After hours with the 83rd Texas Legislature.
This story is a Special Feature in the Spring 2013 issue of Austin Man Magazine. Check it out in print as the format brings it to life.
Every odd-numbered year, Austin becomes the temporary home to almost 200 hard-charging politicians and thousands of lobbyists and legislative staffers eager to do the business of the state. These men and women work long hours in the Capitol building trying to get as much done as possible in the 140-day session. When voting is done on the legislative floor and the lights go out in the offices, a mighty hunger and thirst draw the legislators and cohorts in to the restaurants and bars throughout town. Where do the part-time resident politicians go for a bite to eat and something to drink?
Austin has its share of tried-and-true haunts that legislators have flocked to year after year, like Cisco’s for breakfast, the Austin Club for lunch and after-hours drinks at Austin Land and Cattle for a hefty steak. While veteran politicians may stick to the traditional favorites that are an easy walk from the Capitol, other members of the 83rd Legislature are venturing to hot spots on West Sixth Street and the Eastside.
“The landscape has changed a lot in the last four years with a lot of new places opening near the Capitol. For a long time, the Texas Chili Parlor and Capitol cafeteria were the only lunch choices, and you can’t eat at the Chili Parlor four days a week. Also, in the last four years, about 60 percent of the people in the Legislature are new. There are a lot of guys who aren’t ingrained in old habits and have heard about Austin as a culinary mecca, so they are eager to try new places,” says Mike Lavigne, a legislative consultant. “Don’t worry. The Cloak Room will never go away. It’s an institution.”
It seems the tone is changing too. Healthy eating has replaced the never-ending buffet of barbeque as legislators try to get through session without gaining weight. They are cutting down on booze too. In the past, many legislators treated session like an extended Spring Break, taking full advantage of the freedom of being away from home for a few months. The late-night party scene of past decades is giving way to a more businesslike attitude. You will still find senators and representatives in bars throughout Austin, but with fewer wearing their ties around their heads.
STEAKHOUSES REIGN SUPREME
While there is a trend toward healthier eating, steakhouses are still the first choice among the Capitol crowd.
“The most popular places for legislators to eat are steakhouses. They are the go-to spots for staff members and lobbyists,” says Isaac Albarado, with the office of Representative Harvey Hilderbran.
A visit to any of Austin’s beef sanctuaries will reveal this truth with dozens of blue-blazer and lapel-pin clad policy warriors eagerly meeting over meat. Several of the established steakhouses like Flemings, III Forks, Ruth’s Chris and Sullivan’s remain mainstays, and Bob’s Steak & Chop House, which opened last summer, has quickly become part of the regular circuit.
“Members of the 83rd Legislature are in here every night,” says Nick Uhlman, a server and apprentice sommelier at Bob’s Steak & Chop House. “They sit at tables of four but move around between each other’s tables discussing bills and business. Typically, they are very, very frugal and order basic filets and baked potatoes. Legislators are not boutique wine drinkers. They like to share bottles of Jordan cabernet sauvignon and Rombauer chardonnay.”
It’s not just the legislators; the governor also comes in.
“Rick Perry is very respectful to the servers and calls them by their names. He even insists on de-crumbing his own table, saying, ‘I made the mess. I can clean it up.’ He brings in his own Bordeaux from home to enjoy with his 12-ounce ribeye,” Uhlman says.
Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille, a short walk from the Capitol, has a regular parade of politicians. They flock to Perry’s in small groups and in pre-arranged large parties with set menus. The most demanded items are the pecan-encrusted snapper, the eight ounce filet mignon and the peppercorn New York Strip. But the standout dish is the signature 32-ounce pork chop, which is carved tableside.
Between the take-out TexMex, barbeque and steak, legislators have a fantastic selection of restaurants to choose from in Austin’s burgeoning gastronomic scene. In general, restaurant decisions are not voted along party lines. However, the Roaring Fork on Congress Avenue is a Republican gathering place, while the Buenos Aires Café on East Sixth Street is a Democratic hangout.
The rest of the top spots for politicos are a mix of time-honored establishments like Eddie V’s and Uchi, along with newer restaurants downtown. Trace in the W Austin is a favorite for lunch because of its proximity to the Capitol and the incentives set up just for legislators.
“Trace’s Lunch on the Fly is by far the most popular menu item with legislators, and it’s truly a great deal. Having the option of being served in multiple courses gives them an opportunity to conduct business over the meal. During the current legislative session, we are seeing a lot more bottles of cabernet sauvignon being ordered at lunch as well,” says Sean Bradshaw, director of beverage and food for W Austin.
Warm doughnuts to go are also a big hit. To cater to the members of the 83rd Legislature, the W Austin introduced a Session Insider Card this year with free valet parking anytime and special rates for rooms and events. Chef Jason Dodge, part owner of Péché, opened the Italian eatery Cherry Street last fall, and it quickly became a favorite lunch destination for politicians.
The wood-fired Neapolitan Pizza with house-made mozzarella and a thin, crispy crust is the most-ordered selection on the menu. Pasta and pizza make up the core of the menu, but the kitchen is flexible with requests. The manager shared a story about a legislator who regularly comes in to sip on a Manhattan while reading over big stacks of cases and bills. He requested low-carb options and Cherry Street obliged by adding fish, muscles and steak to the menu.
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY
Alcohol is the great equalizer. Unlike in Washington, D.C., party lines dissolve over a drink as both Republicans and Democrats mingle at the plentiful bars throughout Austin. This session, the go-to neighborhoods are downtown, West Sixth Street, Rainey Street and the Eastside. In Central Austin, sophisticated senators relax with creative cocktails at the swank Bar Congress while their more down-to-earth House counterparts kick back in a more unassuming setting.
The Cloak Room is still top of the list for its proximity, clubiness and insider cred. During a recent visit, the bar was packed with men in suits discussing various bills. When asked where politicians go to blow off steam during session, the bartender gave a wry smile and replied, “Not here, for sure.”
Albarado says people are branching out beyond downtown.
“The W Hotel is a place that people go quite a bit,” Albarado says. “It’s a good central location, but people are moving out of just the central area and going to West Sixth to hang out at J Blacks and the Ranch. Star Bar has become wildly popular more now than last session.”
“After working for 14 to 15 hours inside the building, people want to go have a drink outside. There are several bars on Rainey Street with outside seating. No place on Rainey is untouched by legislators, staffers and lobbyists. We go to Lustre Pearl, Bar 96 and Clive Bar,” Albarado says.
Eastside bars like Shangri La and the Yellow Jacket Social Club filled with hipsters seem like unlikely places for politicians with anchorman hair and pinstriped suits, but they have become a great place to go unwind incognito. The speakeasy-like anonymity seems to be working.
When asked whether politicians frequent the Yellow Jacket Social Club, the bartender replied, “Yeah, I mean, two cats came in today that looked like legislators. You know, expensive Mercedes and big suits and stuff. They were cool folks. They tipped well.”
When asked what they ordered, he offered a worn stereotype. “Well, when you’re a legislator, you have three martinis at lunch. Isn’t that the norm?”
After a pause he conceded he was making it up, “Yeah. I don’t know, man. I don’t know what those people look like.”
The Eastside is also a destination for craft cocktails.
“Last session, I went to the East Side Show Room with lots of legislators, including both rural Republicans and urban Democrats,” Lavigne says. “That was a trip for many of them who were looking for a Miller Lite or a Crown and Coke and experienced seriously talented mixologists behind the bar making great craft cocktails. They really liked it.”
Despite the craft-cocktail and craft-beer trend that has swept through Austin in the past few years, legislators tend to go with old standbys like Bud Light and basic cocktails mixed with whiskey or vodka.
“Legislators are not necessarily connoisseurs, but drink what is available. You won’t see a 67-year-old senator waiting in line for a tiki drink. State representatives come from all over the state and typically from suburban or rural areas, and they are not as familiar with the craft-cocktail scene. They’re just not comfortable ordering a Blood and Sand. Instead, they appreciate a nice scotch or bourbon,” Lavigne says.
DRINK LIKE A SENATOR
The Living Room in the W Austin offers several classic and creative cocktails. A favorite of legislators is the Final Say.
- ½ ounce Bulliet Rye
- ½ ounce green chartreuse
- ½ ounce Luxardo maraschino liquor
- ½ ounce lime juice
Shake and pour into martini glass.
Cherry Street Sazerac
- Rinse with Kubler absinthe.
- 2 ounces Overholt rye whiskey
- ½ ounce of simple syrup
- Peychauds bitters
Whiskey is one of the drinks of choice for many Texas legislators. Fortunately, it is possible for them to enjoy their favorite libation while also supporting their Texas constituency by buying Texas-made whiskey.
Balcones Distillery, based in Waco, was the first Texas-made whiskey on the market in 2009.
“We make an original-style Texas whiskey made with Hopi blue corn,” says Chip Tate, owner and head distiller. “We are distinctly different from bourbon. Our whiskies have a lot of similarities to Scottish malt, but a taste all their own. I like to think of it like barbeque versus steak. One isn’t better than the other; they are just different.”
Balcones makes about 6,000 cases a year of seven styles of whiskey, and is working furiously to keep up with demand. It is sold in 20 states, the U.K., Australia, Sweden, Norway and Japan. Balcones whiskies are available in Austin at liquor stores and bars like TenOak, the Tigress and Fino.
Dan Garrison started his whiskey distillery in Hye, TX, in 2006, and his first batch in 2008 was bottled in 2010. Garrison Brothers made 2,222 barrels in 2012, which will go on sale in 150,000 bottles in 2015, sold exclusively in Texas. Garrison has seen bottles of his whiskey on the desks of several Texas legislators and counts the governor as a fan.
“Governor Perry has visited Garrison Brothers twice. The first time he came in a limo accompanied by Texas Rangers, and the second time he came with a buddy unannounced on Harleys. We have pictures of him and staff with the stills,” Garrison says.
Garrison Brothers makes the first vintage-dated bourbon ever produced. The fall 2011, spring 2012 and fall 2012 vintages are all available in Austin liquor stores in limited supply. The bourbon is also available at major steakhouses and TenOak, and the W Austin sells it by the bottle.
Ranger Creek makes small-batch bourbon in its combination brewery and distillery in San Antonio, and released its first whiskey in 2012. Ranger Creek makes Texas straight bourbon whiskey aged in large barrels for a minimum of two years, and Ranger Creek .36, a small-barrel version that is named for the Colt .36 pistol carried by the Texas Rangers.
Head distiller Mark McDavid and co-founder TJ Miller experimented with the different woods and aging times to develop the smooth, caramel yet spicy flavor they desired in their bourbons. Ranger Creek is available at select bars, restaurants and liquor stores throughout Austin.
Photo attribution; Filet from Austin Land and Cattle Company III Forks photo courtesy of III Forks; Austin Land and Cattle photo by Annie Ray; Uchi photo by Mark Jorgenson; Living Room Bar at W Austin Living Room photo courtesy W Austin; Cherry Street Sazerac photo by Steve Anderson.