The heat on the street feels intense enough to sear a steak. This is Austin in summer and the street is South Congress Avenue, aka SoCo — the Texan capital’s throbbing main vein.
It’s a kaleidoscope of retro neon signs fused with the tail-lights of treacle-slow traffic. Just as multi-sensory is the high-decibel nightspot I’m in. Two guitarists in Texan neckerchiefs and ten-gallon J. R. Ewing hats duel with the drummer.
They’re given a run for their money by shimmying singers in miniskirts and sky-high boots, plus a dancefloor of twirling girls and guys fuelled on high-octane margaritas. The place is called Speakeasy but the opposite is true: communication is impossible.
Nick Redman looks out from his 15th-storey Austin hotel room and sees ‘not a yee-ha cowboy town but a glinting skyline of plate-glass high-rise anonymity’
The looming Texas State Capitol is a stop on a tour of Austin that Nick takes with comic Joel Keith
Sir Richard Branson has just launched a new nonstop Virgin Atlantic route from Heathrow four times a week. On the surface it seems a bold move. Still, you don’t become a record label-founding billionaire without being good at predicting profitability. The flight out is full of people presumably bound for a toe-tapping Texan road trip, or a long, late weekend of booze and the blues.
Or for business, which is where I reckon Branson’s brain is wandering. Think Tex, think rednecks, but the first thing that strikes me about Austin is its modernity.
Checking in at the Fairmont, I look out from my 15th-storey room and see not a yee-ha cowboy town but a glinting skyline of plate-glass high-rise anonymity.
Down in the bar, I get talking to a couple of guys in town for Consensus, a massive cryptocurrency convention that makes Times Square look about as crowded as Yosemite. ‘California’s such a friggin’ nightmare,’ says one. ‘The tax rates are giant. There’s a lot of people pouring out right now.’
And the other adds: ‘Texas is pro-business as there are no income taxes. Tesla, Google, Facebook, Hewlett Packard — they’ve all moved here.’
It’s a breathless narrative I hear everywhere: the next Silicon Valley; the new business capital of the world; Tesla’s $1 billion factory on the East side; Samsung’s new — can it really be $17 billion? — plant; Google completing another high-rise and so on.
‘Food-wise, Austin is sizzling,’ writes Nick. He tries some brisket at Micklethwait Craft Meats (dish from the outlet above) that he describes as ‘heavenly’
On which note, you may be thinking: ‘What’s the town got for tourists?’
Quite a lot, it turns out. Wandering aimlessly, I am transfixed by its iconography: loan company billboards sitting high against the sky; long clouds low on a blue horizon; shabby diners smelling of old IPA; dark, wood-lined BBQ joints.
Food-wise, Austin is sizzling, from the humblest pizza at Home Slice to the cheesiest queso at Torchy’s Tacos. At Micklethwait Craft Meats, the brisket takes the biscuit. It’s cooked for hours, juicy as hell and so heavenly.
I would return to Austin just for the shrimp corn dogs at Moonshine. Drizzled with honey mustard and topped with blueberry puree, they’re southern comfort on a stick.
The next day I’m taken on a tour by Joel Keith, a comic, who introduces me to the Museum of the Weird (clue’s in the name). There’s the must-Instagram ‘Greetings from Austin’ mural, the ‘bat bridge’ (home to a colony who flit out at dusk) and the Willie Nelson statue: a salute to the man who put Austin on the music map.
There’s the looming Texas State Capitol, a 19th-century dramatic vision in sunset-pink granite and, finally, the Paramount, an old vaudeville theatre where in 2008, Joel tells me, he performed a stand-up show called Air Sex.
Want honky-tonk? Head to Broken Spoke or follow the local flock to The White Horse. In a blues mood? Try Antone’s, which kickstarted the scene in 1975 and got guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan into orbit.
You should also check out the Austin Public Library, which has a rooftop garden that wouldn’t be out of place at a five-star hotel.
So, is the city worth the ten-hour schlep? For pleasure, it’s a resounding yes. And for work? Sorry, not my business.