Key to the City

The Best of South Congress, Austin’s Iconic, Ever-Changing Avenue

More than 20 million visitors roll into the Texas state capital every year, whether for SXSW, ACL, a bachelor(ette) party, or a football game. Their visit to Austin inevitably brings them to South Congress Ave: where else can you sip margaritas on a shady patio, pull on a brand new pair of cowboy boots, and listen to echoing live music, all within walking distance? With the South Congress bridge providing unparalleled views of the downtown skyline, and the dusky capitol building looming just up the road, the avenue practically serves as a billboard for Austin itself.

The South Congress that exists today, the heart of which runs south from Lady Bird Lake to Oltorf St., is a bustling playground for tourists and locals alike. The street is a whirlwind of scootering tourists posing in front of Instagram-famous murals, trendy hotels with tucked-away patios, upscale restaurants with lines snaking around the block, and boutique shops peddling overpriced vintage goods. Looking around, you can’t help but wonder where the "weird" in "Keep Austin Weird" might be hiding.

South Congress, unsurprisingly, didn't always look and feel this way. Its evolution seems to coincide with the trajectory of Austin as a whole: weirdo culture is introduced, and said weirdo culture is seemingly sanitized. While it’s easy to blame tech giants and Madewell stores for driving up rent and forcing creatives to move to San Marcos, a closer look into our city will reveal bedrocks of true Austin DNA that haven’t budged. On South Congress, you can still spot a weathered guitarist strumming blues covers for change, or enjoy a stack of gingerbread pancakes at 3am.

South Congress Avenue looking north
South Congress Avenue in the 1930s | Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

In the 1940s and '50s, Congress Avenue served as a visual gateway into the city. Travelers would turn off what is now Interstate 35 to take the scenic route into downtown, past dozens of motels (including the still-standing Austin Motel), restaurants, and gas stations. The now-iconic Continental Club opened in 1955, but went through a few iterations -- a supper club, a burlesque club, and blue collar bar -- before landing as the live music venue it is today. During the civil rights movement in the early '60s, Harry Akin’s restaurants -- including the Night Hawk burger joint at Riverside and South Congress (which is now office space) -- became the first in Austin to integrate customers.

South Congress saw urban decay in the '70s and '80s as businesses relocated to I-35. Sketchy, run-down motor lodges -- including the now-boutique Hotel San Jose -- attracted drug dealers (and users) and crime. On the corner of Live Oak, Cinema West began operating as an X-rated theater. But cheap rents made the area appealing to a creative class who would come to define our city, and launched what would be one of Austin's most fertile eras for music. In 1970, legendary music venue Armadillo World Headquarters set up shop behind a skating rink on South Congress and Barton Springs Road. The Armadillo saw performances by the likes of The Clash, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa, and even AC/DC before shuttering in 1980; one of the founders, Eddie Wilson, later went on to open Threadgill’s.

Steve Wertheimer, owner of the Continental Club and C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, was introduced to the South Congress scene in 1983. "Until moving down to South Austin, I never realized what I had been missing. The culture, the musicians, and the artists were all right at home south of the river.” The Continental Club had morphed into a full-fledged rock venue by this time, attracting artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely, and Sonic Youth.

continental club austin
Continental Club | Shutterstock

“When I took over The Continental in 1987, we were the only place on South Congress other than Fran’s and Dan’s Cellar that was open after 5pm in the afternoon,” Wertheimer continues. “It was a totally different scene; a few mom-and-pop businesses, and absolutely no traffic or parking issues.” Just down the street around the same time, Colleen and Gail Johnson opened the iconic karaoke bar Ego’s, and its tucked away location and ancient grimy charm have made it one of Austin’s most beloved dives. Funky costume shop Lucy in Disguise and beloved diner Magnolia Cafe set up shop soon after.

Even more iconic homegrown businesses began to dominate South Congress -- places like Amy’s Ice Cream, Uncommon Objects (which relocated in 2017), Güero's Taco Bar, Monkey See! Monkey Do!, and Big Top Candy Shop. The run-down San José was still a haven for drugs and crime when hotelier Liz Lambert purchased it in 1995, and it would remain so for another three years. “I wasn’t able to raise the money to do the renovation right away," said Lambert. "It was a pay-by-the-week home for folks who had fallen on hard times in one way or another." Today, the ivy-wrapped hotel is a stunning example of Austin’s casual/cool culture, as well as how much the South Congress neighborhood has changed.

“I really feel the soul of South Congress, and South Austin to a large extent, are being sucked out."

Austin's growth accelerated from the late '90s into the aughts: the tech boom brought $1 billion in new VC money between 1996 and 1999, and the founding of ACL Music Festival in 2002 meant that Austin's secret coolness wouldn't be secret for much longer. On South Congress (now "SoCo"), that growth not only took the form of renovated classics like the San José, but also trendy shops and upscale eateries backed by monolithic hospitality groups: spots like Perla's, June's All Day, and Joann's Fine Foods were opened by McGuire Moorman Hospitality, who also own and operate other Austin favorites like Clark’s, Elizabeth Street Cafe, Jeffrey’s, and Pool Burger.

The question is whether South Congress’ offbeat character (and that of Austin, really) can remain intact when real estate value, property taxes, and the cost of living are all rising at an alarming rate. Wertheimer doesn't mince words when describing his take on the growth: “I really feel the soul of South Congress, and South Austin to a large extent, are being sucked out. At one time, this area was the last vestige of the Austin I and so many others fell in love with long ago.”

Others, like Brandon Hodge -- the owner of Big Top Candy Shop who contributed to the founding of SoCo’s monthly block party, First Thursday -- point out the hyperbole that often accompanies change. “When an iconic business departs, the headlines almost universally proclaim it's the official end of South Congress. And while I feel the loss, the local shop owners here still heavily outweigh the corporate brands. There's a concerted effort by property owners to preserve the vibe that made South Congress a go-to destination in the first place… and so far that's been pretty successful, even if there are some businesses we wish were still here with us."

The best way to keep SoCo's spirit alive is to patronize the bars, restaurants, and shops that make it special (while you still can). Here’s your cheat sheet to the best South Congress has to offer right now:

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK ON SOUTH CONGRESS

Magnolia Cafe

Austin’s original 24-hour cafe, known for hearty anytime breakfast
Iconic Magnolia Cafe has been the go-to spot for heaping portions of Tex-Mex and diner fare for 30 years running. Between the walls lined with local art of varying skill levels, tabletops wrapped in kitschy mismatched tablecloths, and a skeletal pterodactyl wearing high tops dangling from the ceiling, the all-day cafe is known as much for its signature funky vibe as for its food. The expansive menu offers breakfast staples, burgers, and Tex-Mex classics, in addition to specific breakfast, lunch, and dinner-only selections, giving you an eye-popping number of options. If you need a little guidance, Magnolia Cafe is famed for its gingerbread pancakes and migas plate (eggs scrambled with tomato, onion, jalapeños, bell pepper, tortilla chips, and cheese).

Vespaio

Italian fine-dining dinner spot known for making everything in-house
Long before farm-to-table, small plates, and our obsession with photographing food, Vespaio was the definition of fine dining in Austin with its made-from-scratch menu, hospitality-focused experience, and elegant atmosphere. Vespaio Ristorante opened in 1998, serving rustic Italian in a cozy space lined with towering shelves of wine. Today, Vespaio is just as beloved; diners rave about the warm service, the enormous lasagna bolognese, and handmade pizzas covered in house-made mozzarella and baked in their woodfire oven.

Amy's Ice Creams

Classic local ice cream chain with more than 350 rotating flavors
Founded way back in 1984, Amy's has become a frozen treat behemoth with 15 stores across Austin, Dallas, and Houston -- and the ice cream's just as good as it was in the beginning. The bafflingly long list of flavors can include anything from Apple Pie to Lemon Cheesecake to Chipotle Chocolate, and you're bound to find at least a few that get your mouth watering.

Hopdoddy
Courtesy of Hopdoddy

Hopdoddy

Austin-based “fancy” burger chain using high-quality ingredients
Hopdoddy’s creative burgers all start with handmade buns and patties in every imaginable protein and and combination of fixins. Try the South Congress-inspired Continental Club: a turkey patty, sun dried tomato and basil pesto, applewood smoked bacon, provolone, arugula, mayo, basil pesto, tomato, onion on whole wheat. And, the boozy milkshakes alone are worth a trip. If you see a line, you’ll know you’re in the right place.

Otoko

Nationally lauded, 12-seat, modern Japanese omakase and cocktails
Up a flight of stairs at the South Congress Hotel, Otoko feels more like a speakeasy than a nationally-recognized restaurant from one of Austin’s most recognizable chefs. Chef Yoshi Okai and his team prepare and serve a 20-course omakase tasting menu from behind a 12-seat bar, bathed in glowing light from a bizarre art installation that makes diners feel as if they just stepped into 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tattoo- and mohawk-sporting Chef Yoshi adds a Texas-centric flair to his style of Japanese cuisine by including ingredients like Turk’s Cap leaves, figs, and Mexican marigold that are abundant to Central Texas.

Perla's

Modern coastal cooking, and South Congress’ best oak tree-shaded patio
If you’re craving happy hour drinks, ceviche, and oysters, then Perla’s is your place. A variety of fresh fish, oysters, and crustaceans are flown in daily from both coasts, and the expansive menu covers all the bases of preparation -- raw, fried, grilled, roasted, baked in mac & cheese, you name it. Don’t miss out on the bar’s offerings, which include a rotating daily frozen marg, a wine list full of Summer-y patio-sipping wines, and classic cocktails with a twist.

Home Slice & More Home Slice

Real New York-style pizza served by the enormous slice or enormous pie
Founded right here in 2005, Home Slice is one of Austin's best pizza shops, and it's a must-visit for anyone seeking legit NY slices or pies. Hit up the sit-down location for a relaxing meal with friends or family, or opt for the to-go window at More Home Slice next door -- it's open until 3am on Friday and Saturday, making it the perfect capper to a night out on South Congress. The crisp, thin crust is the star of the show, but the toppings also play lead roles; we love the garlicky, ricotta-based white pie with spinach.

Jo's Hot Coffee Good Food

Coffee shop and home of Austin’s most iconic mural
Located in the parking lot of the San José, Jo’s opened in 1999 as a tiny grab-and-go coffee stand with outdoor seating perfect for people-watching. In 2010, musician Amy Cook spray painted the simple message “i love you so much” to her then-partner, Liz Lambert, founder of Bunkhouse the hospitality group responsible for Jo’s Coffee, Hotel San José, Austin Motel, Marfa’s El Cosmico, and many more local concepts. Thus, Austin’s top tourist attraction was born and serves as a cute backdrop for many kinds of expressions of love.

Joann’s Fine Foods

Retro-inspired all-day diner with sunny patio perfect for people-watching
The Austin Motel’s Cali-Tex-Mex diner is now open every day from 8am until midnight -- meaning you can start your day with migas in the diner, or meet up with the gang for happy hour on the spacious patio beneath technicolor stained glass. The agave-forward bar program not only has a solid selection of mezcals and tequilas, but three housemade sangritas (a sipping elixir typically made with a combination of citrus juice, tomato juice, and spicy pepper) for sipping alongside your spirit.

Torchy’s Tacos

Retro-styled flagship of the once-local taco chain
Torchy’s began as a single trailer on South First, and grew into a taco empire now in 18 cities. Torchy’s offerings are the epitome of Austin’s style, a mash-up of cultures: thick tortillas are filled with classic ingredients like eggs and bacon, as well as not-so-classic stuff like fried chicken, brisket, and chipotle ranch. The flagship location on South Congress -- a playfully retro structure that brings to mind the futuristic Googie architecture of 1960’s Southern California -- is located on the same site occupied by Dan’s (and later Fran’s) Hamburgers from 1973 until 2013.  

Lounge at Hotel San José

Hip patio lounge nestled in the center of the Hotel San Jose
The lounge is kind of a hidden gem as it’s not visible from Congress; that said, those in the know just slink past the lobby to the courtyard lounge for micheladas, frosé, and Texas beers. In addition to happy hour specials Monday - Thursday from noon to 5 pm, the Lounge also hosts events ranging from tarot readings to DJ sets.

WHERE TO CATCH LIVE MUSIC ON SOUTH CONGRESS

C-Boy’s Heart & Soul

Neighborhood juke-joint featuring classic soul and R&B acts
Steve Wertheimer (who also owns the Continental Club below) opened C-Boy’s Heart & Soul as a tribute to his mentor and close friend C-Boy Parks, who passed in 1991. In the late 1970’s, Parks managed the short-lived-but-treasured blues club the Rome Inn, and was a beloved personality in Austin’s music scene. C-Boy’s Heart & Soul hosts classic soul and R&B acts in a red-hued atmosphere rich in the authenticity you'd expect from a place with this much history; check out the calendar here. Fun fact: A scene from Richard Linklater’s cult classic Slacker was shot in front of C-Boys’s (although at the time it was the Blue Bayou, and later became Trophy’s Bar).

The Continental Club

Legendary music venue showcasing local and national rock, country, jazz and blues
Open since 1955, the Continental Club’s stage has seen the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely, Social Distortion, and The Replacements. The club was restored to its original '50s glory in 1987, and continues to host some of the best rock, Americana, rockabilly, blues acts -- including the very talented Peterson Brothers Band and iconic Dale Watson & his Lone Stars -- every Monday night.

Guero's
Güero's Taco Bar | Courtesy of Resplendent Hospitality

Güero's Taco Bar

Popular Mexican food tourist destination known for margaritas and live music
You’ll find Güero's right in the middle of the action on South Congress. Since 1995, visitors and locals alike have been flocking here for hand-shaken margaritas, tacos, and the famous salsa bar. You'll also want to check out the Oak Garden Stage next door, where you'll find a relaxed, tree-shaded patio with a dedicated bar and free live music almost every night of the week.

The Continental Club Gallery

Small, second-story venue with a living room concert vibe
Get up close and personal at this modern, intimate sister venue to the Continental Club. Climb the steep flight upstairs for an experience not typically found in Austin: one of direct reverence for the performing artists. The more-personal space and the proximity between artists and guests encourage both to get lost in the music -- it also means that if you're busy yapping to your Tinder date or staring at your bright phone screen during a performance, you're probably ruining the experience for everyone. Don't be that person.

Ego's

Iconic hole-in-the-wall karaoke bar hidden in plain sight
Although there's no mistaking the blue-and-yellow sign out front, you'll have to walk through a parking garage to find the entrance to Austin's most notorious karaoke dive. Inside, low ceilings are strewn with Christmas lights and the karaoke stage is backed by a mural of the Austin skyline. Karaoke starts at 9pm every night, but you'll want to show up early if you're actually planning on putting your name down: this place gets bumping by 10pm, with a line that runs out the door once the bar hits capacity (which doesn't take long, as it's not a huge place). Otherwise, sit back and let the often-great-but-pitchy singing wash over you.

Watertrade

Intimate lounge serving unique cocktails and an extensive list of Japanese spirits
Let's just come right out and say it: the most exciting cocktails in Austin are arguably being made at Watertrade. Ricky Cobia and Whitney Hazelmyer are quietly killing it, one elegant concoction at a time in the little lounge adjacent to nationally lauded Otoko. The cocktail menu is a restrained homage to Japanese spirits and flavors, but with a team this talented, we’d recommend going with dealer’s choice. Allow them to surprise you.

WHERE TO SHOP ON SOUTH CONGRESS

Allens Boots

Iconic boot shop open since 1977, with over 10,000 boots on display
Upon entering Allens, you're immediately hit by the rich smell of leather. Among the rows upon rows of boot, you'll find popular brands like Lucchese, Justin, and Frye, in every color and style (and price) imaginable, plus western apparel and hats, all being browsed by an assortment of characters ranging from grizzled cowboys to wide-eyed tourists. Even if you're not in the market for a new Western wardrobe, you owe it to yourself to stop in and find out your actual boot size.

YETI

Austin-founded cooler and insulated accessories showroom
The YETI flagship store on the corner of South Congress and Barton Springs showcases the brand’s line of high-end coolers and accessories, arrayed throughout the store like a color-coordinated rainbow of chillage. Pro tip: this flagship location also has a very Texas-inspired patio bar (aptly named Barrr) out front, so even if you're not in the market for thermal insulation, this is a cool spot to begin (or end) your trek down South Congress.

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds

Costume shop in the heart of South Congress with a seemingly infinite inventory
This enormous 35-year old outpost offers costumes for purchase as well as a deep, maze-like inventory of elaborate rentals, from a hoop-skirted Marie Antoinette to a full-body Ninja Turtle. You can pick up wigs, masks, vintage clothing, props, accessories, and makeup, but sometimes it's enough to just browse the wares in awe. Experience true zen and/or claustrophobia by standing deep within the very tightly packed racks of costumes in the back of the store.

Big Top Candy Shop
Big Top Candy Shop | Shelley Neuman

Big Top Candy Shop

Colorful, circus-themed store with old-school confections, bulk candy, and a soda fountain
Walking into Big Top Candy Shop is to experience sensory overload: candy-themed sideshow posters, tarnished brass instruments, and a lion tamer’s uniform are all nestled amongst a kaleidoscope of candy. You’ll find everything from rare Pocky flavors and gummies of every shape to throwback wax lips and even scorpion lollipops. There's also ice cream, milkshakes, and old-fashioned hand-jerked sodas. Your teeth won't thank you, but your tongue will.

Monkey See, Monkey Do!

Colorful novelty shop with a selection of quirky gifts, collectibles and toys for kids and adults
Kidrobot, Tokidoki, Sanrio, Pop! Vinyl, blind boxes… if any of these ring a bell then you're probably a toy geek, but even non-collectors can get a kick out of this shop. Drop into Monkey See, Monkey Do! and prepare for sensory overload as you peruse the floor-to-ceiling inventory of designer and collectible toys, gag gifts, and more.

Revival Cycles
Courtesy of Revival Cycles

Revival Cycles

Retail outlet of Eastside motorcycle dealer and repair/restoration shop
The massive floor-to-ceiling windows, spiral staircase, and second-story loft are trumped only by the vintage bikes dangling from the ceiling, a sort of life-size mobile. This South Congress shop is the retail extension where enthusiasts can shop the Revival lifestyle via clothing and gear, as well as parts for your hog. (The actual fabrication shop is located on the Eastside, and hosts The Handbuilt Motorcycle Show annually.)

Mi Casa Gallery

Corner shop selling an expansive selection of Mexican folk art and gifts
This showroom and gift shop is home to some truly breathtaking fine and folk art made by hand in Mexico. You’ll find papier-mâché catrinas (Day of the Dead figures), museum-quality retablos and santos (oil paintings on metal or wood of Christian icons), and colorful Talavera pottery.

South Congress Books

Independent bookstore selling used, collectible, vintage, and unique books
South Congress Books is a bookworm's delight; the inventory includes a huge selection of vintage and collectible books on many subjects, as well as loose engravings for framing. Suddenly got an urge to pick up a first edition copy of The Right Stuff signed by Tom Wolfe himself? This is the place to do it. Looking to while away a few minutes before your Lyft arrives? Still the place to do it.

STAG Provisions for Men
STAG Provisions for Men | Thomas Allison/Thrillist

STAG Provisions for Men

Men’s clothing, shoes, and accessories with a modern classic vibe
For almost 10 years, STAG has been SoCo's go-to men’s outfitter for the raw denim, Clubmaster-rocking, slick undercut hairstyle crowd. Stock up on super soft tees, fitted Hawaiian shirts, designer socks, Red Wing’s definitely-not-just-a-work-boot collection, high-end skin care products, and everything in between -- or just marvel at the price of some designer socks, and head over to Home Slice next door.

Sign up here for our daily Austin email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Anastacia Uriegas is a writer whose favorite movie is The Lion King. Join her as she self-soothes by rocking back and forth and singing "The Circle of Life" every time an MX3 sign goes up at @anaurie.