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Hot Austin Nights : It's the new Texas: sophisticated, savvy, still friendly. But come sundown, the state capital taps into its musical roots. : It begins at dinner in many places and lasts well into the morning. Depending on how you define 'regular,' you can hear live music regularly at about 130 venues around town. : The dance floor is a two-stepping whir of boots, starched jeans and shirts, cowboy hats, long dresses and pantsuits. (If you want line dancing try Nashville.)

October 08, 1995|JOHN MORTHLAND | Morthland is an Austin-based free - lance writer and contributing editor to Texas Monthly

AUSTIN, Tex. — They emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge nightly around sundown--first, a few who dart out to check the temperature and report back; then, clouds of them gliding forth, grouping over the river and heading east in one long, black ribbon, 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats, the nation's largest urban bat colony.

About the same time, tables fill up on the outdoor decks of Oasis Cantina del Lago, half an hour west of downtown, overlooking Lake Travis, the nearest of the Highland Lakes created in the 1930s by damming the Colorado River. The Oasis seats about 1,200 people on decks sprawling down the hillside. While the food (burgers, chicken breasts and the like) is of the you're-paying-for-the-view variety, few would be caught dead there without a margarita. Far below, specks that are sailboats and windsurfers pick up speed off Windy Point. Finally the sun goes down, lava-lamp orange against a milky sky, and everybody stops talking for a moment to applaud the spectacle.

Austin--state capital, university town (the 48,000-student University of Texas) and high-tech center--is where New Age and Old Texas collide most dramatically. With a population just under 500,000, it's a city where slackers, activists, students, techies, balding hippies, and artists and musicians now have nearly as much influence as developers and businessmen. The former group is well represented on the City Council--local politics resemble a contact sport--and set the tone culturally. A good sunset is worth a round of applause; bats are local heroes.

Austin is also a bastion of Lone Star pride, where the population is growing so fast that native Californians seem as plentiful as native Texans. Born in the Midwest and raised mainly in Southern California, I came here from New York 10 years ago, after a decade of regular journalistic visits. Austin was a sleepy town with great music, barbecue and Tex-Mex food--but my friends worried constantly about whether the Yankee invasion would overwhelm their inexpensive Hill Country idyll, where many lives were scheduled around the hours that one swam at Barton Springs, the naturally fed pool where the water is always 68 degrees.

Today, Austin is in the national spotlight, and the cost of living is going up; housing is scarce and traffic jams plentiful, and I worry about those same things. But many lives are still scheduled around Barton Springs, and Austin maintains an uncommon respect for tradition. It may mutate, but it doesn't die.

Austin has little in the way of conventional tourist attractions. But its large university and state-government population has always nurtured night life. It was a bohemian enclave before the rest of Texas knew what the word meant, and before the rest of America paid much attention to Texas. It's after sundown that the city defines itself.

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Until a decade ago, nighttime began in Austin with a dinner of Tex-Mex, barbecue or diner fare--all substantial, but inexpensive, cuisines that virtually mandate informal dining. Today, the city's palate has broadened dramatically, but some things never change. Austin still specializes in restaurants that are casual and not too pricey; diners wear shorts and T-shirts and expect change from a twenty.

Earlier this year, former Alice Waters protege Mark Miller opened a branch of his trend-setting Santa Fe restaurant, Coyote Cafe, on West 6th Street downtown. He was the first celebrity chef to buy into the growing notion of Austin as a restaurant town, and he learned fast: Within a month, Miller added some less-expensive items to his tony menu. Reflecting the town's dichotomy, Austinites try to eat hearty and healthy; they want things both ways. Between them, two places that predate the recent restaurant boom embody most of the traditions and trends.

Threadgill's, a former gas station/beer joint that had been shuttered six years when owner Eddie Wilson took over, was already a local landmark. Original owner Kenneth Threadgill had the first post-Prohibition beer license in the city; he also played host to weekly song-swaps that attracted both old-line country pickers and university folkies. Janis Joplin made her public debut at Threadgill's in the early '60s.

Wilson had also been one of those folkies, and he went on to run Armadillo World Headquarters, the freewheeling '70s venue that put Willie Nelson and Austin on the national music map. When Wilson wearied of the music biz, he bought and expanded Threadgill's on Lamar Boulevard (the old highway to Dallas) north of downtown, converting it into a restaurant. But his clientele remained pretty much the same tradition-loving mix of old and new Texas that frequented the Armadillo. Threadgill's was the first comfort-food eatery to make everything from scratch, and to stress local produce; it was also the town's first theme restaurant, and the theme was Austin.

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