Hello friends, it's that special time of year again in Austin when free beer flows like water, anything can be turned into a music venue and a critical mass of industry folk brings this small city to about a billion times its regular population. Yes, SXSW is upon us and if the Edward Snowden and Lady Gaga headlines are any indication, this year promises to be more over-the-top than ever. The whole ordeal can be overwhelming and making it through the constant meetings, lines, concerts and parties is a test of endurance, but after eight years of this rodeo I'm here to report that good food and a well-timed breaks from the rush can be key to survival.
Where to Eat
With limited transportation available, geography often dictates the meal plan at SXSW but luckily for us the exploding food scene in Austin means a great option is never far away. If you're on the East Side of town (that's east of I-35) there is a taco truck with two locations called Veracruz All Natural that is popular with locals year-round: the fish tacos are life-changing as are the varieties of 24 oz. agua frescas (I love the cantaloupe). JucieLand, a local mini-chain of juice bars with a shop on East Cesar Chavez, also offers liquid nourishment and sells fresh juice mixers in case you feel like party and produce need not be mutually exclusive. The award-winning East Side King trailer, perched at the Liberty on 6th street is always a safe bet for something yummy like beet home fries and pork buns. Franklin BBQ on East 11th Street is number 1 for a reason and truly sublime but prepare to wait in line for a few hours and or pay someone to do it for you.
In the downtown area around the convention center Second Bar + Kitchen serves playful, refined comfort food and cocktails like Brussels sprouts with smoked bacon, feta and mint and a delightful Negroni. Parkside on 6th street continues to be beacon of relative serenity at SXSW ground zero with some of the best oysters, French fries and people watching in the city. Casino el Camino serves up some of the top burgers in Austin, ya know, in case you don't want to go all Hunger Games for the chance at free Shake Shack. Close by in the Radisson Hotel, Chavez makes a great place to grab a cocktail and a front row seat for the nightly exodus of Austin's famous bats and the corner of Cesar Chavez and Red River will be home to SouthBites: a gathering of 13 food trailers set up for the festival hand picked by Top Chef winner Paul Qui.
In South Austin, a slew of excellent spots make an ideal place for a celebratory sit-down meal and/or way to cap off a day of partying. Odd Duck is a new version of an old Austin favorite (with the same owner as Barley Swine,) and serves delicious farm-to-table small plates in a gorgeous space from a daily menu. Barlata down the street has the best tapas in Austin and a decadent Arroz Negre that I could eat every day. Sway on South 1st serves crave-worthy Australian Thai food in a swanky, communal setting and Elizabeth Street across the way has fancy French-Vietnamese food and an impressive pastry selection. For other sweets, Lick is a don't miss ice cream spot it's worth a special trip off the festival path for flavors like Goat Cheese, Thyme and Honey or Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil and Sea Salt. Finally, no list is complete without a reminder to check out the divine Japanese-inspired, fish-centric food at Uchi if at all possible and if you don't currently have reservations at any of these spots all hope is not lost: parties that did plan ahead are sometimes too drunk, tired or stranded to make it so last minute walk-ins can be fruitful.
Where to Shop
If retail therapy is your preferred way to unwind, there is no shortage of boutiques to explore all over town. Quintessentially Austin, vintage goods can be found all over the South Congress strip at places like New Bohemia and Uncommon Objects. The 2nd Street area between Congress and Guadalupe makes for lovely browsing for home goods and novelties at stores like Mercury and Toy Joy. On the high-end of things, ByGeorge carries some big city labels with big city prices to match and Stag on South Congress sells gorgeous attire and gifts for the look of rugged-yet-perfectly-coiffed. HELM over on the East 6th has beautiful handmade boots and carefully curated leather goods of a very Austin flavor and Moss, a designer consignment store, is probably my favorite place to shop in Austin with smoking deals on everything from Louboutins to Phillip Lim to Margiela.
Find Your Ride
In what is amongst the most exciting news of SXSW 2014, UBER will be here for on-demand taxi service from March 6-17, which with any luck will help alleviate the often desperate transportation situation during the festival. They can be contact directly through their app per usual and follow them at @uber_atx.
In the end, meals, shows, and people are moving targets and the unpredictability of it all is the high and low point of the experience. Now that it's here, time to lean in, eat well, drink water and ride the bull.
Follow Stephanie Keller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stephckeller