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Austin: Local Cuisine

A Bat's Eye View

From late March through mid-November, the most coveted seats in town are the ones with a view of the thousands of bats that fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in search of a hearty bug dinner at dusk. The Shoreline Grill and the Cafe at the Four Seasons, 98 San Jacinto Blvd. (tel. 512/478-4500), are the two toniest spots for observing this astounding phenomenon. TGIF's at the Radisson Hotel on Town Lake, 11 E. First St. (tel. 512/478-9611), and La Vista at the Hyatt Regency Austin on Town Lake, 208 Barton Springs Rd. (tel. 512/477-1234), offer more casual, collegial roosts.

Musical Brunches

For a religious experience on Sunday morning that doesn't require entering a more traditional place of worship, check out the gospel brunch at Stubb's Bar-B-Q, 801 Red River St. (tel. 512/480-8341). The singing is heavenly, the pork ribs divine. At Threadgill's World Headquarters, you can graze at a Southern-style buffet while listening to live inspirational sounds; find out who's playing at www.threadgills.com. If you worship at the altar of the likes of Miles Davis, the Sunday jazz brunches at both locations of Manuel's let you enjoy eggs with venison chorizo or corn gorditas with garlic and cilantro while listening to smokin' traditional or Latin jazz. Log on to www.manuels.com to find out who's going to be sizzling while you're visiting.

Reel Barbecue

Forget cheap labor and right-to-work laws, one of the less-publicized inducements for filmmakers to come to Austin is the barbecue -- slow-cooked over a wood-fueled fire, and so tasty it doesn't need sauce. Think in terms of an "Austin Barbecue Loop," a circle with a roughly 30-mile radius from the state capitol where hungry crews make the rounds. Service in these places is casual and the food is handed over with little hoopla -- usually on plastic plates or just butcher paper. But it is incredibly good, and keeps bringing these Hollywood types back to shoot more films on location.

Gary Bond, film liaison for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, has the skinny on the celluloid-barbecue connection. According to Bond, the eastern portion of the Loop -- where rolling prairies, farmland, and small towns conveniently pass for Everywhere, USA -- has received rave reviews from location scouts, stars, and producers alike. Rudy Mikeska's (tel. 512/352-5561), in downtown Taylor, was featured in The Hot Spot as The Yellow Rose, the racy hangout of the Don Johnson character, while less than a block away, Louie Mueller Barbecue (tel. 512/352-6206) served as a location for Flesh and Bone, starring Dennis Quaid and James Caan. To the south, in Elgin, crews from movie segments, music videos, and commercials happily hit Southside Market & BBQ (tel. 512/281-4650) on breaks.

As for the western part of the loop, the guys scouting for Lolita loved Cooper's (tel. 915/247-5713) open pit in Llano, while The Salt Lick, in Driftwood, has hosted lots of wrap parties. In Austin itself, Nora Ephron couldn't tear herself away from The Green Mesquite (tel. 512/335-9885; various locations).

For more meaty locations, log on to www.bbqfilm.com, the website of "Barbecue: A Texas Love Story." This humorous film, narrated by the late governor Ann Richards, travels all around Texas in search of the best you-know-what.

Coffeehouses

Austin has often been compared to Seattle for its music scene and its green, college-town atmosphere. Although the city isn't quite up to, er, speed when it comes to coffeehouses, there are enough homegrown versions these days to constitute a respectable presence around downtown and the university. All the following are wireless Internet hot spots.

Little City, 916 Congress Ave. (tel. 512/476-2489), with its ultrachic design, is close to the downtown tourist sights, and the only local place to get a java fix near the capitol on Sunday. It's got free Wi-Fi. Just north of the University of Texas campus is Spider House, 2908 Fruth St. (tel. 512/480-9562). It's off of Guadalupe and gets a mixed crowd of students and artists. Besides coffee, it sells tempeh chili, Frito pie, smoothies, all-natural fruit sangrias, and beer. A bit farther north in the homey Hyde Park neighborhood is the Flightpath coffeehouse (tel. 512/458-4472) at 5011 Duval St. It's furnished '50s mod style and is Wi-Fi equipped. South of downtown, across the river in the SoCo area, is Jo's at 1300 S. Congress (tel. 512/444-3800). It's hip and popular and seems to always have a crowd. Coffee, sandwiches, and Wi-Fi are the main draw. The owners have opened a second shop -- Jo's Downtown -- at 242 W. 2nd St. (tel. 512/469-9003). I should mention two additional popular coffeehouses. In the Zilker Park area of South Austin, there's Flipnotics, 1601 Barton Springs Rd. (tel. 512/322-9750), a two-story, indoor/outdoor "coffeespace," where you can sip great caffeine drinks or beer while listening to acoustic singer/songwriters most nights. The large, tree-shaded patio should get you mellow, too. The other is Mozart's, 3825 Lake Austin Blvd. (tel. 512/477-2900). It's in west Austin on the shores of Lake Austin, and on a pretty day, the views are lovely from the deck. It offers great white-chocolate-almond croissants.

Sweet Tooth

Amy's, Austin's homegrown brand of ice cream, is wonderfully rich and creamy. But eating it is only half the fun. Watching the colorfully clad servers juggling the scoops is a kick. Amy's has nine Austin locations, including one on the west side of downtown, 1012 W. Sixth St. at Lamar Boulevard (tel. 512/480-0673); one in SoCo, 1301 S. Congress Ave. (tel. 512/440-7488); and one at the Arboretum, 10000 Research Blvd. (tel. 512/345-1006). And if you don't have a chance to try it in town, you can catch this tasty treat at the airport.

Grocery Store Dining

Austinites have a fondness for dining in grocery stores, and I'm not talking about grazing the produce aisle. Indeed, the city's two grocery palaces, Central Market and Whole Foods, have dedicated large store areas for the sale of prepared dishes. Austinites like the casual feel of a grocery store and the convenience of mixing dining with the opportunity to pick up a couple of things forgotten on the last shopping trip. But for visitors, it's a good choice, too. Because both of these stores are popular on the sight-seeing circuit, you can get two things done at once. The food is good, quick, and wholesome, and you control the portions. The prices are moderate and compare favorably to sitting down in a full-service restaurant. In both stores, indoor and outdoor seating are available, sometimes with live music. Whole Foods probably has more variety, though it's more self-serve and can be a little confusing. Food at both places is available during regular store hours.

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