A presidential tour of Austin
Write me that long letter. Tell me just how you feel – give me some reassurance if you can, and if you can’t let’s understand each other now. I’m lonesome. I’m disappointed but what of it. Do you care?”
The answer was yes. In less than three months, LBJ and Lady Bird married at St Mark's Episcopal Church, about 80 miles south in the city of San Antonio. And the Driskill continued to play a big part in the president’s life; it was where he traditionally awaited election results, including that of his 1960 vice presidential and 1964 presidential bids.
Today you can book a stay in the Driskill’s LBJ Presidential suite, where the decor includes stained glass windows with Texas bluebonnets, a nod to Lady Bird’s wildflower obsession. For a more budget-friendly alternative, opt for the Driskill’s standard room and visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 12 miles southwest from the city centre.
The hotel’s historic dining room, now called the Driskill Grill, does not serve breakfast any more, but the 1886 Cafe and Bakery just off the lobby does. In honour of the couple’s first date, order the Lady Bird Lake, an egg white omelette with spinach, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and goat cheese, a dish named after the reservoir and recreational area in Austin that Lady Bird helped to beautify and restore in the 1970s.
Admittedly, a healthy breakfast probably wouldn’t have been LBJ’s first choice. The man liked to eat and drink, as unfortunately evidenced by his three heart attacks, the last fatal in 1973. But a traveller can save concerns about moderation for home, and Austin is particularly strong on an LBJ favourite: ice cream. Amy’s Ice Cream, a local institution, serves peach-inspired flavours on a rotating basis, including peach cobbler and peach cream cake. LBJ was also wild about Lady Bird’s pecan pie, and Lick, a newcomer to Austin’s artisanal ice cream scene, serves flavours including pecans and cream and chocolate pecan with buttered caramel.
While Austin was considered the president’s hometown, LBJ was actually born (and died) on a ranch in Stonewall, a tiny little unincorporated area about 50 miles west of Austin. The Lyndon B Johnson National Historical Park in adjacent Johnson City preserves the ranch, as well as the site of his boyhood home.
Heading into the evening hours, history tells us that LBJ’s cocktail glass was preferably filled with scotch – in particular, the brand Cutty Sark. You can order the same, but it would be a shame not to take advantage of Austin’s creative cocktail culture at Bar Congress. Try the George Burns, a cocktail made with two different kinds of scotch, plus grappa and bitters. And while US Prohibition ended the year before LBJ and Lady Bird married, pay homage to the fraught period that shaped his coming of age with a visit to one of Austin’s best speakeasies, Midnight Cowboy Modeling. Reservations are a must.
The bar, which used to be a massage parlour of questionable repute until it was shut down in March 2011, now has a Victorian bordello-inspired decor. None of that has anything to do with the Johnson presidency – his political scandals were more to do with wire tapping and Latin American coups – but the speakeasy is another good place to pay homage to LBJ’s scotch preference with the Smoke + Mirrors cocktail, made with a 12-year–old scotch, duque de carmona (a sweet orange wine), benedictine (a herbal liqueur), sarsaparilla bitters and a flamed orange. After a few toasts to the Johnson legacy you may find yourself wishing for the presidential perk of always having a limousine on hand. But for non-presidential visitors to Austin, there’s always a taxi.