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Capitol quaffs: A hearty 'aye' for Scholz Garten, Texas Chili Parlor, Cloak Room

Dina Guidubaldi
At the Texas Chili Parlor, you'll likely need a bottle of beer or a slushy margarita to cool the heat that the habanero chili imparts.

I was at the bar Casino el Camino, sporadically watching Robert Rodriguez' "Machete" (without sound, probably the best way to watch it) and at one point I looked up, and lo and behold, there was Robert De Niro on screen, ranting about something fictitious in front of our very own, very recognizable Capitol building. Just behind De Niro's silly hat, the Capitol loomed and gleamed - even though the film was shot pre-cleaning, or pre-paint job, or whatever makes it look like it's been stuffed into a great pink sausage skin. And a fact that I often forget sunk in between pints: We live in the most influential city of one of the most influential states in one of the most influential countries in the world.

Most of us are used to thinking Austin is the center of everything - live music, the Hill Country, the universe - but because of its relaxed nature, we tend to forget that it's the center of government, too. Then every other year rolls around and as we begin to spot more people in suits, more harried and hurrying politicos, we remember that big decisions are made right here. And not decisions about whether to go to Fun Fun Fun Fest or the Austin City Limits Music Festival, but decisions about our textbooks, our budgets, our rights.

Long gone are the days when our elected officials argued about what to do with Bonnie and Clyde, but apparently current topics such as voter identification, SB 378 (regarding the "extension of the cotton stalk destruction deadline") and SB 237 (regulating the sale of raw milk products) are still important enough to warrant 140 days of taxpayer-funded decision making. To check out more bills being debated this year, go to www.legis.state.tx.us. For places to drink while deciphering these bills, check out the following Capitol-area watering holes:

Scholz Garten

1607 San Jacinto Blvd., 474-1958, www.Scholzgarten.net . Hours: Daily, 11 to close (varies according to event)

Scholz Garten is the kind of place where strangers will start spouting ancient Texas lore if you drink next to them long enough. And that makes sense, since Scholz Garten is one of the oldest businesses in town. (The original building was constructed there in 1866, back in the days when Texas was newly annexed and the West was still wild.) Nowadays, out in the welcoming biergarten, aka concrete patio, crowds gather for both political reasons and UT ones - the sea of people is often an incongruent but attractive mix of dark blue suits and burnt orange T-shirts.

Scholz Garten honors the core groups of modern Texas history: the German, the Mexican, and the Deep Southern. You can order red cabbage, schnitzel and strudel; or nachos, jambalaya and brisket. You can drink heavy 20 oz. glasses of strong Franziskaner, Dos Equis or Live Oak (all $5.50, or $13.50 for a pitcher). Scholz doesn't have a full bar, but that's offset by the large pours, quick service, and lengthy happy hours (4 to 7 p.m. weekdays and all day on weekends, except when there's an event, which is often, so check their calendar). Pay attention and you can eavesdrop on the mishmash of people trading facts about Sam Houston and waxing nostalgic about days when Austin didn't have such tall buildings, such looming halls of justice, and was called "the Violet Crown" thanks to its tendency to produce wide-open sunsets worth riding off into.

Texas Chili Parlor

1409 Lavaca Street, 472-2828, www.txchiliparlor.com . Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

There's a new name for the old décor in places such as the Texas Chili Parlor (Dead Animal Emporium? Wacky Mechanic? Texas Chainsaw Macramé?) but I forget what it is. What I do know is that there's something oddly soothing about such an ambiance - the red neon tinge, the dusty deer hooves, the ubiquitous license plates and snarky bumper stickers amid strains of Tom Petty and Steely Dan. You don't have to sit up straight in a place like the Texas Chili Parlor, not even when it's thronged with politicos (according to various sources, the TCP is the GOP hangout, whereas Scholz Garten is primarily Dems, but that doesn't seem to be the case all the time). You do, however, have to try the chili.

The chili taster ($8.95 for three good-sized samples) is a good way to get started. The habanero, in particular, is something to talk about. A semi-out-of-town friend and I debated for just shy of a half-hour about whether habaneros are sweet or earthy (I say earthy, and that the chili tasted a little like the inside of a refrigerator, and I mean that as a completely comforting and complimentary thing). There's also black bean and Elgin (again spurring a debate about a hard or soft G) sausage chili, veggie chili, and pork-and-Hatch-chile chili.

The only Texan thing the Texas Chili Parlor lacks is Lone Star, thanks to a feud with the distributor back in 1976. However, long-lasting feuds are pretty Texan, too, so put out your fiery mouth with a well-balanced frozen margarita instead ($4.25 during happy hour, Monday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m.) or let the grizzled, patient bartender hand-press limes into your Dos Equis ($3.50) while you sop up the last bit of chili from your bowl with fingertips caked in cracker crumbs.

The Cloak Room

1300 Colorado St., 472-9808 . Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 3 p.m. to close; Saturdays, 8 p.m. to close.

A cloak room is a place for legislators to socialize between sessions, and although the phrase conjures up the smell of cigars and the swoosh of swirling robes, that's not quite what the Cloak Room here is like. What the Cloak Room here is like is basically if you took the Horseshoe Lounge, squashed it in half, turned out the lights, and stuffed it into a basement. The bar is small and dark. It's bat-dark, as in, your eyes adjust after a half hour maybe. It's mysterious-dark, as in, who knows what color the walls really are. And it's comforting-dark, as in, if you were a legislator about to conduct some secret activity, you would make haste for the Cloak Room.

But only if you could find it. Again, though not necessarily the gas-lamped, romantic meeting place of your Victorian dreams, the Cloak Room is true to its name in one thing: It's cloaked in secrecy. I've been there three times and each time I got lost finding the little basement grotto. The blond, manicured bartendress, who's been there since the late '80s, seems to thrive in the darkness, and though she'll talk to you briefly about the goings on at the Capitol (and her opinions about Sarah Palin), her secrets aren't for sale. There's no website, of course, hours "depend," and prices seem to fluctuate without rhyme or reason - once I had a $4 bottle of Lone Star; another time I had a strong, good scotch on the rocks for $4 while my friend got a bottle of Dos Equis for $4.75. They can't make an Old Fashioned, and the most exotic beer they have is Guinness, but their specialties are mimosas and Bellinis.

I have the feeling that if I became a regular at the Cloak Room, things might turn around. Beers would become cheaper, I'd be able to identify the photographs of strangers lining the hall to the bathrooms, the bartendress would come up with a couple dusty bottles of bitters and maraschino cherries, I'd be able to find it every time I look, and people wouldn't complain when I play Lionel Richie's "Sail On" on the jukebox like I'm wont to do.