People are still obsessed with Austin. The lone-star state darling has been the fastest-growing major metro in the entire US for eight straight years since 2010. Is it the tacos and barbecue? The weather and all that river kayaking? The weirdness that’s just weird enough? All I can suss out from my latest visit is that Austin encompasses so many alluring and divergent qualities that anyone can be happy here. Two fantastic hotels showcases exactly the array Austin has to offer: South Congress Hotel and Hotel Ella.
Named one of Tablet’s ‘25 Coolest Hotels in the World’ in 2016, South Congress Hotel is oozing with modern style. It’s also approachable in that Texas howdy-ness, marked by its rattan chairs, vintage textiles, wood paneled ceilings, and a nearly all-Austin design, decor, and creative team. The design immensely helps this “come stay awhile” appeal: locals and guests flow throughout South Congress Hotel’s footprint which counts Austin-based motorcycle shop, Revival Cycles, and New York City cult followed nail salon, Tenoverten, as tenants. There’s an adorable coffee shop, Mañana Coffee & Bakeshop, tucked in the back of the property with loads of outdoor tables set under oversized umbrellas. You could shop inside the “Lobby Shop” which features artist collaborations or pop into Sunroom, a women’s boutique that local independent brands next to Tenoverten. I could have stayed at South Congress Hotel all day, and I did for two days in a row, despite the whole South Congress street that is packed with other stores, restaurants, and hot spots.
I give credit to the local architecture teams, Dick Clark + Associate as well as Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, for creating such a fluid but sleek space that draws people to its modest three-story grounds as well as the local owners who purposely kept the 83-room hotel low-profile, which is what cool requires.
Before South Congress Hotel opened in 2015, the grounds were the gathering place for food trucks, an Austin staple and beloved pastime. Though the locals grumbled, they seem to have fully embraced the three fantastic restaurants South Congress Hotel houses. The most coveted is the 12-seat Japanese restaurant, Otoko, which requires not reservations but “tickets” typically at least one month in advance. The multi-course omakase (“up to the chef”) experience is created daily by Kyoto native and former rock band member, Yoshi Okai. Okai earned the Best New Chef Award from Food and Wine Magazine in 2017, and his Austin and global fanbase continues to tick up.
Café No Sé, another restaurant at South Congress Hotel, shouldn’t be underestimated. The teal tiled, airy all-day cafe comes off as a casual spot, but the menu has Michelin star essence. English Pea beignets for appetizers were scrumptious, and the roasted bronzini with rich squid ink risotto was a table showstopper. Unsurprisingly, Café No Sé ’s menu was created by a Michelin star circuit chef, Kendal Duque, who has made his rounds in top restaurants in Paris, New York City, and Chicago.
On the other side of town, near the University of Austin, Hotel Ella offers another version of Texan hospitality. If you want iced tea on a giant porch with white wicker chairs or a glass of wine on a plush lawn with a picnic basket, then Hotel Ella is your place.
So named after the wife of one of the University of Texas’ founders, Hotel Ella is not discreet. The cream-colored hilltop property is a Greek Revival style mansion marked by ornate columns and deep wraparound verandas that were meticulously restored by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (the same behind South Congress Hotel) during its multimillion-dollar renovation. Inside, the finishing are just as rich: mohair chairs, beautifully detailed mantels, and wainscots paneling are stunning and timeless.
And yet, I didn’t need to pack a parasol to savor Hotel Ella. There’s a freshness to it which is difficult to strike with a historic heavyweight. I loved the Texas modernist art throughout the hotel, handpicked by curator Ana Stapleton, and the chic drink menu in The Parlor Bar which includes a Lavender Bee’s Knees and a Longhorn Margarita. Outside, cabanas line a lap pool that doubles as a fountain, perfect for early evening reading or naps. If you happen to time your trip just right, you’ll get to indulge in the Afternoon Teas held from 3-5pm every Saturday and Sunday featuring local brand Zhi Tea or soak up the conversation in the monthly salon series hosted by Austin artists. Hotel Ella’s claim is on point: Modern luxury, historic charm.
Either way, there isn’t a bad stay in Austin with Hotel Ella and South Congress Hotel. Now I just need another reason to return, if not move here.
Originally posted on Forbes