As I cleaned my plate of ropa vieja — eggs + brisket + roasted salsa = no duh — my friend Albert thanked his out-of-town visitors for inviting him to brunch at our newly opened hotel, the Carpenter, instead of one of our regular old haunts.
“I only check out new places when y’all come to town,” he said. “It’s gotten too hard to keep up.”
Albert has lived in Austin long enough to remember when the city had only one fancy hotel (the 133-year-old Driskill) and six traffic jams per year (one for every Longhorns football game). Now, traffic comes to a daily standstill in the bulging Texas boomtown and state capital, and keeping track of new hotels there — and especially new restaurants — is like counting fire ants in a South Austin backyard.
Former residents ourselves, my Texan wife and I are amazed at how much has changed every time we return to Austin. And we’ve gone back at least once a year since leaving in 2001, just as the city’s tech-driven boom really took off.
Austin led the nation in population growth rates throughout the 2010s. About 50,000 people move there every year now. Since many of those new residents are young urban professionals, it’s no surprise there’s also been a sharp rise in new places for the cool kids to hang.
As much as we love to visit all our favorite classic spots not lost to the boom — the original Hut’s Hamburgers is the latest victim, but at least it reopened in the airport — we’ve come around in accepting all these changes in the city we still adore. Or at least we try to stay up on the action more than our old-school Austinite friend Albert does.
With Sun Country and Delta flying more nonstops into Austin from Minneapolis these days, and flights often available for under $300, it seemed like a good time to pass along some of our favorite recent additions to our old hometown. But we could probably come back with a completely different list next year.
1. Ellsworth Kelly chapel. When the Blanton Museum of Art reopened in its 190,000-square-foot new home on the University of Texas campus in 2006, Austin finally boasted an art facility worthy of its artistic spirit. But it took another 12 years for the Blanton’s crowning piece to debut: a 2,715-square-foot granite chapel designed by New York painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly before his death.
Officially titled “Austin,” the T-shaped, high-ceilinged chapel is like walking into a prism as the rainbow array of light beams down at you from varying corners. Black and white stations-of-the-cross hanging on the walls add to the visual juxtapositions, and actually serve the holy-house purpose, too.
Along with the Skyspace dome by artist James Turrell across campus — think: roofless planetarium where you watch the sunset without actually seeing the sun — the UT campus is literally seen in a whole new light nowadays (200 E. MLK Blvd., blantonmuseum.org).
2. Japanese/Texas barbecue infusion. Call it the culinary answer to the “Keep Austin Weird” motto: Two of the trendiest new restaurants in town meld Japanese fare with classic Lone Star barbecue. Who knew brisket and ribs would go so well with katsu and coconut rice?
That’s what you can get at Loro, opened on a lowbrow stretch of South Lamar as a collaboration by the James Beard-winning Asian fusion eatery Uchi and the famous meat smoker Franklin BBQ. Patrons sip Mandarin Margaritas while waiting to order at the counter, then they wrangle picnic table space to dine family-style. It’s a bit of a hassle, but worth it (2115 South Lamar Blvd., loroaustin.com).
We were even more smitten with the more low-key and oddball Kemuri Tatsu-ya in East Austin, where we playfully picked between the crispy onigiri stuffed with smoked fish, the Texas ramen with bamboo and brisket, and the “guaca-poke.” We weren’t adventurous enough to try the barbecued eel, though (2713 E. 2nd St., kemuri-tatsuya.com).
3. The Carpenter Hotel. There are bigger and fancier new places downtown, including the Fairmont, the Van Zandt and the Line (the latter a former Radisson with an ultrahip makeover). But none of those has the prime location, savory in-house dining or unique Austin character found at this 98-room hotel on a pecan tree-lined side street off Barton Springs Road, near Zilker Park and the recently lengthened Lady Bird Lake walk and bike trail.
The rooms are relatively sparse and concrete-floored, but with terraces and plush beds. They’re housed in a three-story terracotta-stone building around a 70-year-old carpenters’ union hall. The latter provides the quaintly rustic site for the Carpenters Hall, a restaurant and bar co-helmed by former Bon Appétit editor Andrew Knowlton. What with the traffic problems in town, here’s one place you can just leave your car; and maybe keep yourself parked, too (400 Josephine St., carpenterhotel.com).
4. Yet another new Antone’s nightclub. The most famous music venue in the famously musical city helped launch the careers of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds as well as the still-simmering Sixth Street nightlife district. That was 44 years and five locations ago, though.
The new 400-capacity Antone’s site on Fifth Street is closest to that original spot geographically and maybe spiritually. It has a funky classiness and boasts ample amounts of Texas and Louisiana acts, with today’s blues (hip-hop) and occasional drop-ins by Gary Clark Jr. also on the menu (305 E. 5th St., antonesnightclub.com).
5. Breweries, of course. After an ahead-of-the-curve microbrewery boom in the early 1990s, Austin was actually a little behind in the modern taproom trend, but not anymore. Primo local brewer Austin Beerworks opened a huge and sleek new North Austin facility near the Arboretum in 2017. A cool addition to downtown, Central District Brewery serves smaller-batch beer in a colorful hall near the convention center.
Less new but most Austin-y of them all, the more hippie-ish Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (ABGB) in South Austin has grown into a haven for both beer lovers and musicheads with ample German-style brews and rootsy and/or artsy local bands (1305 W. Oltorf St., theabgb.com).
6. The new Central Library. No kidding: This new six-story downtown library is the epitome of Austin cool. Time magazine even featured it in its World’s 100 Coolest Places of 2018 issue. And with its $125 million price tag, it also epitomizes the city’s rising tax rates.
It looks more like an art museum than library inside and out. There’s a giant cuckoo clock in the atrium. There are all kind of twisty stairs and curvy windows. The children’s area rivals Austin’s great children’s museum, the Thinkery, for fun. And the screened reading porch and top-floor deck perched over Lady Bird Lake might be the best scenic overlook in town besides the famed Mount Bonnell.
Oh, and it has books, too (710 W. Cesar Chavez St., library.austintexas.gov).