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Michael Barnes

South Congress Hotel, Ballet Austin, British Studies at 40, Pluckers at 20, Triple Cone of Silence

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southcongressFB.0.0CITY + FOOD: A new star on South Congress Avenue. A cool retreat from the hot streets, the new South Congress Hotel turns inward to embrace dark courtyards, small gardens, a tall lobby, a spacious bar and four eateries, only one open so far. True, Café No Sé stretches out to welcome pedestrians on its corner sidewalk. And one can observe street life from the west-facing rooms. Everything in this Michael Hsu creation is a rigorous yet relaxed mix of Japanese and midcentury modern forms and feels. (I predict it will win national design awards.) Even before the hotel officially opens, the second-floor rooftop pool has become a social magnet. We sampled inventively assembled dishes in a preview of Café No Sé, a bistro that sparked a fresh conversation with each bite and sip. All this, and underground parking which should alleviate some of the four-wheeled crowding on the streets. Am I happy it’s two blocks from our house? You bet.

hamletARTS: Bringing back one of the best. Once again, Ballet Austin proves why it is considered one of the best such companies in the country. They’ve not only kept Stephen Mills‘ “Hamlet” at the center of its repertoire, they keep improving it. Partly, that’s because there are no weak links in the company. So my eye at the Sunday matinee (different cast from the one pictured) kept moving to the newcomers, who showed again and again that every one of them belonged on the big stage. My companion for the afternoon —  writer, editor and dear friend Anne Rodgers — and I agreed that Ophelia’s drowning scene was particularly powerful. (We noshed, by the way, in advance on shrimp remoulade and crab Louie at nearby Zax, which offered a discount if you said you were headed to the Long Center). I’ve seen theatrical versions of “Hamlet” dozens of times, but story never moved me. Challenged me, engaged me, amazed me, yes, but no tears. I actually choked up this time during the balletic finale as Hamlet and Claudius reconcile briefly before, as the comic song goes, “everyone ends as mincemeat.”

The great scholar Roger Louis during UT's British Studies 40th anniversary party.

The great scholar Roger Louis during UT’s British Studies 40th anniversary party. Photo: Trevor Simmons.

SCHOOL: UT’s British Studies at 40. Yes, it was 1975 when the first scholar gave a speech at the University Texas as part of the school’s freshly minted British Studies program. Led by the great man himself, Roger Louis, the program has grown in stature and significance. (Note: My husband, Kip Keller, regularly partners closely with this lauded expert on the British Empire on various publication projects.) Louis spoke during the program’s 40th anniversary party in the rather balmy Littlefield House, which has taken on fresh resonance since the university finally confronted mega-donor George Littlefield‘s legacy of white supremacist statuary on the South Mall. Also taking the stage was new Ransom Center director Stephen Enniss as well as a small marching band that played patriotic British and American tunes. Happy birthday!

PluckersFOOD + SPORTS: My age was triple that of the average guest’s. Pluckers, the Austin-based wings chain, saluted its 20th anniversary at ACL live with giant platters of fried food, the Longhorns game on big screens and then performances from Passion Pit and Bleachers. Here’s how young they were: No lines at bar. Well, you already know the disastrous outcome of the game with Notre Dame and I left before the two musical acts tried to assuage the hurt. I’m fascinated by the origins of this feel-good eatery and perhaps will look into that more closely some day. Meanwhile, enjoy Gary Dingesstory from the Statesman.

11224230_10206383012867534_1904745229526210875_nFOOD + FRIENDS: There’s a reason why it’s called “Triple Cone of Silence.” A series of dinner parties over the past year has included some of our fondest friends. The food, the wine, the company have all been priceless. We share so much in common, and yet I think “show talk” has been one of the most durable threads of conversation. Also, we say things that we wouldn’t say outside of our “triple cone of silence.” I think such things are socially healthy. The tone is never mean or nasty, but it is sometimes outside the scope of polite conversation. This fourth edition was held at the Aldridge Place home of Steven Tomlinson and Eugene Sepulveda. Also under the cone were Robert FairesBarbara ChisholmJamie CantaraAlbert Cantara, Kip and I. All of us have suffered personal losses recently, and all have had terrific news as well, including Barbara’s upcoming engagement at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a one-woman show about humorist Erma Bombeck.