With a nod to an abundance of live music venues, coffeehouses, food trucks, taco stands and eclectic storefronts with tongue-in-cheek names (like the Pour House wine bar), in 2000 the Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted the slogan "Keep Austin Weird." Whatever the intent of the slogan, the promotional effect has helped make Texas' capital city one of the fastest-growing in the United States.
Austin's population boom mirrors a trend in the hospitality industry. Downtown hotel rooms are proliferating and remodeling at a rapid pace, including the 297-room AT&T Hotel & Conference Center, where I recently got a chance to explore newly renovated guest rooms and modern, state-of-the-art meeting space.
The 10-year-old property is nestled along the perimeter of the University of Texas at Austin ("Hook 'em 'Horns!"). It's nine miles from the Austin Bergstrom International Airport and four blocks from the state capital.
From the balcony of a sixth-floor presidential suite in the hotel, you can take in a view of the iconic, 27-story clock tower, which defines the landscape on the UT's flagship campus, as well as the 100,000-seat Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
The conference center has been expanded to 83,000 square feet, including 33,000 square feet of new space. The additional space comes in the form of a 15,000-square-foot ballroom, and the Robert B. Rowling Hall, a mixed-use complex of rooms utilized for meeting attendees and college students.
The new, 15,000-square-foot ballroom has a contemporary feel; the center's original, 10,000-square-foot ballroom is more rustic, with wood beams and chandeliers. In all, there are 53 meeting rooms, tiered and flat classrooms, and a 300-seat amphitheater equipped with HD laser projectors.
For dining, the AT&T Hotel & Conference Center's high-end, on-property option is The Carillon, an alluring eatery with an open kitchen that producing a wide variety of menu options. Go for the tasting menu and mix and match with hamachi sashimi, crispy chicken thighs, Georges Bank scallops, and, of course, ribeye (served with crab cauliflower twice baked potato, bordelaise and petite spinach).
The Carillon also has seven private dining rooms, including flexible space in the back area and spots that overlook the main dining area, and can be used for sit-down dinners or for lounge set-ups.
For groups venturing off-campus, an ideal downtown dinner spot is the elegant Perry's Steakhouse and Grille. The Famous Pork Chop is a must-try; and my chateaubriand steak was just as equally mouth-watering as the pan-seared sea bass.
The service staff at Perry's is topnotch; nearly ninja-like. Quality service counts when you're a group taking advantage of one of the restaurant's five private dining rooms, including The Vault, so named because you enter it through a retro bank steel-vault door. The Vault seats 18 -- set up in either three rounds or one long table.
As an Austinite might describe The Vault, or Austin in sum: It's money.