranges, and it’d be a damn shame if you were here for a week and didn’t get a fresh breakfast taco or plate of barbecue, or Tex Mex. If you don’t know where to eat, ask an Austinite. The Austin Food Blogger’s Alliance publishes its annual #ATXBestEats, a handy guide of tasty spots.
  6. When you fall in love with Austin, and you will, don’t immediately make plans to move here. The reality of our awesome city is that traffic is horrendous and housing is horribly overpriced. Instead, please come back at the end of next month for the Austin Food & Wine Festival, and in the fall for #ACLFest. The #AFWFest is the singularly best way to try nibbles from all of the best restaurants in town, while drinking wine, craft spirits, and craft beer. It’s well worth the price of admission, and so much more than you can imagine. There’s live fire cooking, decidedly un-stuffy educational seminars, and cheflebrities galore. As for #ACLFest, it’s 3 days of the most music possible, with great food and craft beer. Come! Spend your money, have fun, make memories. Wash, rinse, repeat. You may not move here unless you spend at least one week visiting during the latter part of August or early September. If the brutal heat doesn’t scare you away, you might be a candidate for citizenship.
  7. Overindulgence. We’ve all done it. What you don’t want to do is to be that obnoxious drunk careening through the crowd like a toddler on a sugar high. Ain’t nobody got time for that. If you’ve had too much, hightail it back to your hotel room, Airbnb, or hostel. Do not puke in the Uber. Drink a Topo Chico, eat a banana, pop a few Tylenol’s, and sleep it off. Hydration is key.
  8. If you need a break from the crowds, seek out some serenity. The hike and bike trail around Town Lake Lady Bird Lake makes for a nice walk, and you can practice your zen breathing. Spend some time at the Blanton, visiting Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin.” Take in a goat yoga class. #naahmaste
  9. Network. Talk to people. If you’re excited about a panel, ask the person next to you what they are expecting to get out of it. Dialogue. Make connections.
  10. Have fun. What’s the point of bringing so many people together if you don’t enjoy yourself? Let your self relax, open up, and enjoy. Be happy.
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