Fashions fade, style is eternal.
– Yves Saint Laurent, French fashion designer
Ever since I read an article in Elle Magazine a year and a half ago about Esperanza Spalding, American jazz bassist and singer who won the 2011 Grammy Award for Best New Artist, I’ve nurtured this desire to visit the city Spalding moved to from Jersey City – Austin, Texas. So when I found out I was going to moderate a roundtable event in Austin in early February, I gleefully pulled out the article and made a little list of destination spots.
So here I am, after a week-long business trip. I flew from Dallas to San Antonio, where my sister lives. Slight detour: We saw the movie, Quartets, which stars Maggie Smith and a cast of actors who had played in the symphony, sang opera on stage, or had some professional musical connection. The British comedy-drama is set at a retirement home for musicians and revolves around an annual concert to honor Verdi’s birthday and to raise funds to keep Beecham House afloat. As reviews have noted, it’s predictable, but it’s sweet and the performances of the veteran actors are touching, the scenery is quite beautiful, and one of my all-time favorite actors, Dustin Hoffman, debuted as the director.
Okay, back to the travels. On Saturday, Heidi drove us to Austin. It was in the upper 70s temperature-wise, which is a roughly 60-degree upswing from what it was when I landed in New York last Saturday. I ditched the parka and ski socks, but alas, I didn’t bring sandals, shorts, or short-sleeved tops, which is pretty much what everyone else there was wearing. It didn’t just feel like summer, it was summer in Austin.
Once we unloaded our things, we headed for South Congress Avenue, where two of Spalding’s favorite vintage shops reside. One of Spalding’s frequent haunts is Feathers (1700b South Congress Ave., Austin, 512.912.9779), which is actually tucked away on Milton Street, a side street of South Congress Avenue. One of the sales associates there told me that people are familiar with the store, thanks to Spalding’s article and honors it has earned such as Top 15 Vintage Shops in the U.S. I have to say that the four-room shop is quite impressive in that it is well curated and displayed by color. Dresses from the 1920s through the 1950s were fun to look at.
The moment I stepped into the shop, I immediately spotted a beautiful hand-tooled leather purse from the 1930s-1940s era, with a velveteen-lined interior and a pocket with what looked like it was once a mirror. I was told by the sales clerk that the jewelry designer – Michael Hickey of Peasant Jewelry – whose works I was admiring used to be local but has since moved to Pittsburgh. Upon further investigation, I’m not so sure this critical-access-nurse-by-day and self-taught artist ever lived in Austin, but his jewelry, which combines found objects, bones, reclaimed vintage, and deconstructed rosary beads to name a few of his materials, is popular here. In an interview from a 2009 Pittsburgh news media, he said that he customizes his jewelry according to the requests from shops – Austin gets his “truly dark stuff.” Hmmm.
Spalding’s other vintage shop recommendation is Uncommon Objects (1512 S. Congress Ave., Austin, 512.442.4000), whose tag line is “raw materials for creative living.” The shop is deep and stuffed with an unimaginable number of vintage objects. It’s pretty dizzying, and it was pretty crowded. In fact, South Congress Avenue was teeming with college students, food trucks, and big SUVs and trucks (the automakers must make Texas-size SUVs and trucks just for the state’s citizens). We literally had to wait for a line of people to file out before we could walk in.
That said, once you step inside, you are greeted – or assaulted, depending upon your level of love for vintage – by a wonderland of antiques, vintage finds, and reclaimed vintage jewelry! What I found really appealing about Uncommon Objects is that the curators displayed the goods in an aesthetically pleasing way. Some of the stalls, or areas, comprising 24 purveyors of “curious goods,” were arranged by color – red, creamy white – while others were arranged by decade or era, such as the 1950s-style lamps, glassware, chairs, chandeliers, secretaries, and tall lava vases, which we had in our living room growing up, that defined one stall. It was fun to walk through and check out the many items. If not rushed and not having to avoid bumping into people all the time, I would have spent a good couple of hours exploring this fun shop.
My favorite area, of course, was the jewelry cabinets, which would have been dripping with jewels because there were so many in the case except that they were displayed in a very organized (read: anal retentive) way. The shop had an amazing amount of 1930s to 1960s rhinestone earrings, brooches, and necklaces, but though I oohed and aahed over the dazzling pieces, I had to remind myself of a jewelry case full of eBay treasures back home (darn, the memory was good in that instance). Antique evening purses and gloves, reminiscent of nights out for the opera or symphony, broke up the rows and layers of jewelry.
I was mesmerized by a whole cabinet of reclaimed-vintage and found-object necklaces and bracelets by Ren of Lux Revival. We were told by the very patient sales clerk who waited on us that the artist is local, but upon further investigation, thanks to the internet, I discovered that the company, which was formed by longtime friends and collaborators Lisa Yesh and Ren Guidry, is actually based in Los Angeles. I’d rather support local artists, especially if I’m bringing something home and want to proudly say, “They’re local artists.” Maybe one or both were originally from Austin or spent some time in Austin, but the most I can say is that I got this beautiful, unique necklace from Uncommon Objects in Austin. And Heidi generously got me a necklace from the same designers, as well.
We checked out a cowboy boot shop, where you can’t touch the boots but you are encouraged to ask for help. Though lovely, hand-tooled, and with heels hand-stacked, the boots were out of my price range. The rest of the five or so blocks of South Congress Avenue were okay. By five o’clock, after not having lunch, I was ready to eat dinner.
Dining in Austin
We sought the recommendations of our Uncommon Objects sales clerk for a local dining experience that had good food, fewer crowds, and was reasonably priced. His co-worker gave him a hard time for not recommending many good places on South Congress Avenue, but we were done with the crowds. If we were to stay in the neighborhood, he recommended Woodland (1716 S. Congress Avenue, 512.441.6800) and Enoteca Vespaio (1610 S. Congress Avenue, 512.441.7672), a bistro-inspired café, which serves antipasti, pizza, pastas, and pastries.
He suggested going to another part of town, where a trio of restaurants would meet our needs. Justine’s Brassiere (4710, E. 5th Street, Austin, 512.385.2900) is a candlelit French bistro that features old jazz and reggae. East Side Show Room (1100 E. 6th Street, 512.467.4280) is a vintage live music bar and serves gulf shrimp and fried oysters, pork belly ravioli, goat meatballs, and grass-fed blue cheese burgers.
We settled on Hillside Farmacy (1209 E. 11th Street, Austin, 512.628.0168), which I imagined was a farm-to-table concept since the name of the restaurant played with the word “pharmacy.” The eatery and grocery, however, resides in an unassuming green building with a dirt parking lot, which was once called the Hillside Pharmacy in the 1950s. It was warm enough to dine outdoors in front of the restaurant, but once you walk in, you appreciate the theme, which recreates the drugstore vibe, complete with original restored pharmacy cabinetry, black-and-white tiled floor, and drugstore-type tables and chairs. We ordered the cheese platter and braised short ribs. While the cheese platter was good, the braised short ribs were bland and I had trouble (in the candlelit room) determining what was fat and what was meat. The bread pudding was more of a raisin French toast than what I’m usually accustomed to, and service was spotty.
All in all, it was an okay meal. If only I had read what restaurant Spalding had recommended – Justine’s – because I completely trust her taste in vintage shops. Next time!
We were slated to attend a Sunday gospel brunch at Threadgill’s, go to the LBJ Library and Museum, and return to South Congress Avenue for a quick review of the vintage stores again. Stay tuned for a review of these places on Wednesday.