Feature Article: Mapping Nightlife

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Polar Expeditions

By Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Andres Perez

THE COLORADO RIVER DOUBLES AS AUSTIN’S MASON-DIXON LINE, where north-south streets change names, and the hipster-to-hippie ratio sharply rises. For the past century, Sixth Street has exerted a magnetic pull on Austinites and Austin’s nights, spilling east of I-35 in recent years. But as Central Austin home values continue to skyrocket and the city’s population swells, new entertainment districts on Austin’s edges have begun wielding their own unmistakable pull. Can the center hold? The rapid succession of bar openings in places like Rock Rose have been regarded as a sign of the Apocalypse by some and as long-sought deliverance by others. Regardless of your theological interpretation, these edgy emerging hotspots inarguably mark a major shift in Austin’s late-night scene. On a recent weekend, with parched throats, Google Maps and a full tank of gas, we struck out for Austin’s Deep South and Far North. And much like the bizarre tourist attractions on offer in northern Minnesota (a SPAM museum) and southern Louisiana (the seven gates to the voodoo underworld), what we encountered were polar opposites.

DEEP SOUTH

WHAT DOES ONE WEAR PAST WILLIAM CANNON?
For our southern venture, we (speaking in the royal sense) donned a denim dress and Japanese slippers. As it turns out, the overwhelming outfit-of-choice down South is lace-trimmed shorts, which one friend and fellow explorer, along for the adventure, aptly described as “doll panties.”

INDIAN ROLLER
We began the night at Indian Roller, a “boutique roadhouse” at the juncture of Slaughter and Manchaca. If the bar’s ranch house interior evokes “taxidermy chic,” its outdoor space suggests “overachieving garden party,” the kind of setup you would expect from a friend who is a new homeowner and went all out in the backyard: Christmas lights, cabanas, tree-stumps-as-stools and a charming picket fence. The soundtrack? Guitar-driven rock with a strong cricket percussion section. The crowd felt distinctly relaxed and unpretentious; the many dogs appeared more stressed about securing a mate by the end of the night than their owners. When asked whether the place got “dancey” later on, one patron explained that he often took it upon himself to initiate dancing at the Roller. “You just have to get out there on your own, and pretend like everyone else who comes up is dancing for you,” he said. His philosophy sounded like it might make a good bumper sticker, or a TED-X talk, but we had little time to tarry, so we thanked him for the intel, downed our Roller Royales (champagne, sloe gin and a sugar cube) and struck out again.

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MOONTOWER SALOON
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A stone’s throw from Indian Roller lies Moontower Saloon, with a parking lot that seems to stretch to Buda. After securing a spot, we began the hike in. As with Indian Roller, everyone seemed more focused on having a good time than preening: female footwear was comfortable and occasionally verged to-ward the flip-flop. Moontower sprawls over 11 acres: if you aren’t feeling the live band, you can take your beer under the live oaks, or go play volleyball, corn hole or its more obscure sister sport, washer pitch. Perhaps because of the sheer number of athletic activities on offer, the clean bathrooms and a good-natured buoyancy among the crowd, Moontower had a mild pep-rally flavor (picture a high school with mediocre teams, where everyone’s just happy to get out of class). But the establishment’s patrons eschewed any easy white, suburban categorizations – the crowd looked markedly more diverse than it often does downtown.

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FAR NORTH

Journeying to Austin’s Far North demands careful preparation. Luckily, having played a lot of “Oregon Trail” on the computer as kids, we knew just how to pack. In this case, the chal-lenges would not be fording MS-Dos rivers, but figuring out how to negotiate a “high-tech driving range” cum “swanky lounge” (as Topgolf describes itself online). Sporting a sleeveless silk jumper and strappy sandals, we snagged a post-Uber-era Fare. Our driver, a jovial man with the excellent name of Steve Quackenbusch, who moonlights as a spoken-word poet and a FedEx deliverer, told us that he increasingly ferries Central Austinites north for night-life. When asked what he thought of the region’s offerings, compared to downtown, Steve, in true spoken-word form, called the new north “one heart in a city that has many hearts.” We exited his car, both moved and dubious.

TOPGOLF
polarexpeditions_04If a Sphinx (that pesky half-human, half-lion creature of Greek mythology, who ate travelers that couldn’t answer its riddle) ever sets up shop along I-35, it might ask commuters: “Which Austin nightspot looks like a business-class lounge, feels like a bowling alley and sounds like a wedding party?” The answer, of course, would be Topgolf. Topgolf is hard to wrap your head around. It’s like a sushi burrito: you get the concept, but can you get behind the concept? Judging by how packed it was on a recent Saturday night, the answer for many Austinites appears to be a “hell, yes!” And lest you imagine Topgolf ’s typical fan to be a daddish white dude in his mid-50s, we spotted a wide range of humankind teeing off: milleni-gals draped in tattoos, chortling middle-aged ladies (with golf squad goals?) and bros of all colors and ages. Everything about Topgolf is outsized, from the Big Gulp-esque plastic water cups, to the sheer number of golf “bays” (102), to the corresponding number of TVs at each bay. Like Camp Snoopy, the amusement park inside the Mall of America, Topgolf struck us as excessive, faintly terrifying and pretty fun.

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77 DEGREES
Each year, little children in pajamas compose countless Christmas lists addressed to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole, and each weekend, women in very tight dresses order countless cocktails in Austin’s new North Pole wonderland, Rock Rose. Is Domain Northside’s Rock Rose real? Or is it a lot like Santa (spoiler alert): something you will only find at the mall? Touted as the locally-owned corrective to the Domain’s franchised façade, Rock Rose wears its authenticity on its former-food-truck sleeve. Weary from our journey on foot from Topgolf, which had demanded traversing a construction site and a large parking lot, the hardy members of our expedition shouted with joy at the discovery of the watering hole our smart phone had promised: 77 Degrees.
You can’t miss the high-altitude heels at 77 Degrees, which only soar higher as the night deepens. The crowd, around 10 p.m., had a “one-more-hour-of-babysitting-let’s-make-this-worth-it vibe,” which eventually gave way to a younger, taller, tanner contingent. We sam-pled a Violet Sky, a gin-watermelon-thyme drink, and leaned back onto our Miami-lounge-looking sofa. The impeccable craft cocktail; the well-dressed, work-hard-play-hard revelers; and their varied accents, felt like what you might find in any thriving city: Hong Kong, Munich, Los Angeles. Does this mean that Austin, as a cosmopolitan capital, has arrived? To become a global destination, do you have to look a little bit like everywhere else?
The view from 77 Degrees is currently dominated by construction sites, an apt reminder that what’s on the city’s horizon — for nightlife and in its everyday, in the North and the South — is rapid change. As gentrification pushes longtime dwellers out of downtown, the spots that currently claim the most cultural cache could also become the most homogeneous. But if a center cannot hold, it could perhaps expand, along with a city’s idea of itself — if, like a carnival calf, it can grow multiple hearts.

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Read more from the Nightlife Issue | August 2016


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