MADELINE K.B. ROSS (this article was first published July 27, 2012)
My first night in Austin, I arrived in the city frazzled and hungry. I had flown down for a job interview and my flight had been delayed. Twice. A friend picked me up at the airport and seeing the exhausted, slightly crazed look in my eyes, he pronounced, “We’re going to the Driskill.” Twenty minutes later I was nestled into a leather couch, a Tiffany lamp gently shining on my Manhattan. I was at peace.
The Driskill Bar has that magical effect. It’s the place to take a weary traveler or a disgruntled colleague. Crowded around its bar are businessmen in suits, musicians – those who are famous now, those who were famous 20 years ago and those who will be famous next year – and visitors from Amarillo wearing flip-flops. The Driskill welcomes them all with a warm ambiance and an impeccably stirred martini.
In recent decades Austin has grown from a sleepy state capital to a booming tech center, housing offices for Dell, IBM, Facebook and Google. The hotel that was the site of Lyndon B. Johnson’s first date with Lady Bird is now surrounded by bars offering jello shots and mechanical bull contests. As Coyote Ugly and skyscrapers spring up around it, the Driskill’s Romanesque Revival facade has become a symbol for a bygone, more leisurely era.
The bar’s ambiance is characterized by gilded ceilings and cowhide, a style I’ve christened “Texan Opulence.” Jesse Driskill made his fortune selling livestock to the Confederate Army and cows are found everywhere from the leather sofas to the heads and paintings lining the walls. Driskill began construction on the hotel in 1884 but an unexpected freeze wiped out his herd only two years after the building’s completion. Bankrupt, Driskill was forced to sell.
Throughout the 1900s the Driskill Hotel changed ownership repeatedly. “I’ve worked here 31 years and I’ve seen six renovations under three owners,” explains David, the dapper daytime bartender. “Everyone has come through: Jerry Garcia, Robert Duvall, Davy Jones, Roy Orbison.” As the music being piped in changes from The Band to Elvis Costello, David adds, “Hear that? I’ve met both of them.”
Austin bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World and the annual festivals of Austin City Limits and South by Southwest still bring headlining musicians. But it’s not just musicians who come to the bar: “Politicians, hitmen, professional burglars, I’ve served them all,” says David. The Driskill Bar clientele has changed since he first put on his bowtie and poured a whiskey in 1982, “I can remember the days of the two martini lunch in the 1980s. We had regulars, businessmen who came here every week for their liquid lunch. Now people just don’t have the time.”
When asked what drinks are most popular now, David sighs. “It’s fads, always the fads. It was mojitos, then cosmopolitans, now who knows.” He prefers a Jameson in the evenings and smiled his approval when the man next to me ordered a Macallan.
The next time you’re in Texas, drop in the Driskill Bar one evening to hear a local musician play classic Hank Williams and Willie Nelson songs. Bypass the tawdry allure of cosmopolitans and order something befitting the atmosphere. A martini straight up, perhaps, or a sidecar. Sip your drink knowing that you have just joined a legacy of presidents, movie stars, musicians and criminals who have enjoyed the Driskill Bar. Welcome to Austin.