When I was growing up in Georgetown, Texas, we frequently drove the 30 minutes to Austin for appointments, dinner, shopping or other Big City amenities. Before Mopac (Loop 1) was built, the alternative to taking I-35 into Austin was FM 1325, which eventually becomes Burnet Road. I knew that hitting Burnet Road at Anderson Lane meant that we had hit the Big City, with the sparkly light fixtures in the windows of Lights Fantastic shining like a beacon.
Years later, as an Austin resident, Burnet Road still fascinated me. BURN-it, as it’s pronounced locally, was never a glamorous strip. The hodgepodge stores, restaurants and bars were scattered among repair shops, service providers, supply stores and the occasional palm reader. Even as Austin grew and changed, Burnet Road remained a constant reminder of an older, more laid-back city.
But now, demolition and development along Burnet is fast and furious, with long-time businesses closing and high-end restaurants replacing existing strip malls.
I knew I had to act. So I forced invited my sons, ages 9 and 13, to accompany me on two separate school holidays for a field trip: a cultural excursion to experience old-school Burnet Road businesses before they all disappear. The criteria? Businesses that had been in operation in the same spot (or near) for more than 20 years.
For Part One of the field trip, we invited our neighbor Luke, a musician from Minnesota who was free for the morning and up for the adventure. Our first stop: The Omelettrey, an Austin institution since 1978, known especially for its breakfasts. None of us had ever been there, and as it’s moving soon to Airport Blvd., it was a must-try. Old school indeed, with seasoned wood-paneled walls, a cash-only policy and huge portions to fuel us for the rest of the trip.
Next stop, Mr. Cassette, where I dropped off two VHS tapes to be converted to DVDs. In the digital age, you have to applaud a business called Mr. Cassette, which has been in the same spot (give or take a few hundred yards) since 1960.
The Say Hi store turned out to be the most fascinating stop on our field trip. Asian imports of all kinds, with no rhyme or reason (or organization or dusting) and, as one Yelper describes, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were selling mogwais in the back.”
The owner, Chai Salelanonda, appeared from the back room upon hearing the chimes announcing our arrival. We chatted for a bit, distracted by the variety in the store (fried white scale fish, dried bamboo, sake sets or rotary telephones, anyone?). Upon finding out that my son attends the same school his son did, he offered 10 minutes of earnest advice on the importance of making good grades, volunteering and avoiding the distraction of friends so that he can get a college scholarship. Charmed and intrigued, we each bought something, and he told my son that if he returned with his report card to show all As, he would give him something. Mr. Salelanonda even gave me a drawing of a pig from his sketch pad. The store has been open since 1974, but he didn’t know if he would reopen it after a two-month trip to Thailand this spring. Go soon.
We made a quick stop at the Catholic Arts and Gifts store at 6001 Burnet to look for beeswax candles and learned that it had been in the same shopping center for at least 30 years.
Our next destination, the Corner Shoppe, was a spot I had long wanted to visit. Although it was on Lamar Blvd., it qualified for the field trip because it had a “Moving Soon” sign out front—and was moving to Burnet Road. The Yelper who called it “the stuff nightmares are made of” was not far off. Rooms and rooms of taxidermy and animal parts, with Texas-flared tchotchke, quickly had the boys waiting outside while Luke and I snuck a couple of prohibited photos in the sheds outside.
Part Two of the field trip, with our 9-year-old friend Eli in tow, started at the Knife Sharpist, a cute little stone box of a building looking more and more out of place next to a new row of restaurants. We dropped off some kitchen knives at this no-frills spot and chose not to buy a machete.
When we saw the OPEN sign up at Say Hi, we had to stop back by. The boys had both brought their report cards just in case, and Mr. Say Hi as interesting as ever, remembered his promise and picked out something special for each of the boys (Eli included, even though he didn’t have his report card).
Next, lunch at Ichiban for Japanese and Korean food. The restaurant had been around for several decades as a sushi spot before it was purchased by the current owners in 1997. The boys got a kick out of eating at a sunken table with no shoes, sampling generous portions of new foods and feeding the koi outside.
We couldn’t pass my personal Austin City Limits, Lights Fantastic, without stopping. Retail clerks are not necessarily thrilled to see three boys walk into a high-end fixture store, but we were there long enough for me to learn that it’s been there for 50 years and to decide which chandelier we would buy if we were buying chandeliers. The sparkle alone is worth a stop.
A long-awaited bribe milkshake at Top Notch Hamburgers (opened 1971) was not to be, as the milkshake machine was broken that day, but my boys have been there many times and will be back. When they are ready to watch my favorite movie Dazed and Confused, I’ll point out the Top Notch drive-in scene and then take them back to see the movie props near the counter in the restaurant.
Milkshakes were quickly forgotten after an order of peach cobbler from the Pit BBQ, which has been there since the 1950s. Although Restaurant Row is encroaching, the guy behind the counter assured me that the Pit would never move. I bought a pound of BBQ for dinner and thanked him for his service to the people of Austin.
There are several other worthy Burnet Road establishments that we frequent, and some that we still want to try. They each deserve an honorable mention listing, but I’m out of space.
I’m reminded of these lyrics by local musician Luke Jacobs (Part One field trip participant), from his new song “Austin.”
“Oh Austin, if I called your name, would you turn around, would it be the same?”