A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
After I walked back to downtown Austin, I caught up with Travis McFetridge, and he and his friend wanted to check out the rapper Danny Brown who was performing at the Red Bull Sound Select stage at The Belmont, so I agreed to go with them. I had heard of Danny Brown but never actually heard any of his music, and he wasn’t bad. I had fortunately gotten press credentials, so I was able to take some pictures of his performance, and the stage was outdoors in a courtyard, and was very cool indeed. We left about 2 AM and headed over to 24 Diner, which was a lot more crowded than I had expected. Getting our food took quite awhile, and I didn’t get back to the hotel room until 4 AM. But it was the best way to end my year at SXSW- a good breakfast with friends.
As I have said on previous occasions, during South By Southwest (SXSW) eveyone ends up at 24 Diner sooner or later. It’s strategically located for one thing, directly next to arguably Austin’s best record shop, Waterloo Records. For another, it never closes, the prices are reasonable and the food very good indeed. The 24 Diner is sort of a diner, and has American comfort food, as one would expect a diner to, but it presents its menu with a chef-inspired New America twist, and also has a wine list and craft beers. A visit to 24 Diner for breakfast is perhaps the best way to start a day at South By Southwest. Afterwards, stroll next door to Waterloo Records for an hour or more of record-hunting pleasure. New CD’s, used CD’s, vinyl, DVD’s, books, Waterloo has them all, with great selection even in the hard-to-find genres like avant-garde jazz. Nobody should leave Austin without at least one visit.
Directly beside Waterloo Records is the 24 Diner, a place that nearly everyone seems to walk into at some point or another during SXSW. With its strategic location next to the Waterloo Records day stages, 24 is a great place to start your conference day (or end it, since they never close). Of course the name “diner” brings up certain ideas and images, and 24 Diner is a diner-sort of. They do sell breakfast, as any good diner should, and they are open 24 hours a day, and they do offer American comfort foods, so they do resemble typical diners. But from the look of the establishment, to the menus, to the extra gourmet touches to the food, to the prices, 24 Diner is less of a typical diner and more of a new American gourmet bistro. Breakfasts are great, from omelettes and standard bacon-and-eggs to chicken and waffles, and there are non-breakfast offerings as well. Prices aren’t cheap, but neither are they as outrageous as the usual “new American” places that seem to open up every other month. Service is attentive, although the booming crowds during SXSW can cause delays. Be prepared to wait for a seat on weekends or during downtown events and conferences. But the wait is worth it, and if you’re fortunate enough to have grabbed a parking place in the lot, you can walk next door to Waterloo Records (or their stage during SXSW) for some great sounds to enjoy.