The Austin Decoder Ring: A guide to speaking like a local
Do you speak Austin? You'll get the hang of it.
With all the new folks moving into town (hello pals), we thought it would be a good idea to demystify some of the phrases and names a person is likely to hear around this joint. Consider it your very own Austin Decoder Ring, now that you're in the club. It's certainly not a complete list, but it should make a newbie feel that much more at home.
And if you're a townie or a long-hauler, you might still find out the meaning behind something you took for granted.
There’s “Austin City Limits,” the longest-running music television show in history that started in 1974 with Willie Nelson-starring episode. These days, people probably say “ACL” and mean Austin City Limits Music Festival, founded in 2002 and held each year in Zilker Park. There’s also ACL Live (full name: ACL Live at the Moody Theater), the downtown music venue home to tapings of the “Austin City Limits” TV show since 2010. And finally, there’s Austin City Limits Radio, a name adopted by station KGSR in 2018.
People like to call the Austin-born cinema brand just Alamo, but sometimes you’ll run across a Drafthouse stan. The first group isn't talking about the historic Alamo in San Antonio, but the second might actually mean the Medical Parkway bar Draught House.
The rest of the country is now familiar with the dinner-and-a-movie chain, but it all started in 1997 at 409 Colorado St. That theater is now closed, but Alamo Drafthouse still operates five Austin locations.
Before he was Donald Trump’s favorite conspiracy theorist, Austin resident and “InfoWars” host Alex Jones was best known as a fixture on local public access TV in the 1990s.
The 45th governor of Texas and longtime Austin resident died in 2006, but Ann Richards' legacy hard to miss in town. She’s the namesake of Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in South Austin and the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. She’s well-remembered for her whip-smart quips, her progressive politics, a play about her written by Holland Taylor and her iconic white hair.
Armadillo World Headquarters
The Live Music Capital of the World couldn’t forget this venue if it tried, even though the Armadillo World Headquarters shuttered in 1980. The nexus of Austin’s “cosmic cowboy” scene that thrived in the town’s laid-back 1970s, the concert hall and beer garden was opened in an old armory building at South First Street and Barton Springs Road. It hosted Willie Nelson, hippies, rednecks and a whole lot of drugs. Co-founder Eddie Wilson later opened a nearby location of another Austin icon, Threadgill’s, that celebrated the Armadillo’s legacy. That restaurant closed in 2018; the historic original Threadgill's closed in 2020.
A splish-splashing summertime celebration, Aqua Fest started in 1960 and involved parades, boating races, water skiing, beauty contests, concerts and more. The event folded in 1998 but is bound to come up in conversation with anyone who lived here in a previous century.
When you descend the escalators at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, you’ll see a statue of this iconic Austinite as you pick up your bags. Former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan was the first woman in the Texas Senate; the first Black woman to act as governor (for a day); and the first woman and first Black person to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
Austin is obsessed with these baby Draculas because the city is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. The majestic migration (or horrifying horde) of Mexican free-tailed bats that emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge are a huge tourist attraction. (Author’s note: They’re just fine.) Some of the city’s notable examples of bat symbology: the annual Bat Fest, the “Nightwings” sculpture near the bridge and the Ice Bats, Austin’s once-dearly-departed minor league hockey team that’s making a comeback.
Austin did not invent breakfast tacos, but we love to claim them. (One time, Austin and San Antonio went to war about them.) Californians might be used to a breakfast burrito; this is not that.
Though variations exist, the classic form involves a medium-sized flour or corn tortilla filled with savory ingredients — usually some combination of potato, egg, bean and/or cheese, with bacon, sausage, chorizo, nopales and other tasty stuff sneaking in there. Usually folded in half if you’re eating at the restaurant, but it's wrapped into an aluminum foil missile to go.
Not all tacos are created equal, and the bandwagon is packed tight. Our recs: Veracruz All-Natural, Taco Joint, Rosita’s Al Pastor, El Tacorrido and wherever the nearest gas station-based truck is.
There’s the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge; people call it the Congress bridge instead. There’s the Drake Bridge; literally no one calls it that, and it’s known as the South First Street bridge. Now, the Pennybacker Bridge (star of many souvenir coaster sets) does have some name recognition, but it’s also called the Loop 360 bridge. The Pfluger Bridge is the popular footbridge over Lady Bird Lake. Most of the other major bridges — Montopolis, Lamar Boulevard — have fairly self-explanatory names.
A historic honky-tonk on South Lamar Boulevard that, thanks to decades of development, now sticks out like a line-dancing thumb. The Broken Spoke opened in 1964. Featured in many a song, film and postcard, and even a “Queer Eye” episode.
There’s the famous Barton Springs Pool, a swimmer’s paradise, which is fed by the underground Barton Springs, fourth largest springs in Texas. That’s connected to Barton Creek, which is home to the Barton Creek greenbelt. It’s also namesake to Barton Creek Square mall. They’re all named after William Barton, a settler who moved near the springs in 1837 before Austin was founded in 1839.
Batman has the Joker. Austinites have allergy season. Cedar fever is a pollen allergy. It doesn't have anything to do with cedar, or even fevers, usually. When male Ashe juniper trees spread their pollen to the female Ashe juniper trees via wind, humans suffer. Cedar fever is characterized by nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, sneezing and itchy eyes, nose and throat. It usually hits in December and can last as late as February.
Cheer Up Charlies
Someone might ask if you want to “go to Cheer Ups.” They mean this Red River Street bar and music venue. Cheer Up Charlies is a hub for Austin’s LGBTQ and creative communities.
Chili’s at 45th and Lamar
There is a Chili’s (the ubiquitous American chain restaurant) at 45th Street and North Lamar Boulevard. It became a meme on social media for reasons probably impossible to explain, except that Reddit’s Austin subreddit decided to make it one. Do not examine this one further; you’ll only find skillet queso.
It’s a Chili’s.
Circuit of the Americas
Most people call it COTA in casual conversation. Built in the southeastern part of town to host the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix in 2012, the racetrack and amphitheater really diversified its offerings: the X Games set up shop there for a couple years, the Rolling Stones played there last year, and one time this author lost a go-kart race there. Note: Circuit of the Americas is technically in the unincorporated community of Elroy.
Often spoken of in reverent tones, this eclectic music venue that opened in 1955 is keeping the Austin vibe alive on a rapidly changing South Congress Avenue. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dale Watson, Alejandro Escovedo, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, the Killers and many more have played the stage at the Continental Club.
Austin injury attorney David Komie is familiar to drivers. His distinctive billboards, featuring his smiling, dreadlocked head, call him “The Attorney That Rocks.”
Dan’s and Fran’s
Once upon a time, married couple Daniel Junk and Frances Maldonado founded Dan’s Hamburgers, an Austin mini chain. In 1990, they divorced and split the restaurants. Frances renamed her share Fran's Hamburgers and kept the same food. These days, there are four Dan’s locations, but the Fran’s joints are closed, including an iconic, retro-tinged South Congress Avenue location that is now home to a Torchy’s Tacos (itself an Austin fast food hero).
Daniel Johnston is just as known for his music, including songs like “True Love Will Find You in the End,” as he is his art — including the “Hi, How Are You” mural at 21st and Guadalupe streets. A well-known landmark near the University of Texas and a popular spot for photos, Johnston created it in 1993. The frog-like character in the mural, who also appeared on Johnston’s 1983 album of the same name, is known as “Jeremiah the Innocent.” The musician and artist died in 2019.
'Dazed and Confused'
Richard Linklater’s 1993 movie classic was filmed in Austin and is responsible for at least 60% of the world’s perceptions about the city. (That statistic has not been fact-checked.) Not only did "Dazed and Confused" bring Matthew McConaughey’s lecherous, lackadaisical Wooderson into the world — he’s on a mural downtown — the 1970s-set film also made local haunts like Top Notch Hamburgers into movie magic.
DKR is where Texas Longhorns fans show up to cry. (And sometimes, to cheer.) The stadium on San Jacinto Boulevard was called Texas Memorial Stadium when it was dedicated in 1924, according to the Texas State Historical Association. It was renamed Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in 1996 after Royal, a legendary UT football coach. Most folks just call it DKR now.
Common parlance for the section of Guadalupe Street parallel to the UT campus. The Drag proper extends from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 26th Street, according to the Statesman's house style guide, though you could make a case for including some of the street that creeps farther north, in the author’s opinion.
Eeyore’s Birthday Party
Eeyore's Birthday Party, Austin’s funkiest fest, began in 1964 when Lloyd Birdwell first invited folks to celebrate the birthday of the depressed donkey from A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh," who likes to complain that no one remembers his birthday. It grew into an annual spring festival at Pease Park, rife with drum circles, body paint and just a whole lot of vibes.
Fiesta Gardens is officially named Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach. It’s the lakeside park where you’ll find festivals like Austin Pride and annual Cinco de Mayo festivities.
Hook them: If you’re a UT student or alum, you know "the Forty Acres" is a nickname for the main campus. In the 1800s, Texas set aside a 40-acre tract for the university in Austin. The rest is burnt orange history.
There’s no real “gayborhood” in Austin, but saying you’re going out for a night “on Fourth” means you’re hitting up the city’s great LGBTQ-friendly bars. Clubs like Oilcan Harry’s, Rain, Highland, Coconut Club and Neon Grotto form a one-stop rainbow boulevard to find drag and dancin’. (Also, the Iron Bear is nearby on West Sixth Street.)
Franklin Barbecue is as famous for its long line as it is for its juicy brisket. Aaron Franklin’s mega-popular meat joint at 900 E. 11th St. is sometimes just called Franklin’s, which we suppose is correct on a possessive technicality.
Gary Clark Jr.
The biggest modern music star to come out of this city? Austin High School alum and guitar god Gary Clark Jr. has only a couple of competitors for that description. The “Bright Lights” blues-rocker was mentored by local greats and played ACL Fest when he was still a teen in the early 2000s. He’s gone on to a Grammy-ful career with fingerprints all over the modern Austin music scene and beyond. (Not a lot of local artists can say they’ve been the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.”)
Hell birds, winged demons, ebony-clad thieves. We speak, of course, of the ignoble grackle, a scourge of any Austinite trying to eat outside or move through an H-E-B parking lot in peace. Austin is home to two main grackle species. The males are black and the females are brown; they're sleek and lacking anything resembling personal boundaries. And yet, they’re kind of the city’s unofficial feathered mascot.
Many greenbelts, one "the greenbelt”: The Barton Creek greenbelt is Austin’s built-in natural paradise, and it’s so beloved that it gets one name, like Cher. This particular swath of untouched beauty has multiple entrances along Barton Creek, including from the Violet Crown Trail at Zilker Park.
Hike and Bike Trail
You can hike and bike on plenty of Austin’s many, many trails, but if someone invites you out to the Hike and Bike Trail, they mean the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake.
In the mood to be nude? Hippie Hollow in Northwest Austin is the city’s only clothing-optional public park. There’s swimming, there’s sunbathing, but there’s no shame.
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Hole in the Wall
Legendary campus bar on the Drag since 1974. A dive, but it’s Austin’s dive. Jimmy Fallon even featured Hole in the Wall on “The Tonight Show.” Folks like Lucinda Williams, Shakey Graves, Spoon and Fastball had to get started somewhere.
'Katz’s never kloses'
New York-style delicatessen Katz’s kept the cheesecake shakes coming 24 hours a day until it closed in 2011. Owner Marc Katz used the restaurant’s catchphrase in advertisements, and Austinites with some pastrami still in their hearts can hear it with their eyes closed. Katz’s son carries the brand on in Houston these days.
'Keep Austin Weird'
The ship has sailed, but you still see the slogan on T-shirts and such. Red Wassenich, an Austin Community College librarian, said he coined the phrase "Keep Austin Weird" and put it on stickers in 2000. (Per Statesman history columnist Michael Barnes: Some say it was first spoken on radio station KOOP's "Lounge Show.")
Then in 2002, BookPeople and Waterloo Records adopted the phrase in a fight against a proposed Borders bookstore nearby. Outhouse Designs then trademarked the slogan in fall 2003, according to the Statesman archives, and spun it off into merchandise.
The slogan hearkens back to a different, Elon Musk-less time. These days, kind of feels like saying “Keep Pompeii Undestroyed,” don’t it?
Lady Bird Lake
Longtime locals still call it Town Lake, even though it was renamed after former first lady Lady Bird Johnson in 2007. Lady Bird Lake is also not really a lake: Austin’s preeminent body of water is actually a reservoir — a dammed section of the Colorado River.
Gone but not forgotten, Leslie Cochran was long considered the ambassador of Austin’s weirdness. The local celebrity was known for wearing thongs and high heels while out and about. He was a frequent presence on Sixth Street and even ran for mayor a few times, all of which earned him the right to a mononym. Cochran, who chronically experienced homelessness, died in 2012.
Locals remember seeing bands like Oasis and Nirvana at Liberty Lunch, a downtown rock club that experienced its heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s. It took its final bow in 1999, but the name Liberty Lunch has become shorthand for the death of that epoch of Austin cool.
From the archives:Remembering Liberty Lunch
People anywhere love a nice, frosty jolt of tequila and lime, but Austinites make margaritas their personality. A couple notable tipples: the purple margarita at Baby Acapulco and the avocado margarita at Curra’s. Bonus trivia: Jimmy Buffett wrote his hit "Margaritaville" while in Austin in the mid-1970s.
Yeah, you know who he is, but understand Matthew McConaughey's outsize importance in modern Austin culture. The UT alum from Uvalde is now a professor on the faculty of his alma mater’s Department of Radio-Television-Film. He’s also the “minister of culture” for the university and the city, though no one knows what that means, except that he shows up to things in burnt orange jackets. McConaughey also is an owner of the Austin FC soccer team. To many, though, he’s the guy from “Dazed and Confused.”
One of Austin’s signature drinks, the Mexican martini is the subject of the so-called Trudy’s challenge, a gauntlet popular among college students that involves hopping to each location of that Tex-Mex restaurant and hitting the order limit for the uber-potent concoction. It is essentially a very large martini, served in the shaker and poured into a martini glass with olives.
Another one of those names that you can’t escape. Let’s break it down: There’s the Moody Amphitheater at Waterloo Park, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, the upcoming Moody Center arena, the Moody College of Communication at UT, plus the upcoming Moody Patio at the Blanton Museum of Art. The name belongs to William Lewis Moody, who settled in Galveston in the 1850s and whose descendants help operate the grant-giving Moody Foundation in Texas.
For a city with so many creative artists, Austin sure runs out of names. When you see the word “moontower,” know that it refers to the 31 structures around town first built in the 1890s to provide light at night. About half of them still operate. Their name spread to Moontower Just For Laughs Austin comedy festival, South Austin’s Moontower Saloon bar and more.
Mount Bonnell is a mountain like Danny Devito is an NBA forward, but the West Austin elevation point is a beloved view in town. Up 102 stairs and 781 feet in the air, Mount Bonnell is named for George Bonnell, who served as commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Texas Republic.
People are always trying to save Muny, aka Lions Municipal Golf Course. It’s the city’s first public golf course, opened in 1924. Advocates in the city have long touted the course’s 1950s desegregation as historic, and they work to preserve it.
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If you read “The Gift of the Magi” in junior high, you know the author William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry. He lived in Austin from 1885 to 1894. A lot of work has been preserved by the Austin History Center; he’s the namesake of O. Henry Middle School; and the annual O. Henry Pun-Off is held in his honor, sponsored by Henry’s namesake museum.
'Oh, you do know Betty Blackwell?'
Longtime criminal defense lawyer Betty Blackwell ran a beloved and kinda campy TV ad starting in 1990 that features a character who says the now-iconic line, “Oh, you do know Betty Blackwell?” on the phone. (The surrealist magic of the moment lies in the fact that those words don’t really make sense with the rest of the dialogue.) The ad went on to air pretty much forever.
When we asked around for ideas for this guide, this was one of the most frequent suggestions. So, here’s how to say things around these parts, or not.
- Burnet Road: The street name is pronounced BURN-it Road, not Bur-NET Road.
- Guadalupe Street: Colloquially, many pronounce it as Gwada-LOOP, though the proper Spanish pronunciation would be more like Hwah-da-LOO-pay.
- Menchaca Road: Similarly, this road (which up until recently was spelled Manchaca) is pronounced as MAN-shack by many longtime locals. It’s a name of Spanish origin, though, which would be pronounced Men-CHAH-ka.
- Dessau Road: Most say it DESS-aw.
- Manor: Both Manor Road and the nearby town are pronounced MAY-nor, not MAN-ur (like the house).
- Buda: The town to Austin’s south is pronounced BYOO-duh, not BOO-duh.
- Elgin: Drive east on U.S. 290 and say you’re going to ELL-ginn, with a hard “G,” not ELL-jinn with a “J” sound.
- Del Valle: Another longtime mangling of a Spanish word. A lot of folks say Del VALL-ee; it would be more accurately pronounced Del VY-yay.
- Koenig Lane: It’s KAY-nig, not KOE-nig (and definitely not KOE-ing).
- Mueller: Austinites used to call the former airport site and current residential/retail hub MILL-ur, but we think proponents of that pronunciation lost the war — it's hard to find folks who don’t just call it MYOO-lur now.
- Pflugerville: That “P” is silent in the name of the northern suburb; it’s FLOO-ger-vill.
Every summer, hundreds of thousands of purple martins flood the city at dusk, roosting by the thousands in trees. It’s common to be asked to a purple martin party to watch the action. (The party might be in a parking lot.) They eventually migrate to South America for the winter. They’re kind of the bats for people who don’t care about the bats.
The Spanish word for cheese is queso, but when Austinites order it at a restaurant, they’re asking for a very specific dish called chile con queso.
Culinary interpretations abound across the country, but the classic Tex-Mex dip involves a smooth, melty yellow (or sometimes white) cheese (or Velveeta-style cheese product), mixed with peppers and often chopped tomatoes (like canned Ro-Tel). There are variations on the form; South Austin institution Matt’s El Rancho serves a popular Bob Armstrong Dip that adds guacamole and ground beef, while all-night eateries Kerbey Lane Café and Magnolia Café serve up Kerbey Queso (plus guacamole and pico de gallo) and Mag Mud (plus black beans, avocado and pico de gallo), respectively.
Shorthand for Rainey Street, the Austin district on the eastern edge of downtown that has now fully gentrified from a residential neighborhood into a rowdy strip of bars and condos.
Secret Beach is a secret beach. Or it was. Once idyllic, it's now a pretty well-known slice of rocky waterfront hidden a short hike into Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metro Park in East Austin.
Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater’s breakout hit from 1991, "Slacker" was filmed around town. It captures a time capsule of the city’s vibe at the time, as laid-back, liberal college town misfits deep in the heart of Texas go about their lives. How were they supposed to know that Joe Rogan would move here one day?
Folks from around the world have heard that Sixth Street is the place to be in Austin. Locals know the answer is more complicated than that. Sixth is best understood as three separate districts: “Dirty Sixth,” the booze-soaked stretch of college partiers going to shots bars, which stretches roughly from Congress Avenue to Interstate 35; West Sixth, a comparatively more upscale but no less rowdy avenue frequented by young professionals and other people in fleece vests, which spans Congress Avenue until a few blocks before Lamar Boulevard; and East Sixth, a hipster enclave that’s been gentrified to high heaven and still hosts more creative types, which starts at I-35 and heads for many blocks east.
You can get a drink at any Sixth Street bar, but don’t believe the tourism guides: West and Dirty aren’t known for live music. The eastern district is home to venues like Hotel Vegas and the White Horse.
South by Southwest
Have we ever heard someone call Austin’s annual March music/film/interactive festivals and conference by the full name? Nope. Most folks refer to it in conversation as “South by,” and the sort-of acronym SXSW is far more recognizable.
Now: Southpark Meadows is a big ol’ shopping center in far South Austin. Until 2000: a large outdoor music venue in the same spot. Bands who played Southpark Meadows included U2 and the Police in the 1980s, and Pearl Jam and R.E.M. in the '90s. A couple of Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnics were held there.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
The legacy of blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan looms large in town. Among the many visual tributes to the brimmed-hat-wearing player: a statue of Vaughan standing in Auditorium Shores. The “Texas Flood” artist made his name in town in the 1970s and rose to national fame in the '80s. Vaughan died in a 1990 helicopter crash.
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A few confusing ones, or nicknames to know:
- The abbreviation “SoCo” has mostly stuck for referring to South Congress Avenue. (There have been attempts to rebrand South Lamar Boulevard as SoLa, but your author has never heard anyone actually say that out loud.)
- From U.S. 183 to Loop 360, you can refer to MoPac Boulevard as Loop 1; well, some maps might, but we wouldn’t recommend it unless you like stares.
- Speaking of Loop 360, you’ll also hear it called Capital of Texas Highway.
- A stretch of Texas 71 in South Austin bears signs for Ben White Boulevard, and the highway also runs the same route as U.S. 290 at one point until it hits Oak Hill.
- At various points, FM 2222 is called Northland Drive, Allandale Road and Koenig Lane.
- Where’s First Street, of the non-South variety? It’s called Cesar Chavez Street.
- Most of the north-south streets downtown were named for Texas rivers, originally following the order of the rivers as they appeared on Texas maps. For example, Trinity Street, Rio Grande Street, etc. The east-west streets were first named for trees, like Pecan Street. That’s now Sixth Street. In 1886, the city adopted numbered street names on those arteries, and the tree names gradually fell out of use.
The City of the Violet Crown is an old-timey nickname for Austin that has had surprising staying power. It refers to an atmospheric phenomenon in the sky. According to the Austin History Center, an article in the Austin Daily Statesman on Aug. 8, 1894, first used the City of the Violet Crown to refer to Austin; some also point to an Oct. 27 short story published that year by O. Henry (remember him?) called “Tictocq,” which uses the phrase, too. Nowadays, it lives on as the Violet Crown Cinema movie theater, the Violet Crown Social Club bar and more.
Waterloo is the original name for the city that would become Austin. (Also a great ABBA song.) Like Violet Crown, we love to repurpose this. Peep: Waterloo Sparkling Water, Waterloo Ice House, Waterloo Records and more.
The Red Headed Stranger. The man who needs no introduction. Willie Nelson, the king of outlaw country, is the pot-smoking, guitar-strumming spirit of the city. Though other cities can claim ties, his legendary 1970s heyday in Austin, which gave birth to the modern live music scene, and his continued presence well into his 80s mean that this is Willie country.
Find a statue of the braided-and-bandanna-clad troubadour outside ACL Live on Willie Nelson Boulevard, a section of Second Street renamed for him, and more than one mural bearing his likeness.
If someone in Austin says something is near the Y, they could be talking about a branch of the YMCA, sure. But it’s far more likely the mean the point in Oak Hill where Texas 71 and U.S. 290 split off in different directions.
Our very own central park, Zilker Park was named after Andrew Jackson Zilker, a businessman who owned the land it now sits on. That’s a name you see around plenty of places, too.