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Ghosts & Good Eats

Posted by on April 23, 2019

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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