The blog for inspired travel with children

Monday, September 17, 2012

Austin, Texas: Seven Old-School, Kid-Friendly Eats

Wherever we go, I like to find places that have a kind of authenticity to them - what you could call “old school,” whatever the local language.   As Austin’s population has exploded over the past decade, bringing with it all kinds of cool new places to eat, these old funky places have become increasingly rare.  So, I present to you, my picks for Old-School Austin Eats - all welcoming to children, naturally.  Visit them while you still can.

As you may notice, the dining establishments listed below are not the most healthful sorts of places - this is just how they rolled back in the good old days in Texas.  Burgers and ice cream figure heavily.  However, they do all have character and that counts for quite a bit in my book!  

Top Notch on Burnet Road

Top Notch
Top Notch is a fully-functional drive-in restaurant that serves burgers, fries, onion rings shakes, etc..  They also serve fried pies, which even my husband is nervous about eating.  Top Notch opened in 1971, and seems to have barely changed; you can get a look at it in Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused.  
Dirty Martin’s
Another funky old burger place - this one has served the University of Texas community since 1926.  It was originally called Martin’s Kum-Bak place, but the dirt floor - now gone - earned it the nick-name “Dirty’s” or “Dirty Martin’s”. 

Cisco's on East Sixth Street

I will be honest and say that I have never ordered anything other than migas and biscuits while dining at this East Side institution.  I happen to find them divine.  My son adores the biscuits with a bit of honey. The walls are covered with framed news clippings about the owners and other miscellany. There is plenty for kids to gawk at and the service is pretty quick.

Nau's Enfield Drug on West Lynn

Nau's Enfield Drug 
This is a rare and precious thing nowadays - a real old-fashioned neighborhood pharmacy with a small lunch counter (and other seating) in the back.  Nau's serves the basics: grilled cheese, hamburgers, etc.  We usually go for the ice cream sundaes, which are just perfect.  

Sandy's on Barton Springs Road

Sandy's Frozen Custard
Sandy's has been handing out soft-serve custard (also known as ice cream - as well as burgers and other lunch grub) from it's walk-up window since 1946.  Located right in the middle of town on Barton Springs Road, it's still the perfect place to stop by on a ridiculously hot summer day.  Picnic tables are in the back.

Quality Seafood on Airport Boulevard

Quality Seafood
This place is part fish market and part restaurant (a little bar in the center divides the two).  It's my son's favorite restaurant - he is obsessed with their fried calimari.  I like it too - it is super casual, quite tasty, and one of a kind.  Sharks and other sea life hang from the ceiling, and the staff are nice as can be.

Matt's El Rancho on South Lamar

Matt’s El Rancho
Warning: this place is popular.  Go early or you may face a bit of a wait.  Otherwise, it’s your basic tex-mex served in a big, rambling, high-energy (but laid-back) space.  Lots of rooms for wandering through (when baby needs to move around); lots of sympathetic friendly people; a great spot for big groups.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Japan: The Hakone Open-Air Museum

We’ve been dreaming about traveling to Japan lately.  One child-friendly place I don’t want to miss is the Hakone Open-Air Museum.  Visiting a conventional museum can be tricky, but this is a museum where my child can wander and play and explore to his heart's delight.  And so can I!

The art is varied and fantastic; the focus is modern and contemporary sculpture.  Pieces are rotated seasonally.  There is also a large (indoor) collection of work by Picasso, featuring mainly ceramics but also including paintings, sculpture, and more.

"Floating Sculpture" by Marta Pan (1969)

"Miss Black Power" by Niki De Saint Phalle (1968) 

"Engraved Wind" by Flow Masayuki (1979)

The museum is particularly child-friendly. They offer a special map for children incorporating a finding game; it includes a stylus which “reads” the name of each piece when it’s pointed to on the map.  

Interactive Children's Map

Children are also admitted for free on Saturdays. Many of the sculptures are interactive, including an indoor play area, a big outdoor maze, a spiral staircase enclosed by stained glass and glitter, and a giant sculpture made from colorful netting. 

Forest Castle Bubble (left) and and The Net (right)

I love The Museum's description of The Net (as translated by Google):

“Let me play with abandon play sculpture that is felt in the whole body, the senses and the sense of color modeling through play.”

Sounds good to me!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lockhart, Texas: Barbecue Roadtrip!

For some reason, my seven year old gets a kick out of this sign...

There are people who are truly obsessed with good barbecue.  I am not quite one of those people. However, I do love great dining establishments, and Smitty is undeniably one of these (vegetarians might reasonably disagree). 

There are three barbecue joints of note in Lockhart: the enormous Kreuz' Market, the cozy Black's, and the no-nonsense Smitty's Market.  We drove straight to Smitty's Market, which many people consider the best of the three (and one of the best anywhere).  


I won't disagree; I love this place, starting from the moment you walk in.   You open an old screen door and are faced with a long, disturbingly blackened hallway lined with wooden benches.  Everything looks smoked.  At the end of the dim corridor take a right, and behold: Fire!  The pitmasters toss together orders and pile it all on a tray lined with butcher paper.  No forks or knives, and don't ask.  Just pay up and head into the bright dining room in the front, where you can find sides (cole slaw, potato salad, etc.), and dollar cones of Bluebell ice cream.  Yum!

They have good sides too; I always order some potato salad, cole slaw, and beans

My son won’t go near the fires, and it is undoubtedly a little scary back there.  However, he loves the rest of it.  The ice cream doesn't hurt.

After our recent visit to Smitty’s, we walked a couple of blocks to see something really spooky - the Caldwell County Museum, which is housed in the old city jail (built in 1908-09).  I had expected to see a gutted and renovated (read: bland and sanitized) facility, but the original interior has hardly been touched.  It's really more of a Jail-themed museum, rather than a museum of Caldwell County. The ground floor was the warden’s family home, and is innocent enough.  But head upstairs (equipped with flashlights courtesy of the docent), and it’s hard not to get a little spooked.  The rusty cells (cages, really) are basically intact, and you can explore them freely.  The best room in the house is on the third floor; it has great views and nice cross-breezes.

Nice crenellation! That little door is the prisoners' entrance.

A view into the cells

A broom, of sorts

After that we needed a dose of happy reality so we headed to the pool at Lockhart State Park - nothing fancy; it feel like an extra large backyard pool.  On a hot and spooky day, it was just the thing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Hill Country: Blue Hole in Wimberley, Texas

On one of the last saturdays of summer, we drove out to the hill country for an afternoon by the water.  There really isn't any other way to make it through a 100 degree day, besides being submerged in cool water.  We headed to Blue Hole Pool in Wimberley. It turned out we weren't the only ones with this idea - we were told at the gate to return in two hours.  So, we found lunch (unfortunately, not at someplace i'd recommend), hit the local thrift store (a 70s Marimekko-esque dress for me, and a game of Connect Four for the kid), and…

When in Rome...

I am happy to report that the Blue Hole was worth the wait.  It's truly a lovely place.

The spring-fed swimming hole itself is just as cold as you'd want it, and the magnificent bald cypress trees along the banks provide plenty of welcome shade and some pleasant dappled sunlight as well.  There are ropes for swinging; one for kids and one for adults.  The bottom is a little rocky - I'd recommend bringing some water shoes.

Beyond that - it's amazing what a bit of thoughtful design can do.  Blue Hole is really just a simple, if picturesque swimming hole.  But the beautifully designed entry, the winding limestone paths, the spacious and well-maintained lawn, and even the signage all make this place feel like somewhere you'd like to linger.  More lingering will have to wait - Blue Hole has closed for the season.  It opens again next summer.

Be sure to check out the rest of the property though - there is a nice little playground nestled up against a big beautiful meadow (currently being restored), as well as hiking paths and picnic spots.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Tea Collection's New Contest

Have you entered?

With the temperature here in Austin expected to reach 103 degrees today (and tomorrow, and the day after that), I can't think of a better idea than a Nordic Getaway!  Especially with a new Tea Collection wardrobe.  Fingers sweatily crossed...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The San Francisco Bay Model

After spending an afternoon in San Francisco, we drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge and spent an hour at the amazing Bay Model Vistor Center - a working model of the entire bay water system and much of the Sacramento River Delta. The model was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1956-57 to demonstrate what would happen if the South Bay were dammed and infilled (as had been proposed).  Using simulated tidal action the Corps were able to prove that the results would be disastrous - the plan was, thankfully, shelved.  

The model (which is still owned and maintained by the Corps) is still in good shape and is admission is free.  It is well worth a visit with your kids.  The model is enormous (over 1.5 acres), and you can wander around the whole thing. "Tides" go in and out every 14 minutes, and water flows through the delta, into the bay, and out through the miniature Golden Gate. 

In addition to the model, there are displays on the history of Bay Area watercraft, the Marin Shipyard, World War II generally, and the modern workings of the bay.  Lots of models and artifacts and maps and other interesting stuff!

A model of the Marin Shipyard as it looked during World War II; the square building just left of center is where the Bay Model is housed today.

The view from outside the Model, looking towards Tiburon

If your children are reasonably calm and patient, try to squeeze in a visit to the Heath Ceramics store, which is also in Sausalito.  They make the most beautiful ceramics, and sell lots of other beautiful housewares too.  In the back, they sell seconds at a good discount (often it's hard to tell what the "problem" is).  When we visited, there was a little wooden playhouse in the courtyard outside the shop, making it easy to tag team (it's not the most child-friendly shop, unless your child is very good at keeping their hands to themselves).

If you still have time, there is another beautiful little store in Mill Valley (a few minutes north on Highway 101) called Mint.  It's tiny but carefully stocked with the most beautiful things for children and grown-ups…  When we visited, the proprietor seemed delighted with my son trying out various display toys.  Right down the street you'll find The Depot Bookstore and Cafe, which is not in itself stellar, but is a good spot for taking a break - the kids can play in the square out back while you sip your cappuccino on the back patio.