Hotel San José Keeps Austin Weird

The vibe may be quirky-cool, but Austin’s Hotel San José takes food, and being weird, very seriously

Hotel San Jose

Anonymously reviewed by Juliet Kinsman (editor-in-chief, Mr & Mrs Smith)

What was I thinking? From what I’ve heard, this open-minded Texan town is filled with great food and friendly people. Yet here we are starting our bohemian city break sitting in a car on the side of a multilane carriageway. This is where we’re spending our precious vacation?

Fresh off a flight from JFK and a car-rental upgrade to a Mustang, things had been looking good. Then, our GPS steered us to a busy main road leading to a crop of high-rises that loom in the distance like a modern-day Oz. Hip creative hub? Parked past a cluster of shiny food trailers outside a stretch of kitsch stores, our SatNav is convinced this is where our edgy motel is. Mr Smith bursting into a bar of Burt Bacharach is not making me feel better. "Yes, I know the way to San José. It’s clearly around here. Anyway, he means the one in California," I snap.

Then we spot Jo’s across the street. The coffee shop is cult among those who take their beans seriously; it’s a beacon too to this cappu-holic. We park up behind the open-air shack of hipsters on laptops and opter-outers kicking back with double-shots, and stumble out into the balmy Southern sunshine. It feels like summer, which is especially welcome in October. Then we spot what’s painted in red on the gray concrete stairs up from the car park: Welcome to Hotel San José.

Quirky touches abound, and we’re only at reception. In just a few feet we’ve browsed TOMS Shoes sneakers and arty books for sale, and let retro music posters whet our appetite for after-dark thrills. Checked in by a super-friendly tattooed chap, we’re chaperoned to our little bungalow out back by a pretty, pierced, peroxided gal. A world away from the Stetson- and spur-wearers of Texas’ other big towns, Austin’s stereotypes are more reminiscent of Williamsburgers or Melburnians.

Hotel San José’s grounds aren’t exactly sprawling, but succulents and cacti provide bursts of greenery around the cool gunmetal-gray compound. And it’s astonishingly peaceful, though there’s only a hedge and a sidewalk between us and South Congress Avenue.

Our understated air-conditioned putty-and-pea-green bungalow is at first glance basic, but this Austin boutique hotel compensates with considerate high-on-cred details. Daily poems are pinned nonchalantly to bathroom mirrors, the minibar stocked with gourmet nibbles, and if we need them, cameras, typewriters, iPods and bikes are available to borrow. There are even reasonably priced Havaianas and TOMS in place of slippers — handy given that we have a sociable new city to explore and we’re a stroll from live music, hill walks, and dirt-cheap pulled pork.

SoCo — as is its snappy portmanteau — is as happening as a ’hood can be. Strolling out onto what I’d dismissed as a busy road, sun-drenched South Congress is lined with buzzing bars, restaurants, and boutiques. Buildings that don’t appear much from their strip-mall exterior stretch way back and are bursting with personality. After enjoying the best darn pizza we’ve ever had at Home Slice across the street, we browse taxidermy relics and '50s ephemera at Uncommon Objects, then buy cowboy boots at Allens Boots.