Looking for a night out with wondrous food to fuel your body, and sizzling music to dance it off? East Austin’s rollicking good time of a dive bar, Skylark Lounge, and its in-house eatery, Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen, beckon.
Skylark Lounge preserves the culture and diversity of East Austin, regularly booking phenomenal R&B, soul, and jazz talent. The venue instantly becomes a favorite for first-time visitors. Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen, with the mantra “Inspire with Food,” perfectly complements the sultry bar. Each dish is painstakingly created with love, passion, and expertise. Heads up, y’all: I’m buying an air mattress and moving in. I can’t get enough of this venue!
Honoring East Austin’s Culture
Skylark Lounge feels like a bar that has been around forever, and it kind of has. Operating for 32 years as Airport Bar & Grill, a primarily African American bar, and then briefly as Bernadette’s, a lesbian bar, the building housing Skylark Lounge has been a fixture in the East Austin landscape for decades. Owner Johnny LaTouf grew up visiting and learning about the neighborhood, with the African American woman who raised him.
Though LaTouf had owned businesses in East Austin for many years, bar ownership had never been part of his vision. That is, not until the fateful day in 2013 when the owner of Bernadette’s offered to sell him the space. LaTouf’s vision became clear: he would only move forward if he could run it his way—an inclusive space welcoming one and all, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The new owner began booking musicians from Austin’s storied musical heyday, when blues was the order of the day, and legends regularly played on stages around town.
In the Groove at Skylark Lounge
Venerable pianist and Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame great, Margaret Wright, was the first artist LaTouf booked for residency, a move that spoke volumes about his commitment to the neighborhood and its past. Creating a bar he loved, in a rapidly changing neighborhood he was passionate about, has always dictated the way he and his wife, Mary, run Skylark Lounge.
Show up today and odds are good that LaTouf himself will welcome you. On a recent visit, he greeted me and announced that Skylark Lounge is first and always a neighborhood bar. Patrons are only a stranger there once, he insisted.
Skylark’s stellar lineup of lively, soulful bands includes power belters like Soul Man Sam, Rochelle & The Sidewinders, Lavelle White, and Brown Sugar. Soul Man Sam hosts a rotating guest list on Soul Sundays. You never know which incredible talents will join his own formidable presence. Oscar Ornelas often plays at Skylark, wailing on the keyboard and blowing his heart out on his saxophone. If you have the chance to catch The Soul Supporters, say yes! They often grace the stage with melodious harmonies and smooth moves.
And then there’s the food.
Give In to Tantalizing Temptation
Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen has already made a considerable contribution to Austin’s late night culinary scene. Chef Demmerick “DJ” Johnson, the man behind the curtain with the million-dollar smile, uses every tool at his disposal to craft mouth-watering meals.
Johnson’s resume reads like a six-degrees-of-separation game of who’s who among Austin restaurants. Starting out at (now-closed) Les Amis, Chef Johnson moved through Chuy’s, Vespaio, Fonda San Miguel, Uchi, Old Thousand, and Justine’s Brasserie, as well as Ruth’s Chris. He has learned a lot along the way.
It is our good fortune, then, that he has finally launched out on his own at Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen. I had the privilege of watching culinary magic happen in his kitchen on a recent afternoon. Johnson’s creative thought process fires on all cylinders. He clearly relishes preparing sumptuous food, layered with complex flavors and textures. Using housemade compound oils, spice blends, and fresh ingredients, Johnson provides an unforgettable dining experience.
The Art of Taste Bud Seduction
As a general rule, I don’t do Brussels sprouts. However, I couldn’t resist tasting Ladybird’s sprouts after witnessing the numerous steps Johnson took to caramelize and season the little morsels.
Guess what? I loved them! I had several bites and would’ve eaten more. But I needed to fulfill my sworn blogger’s sacred duty to “try it all.” So I put down my fork to await the next course. Good call.
Next, Johnson’s multi-tiered grilled cheese sandwich blew my ever-lovin’ mind. Johnson layered Havarti, Vermont cheddar, American, and mozzarella cheese on sourdough bread, then placed the sandwich open-faced in the pizza oven to melt the cheese. Meanwhile, back at the stove, he started chopping spinach and mushrooms, and mixing tempura batter to fry veggies for the sandwich. I dreamt of licking the plate afterward.
Ladybird’s veggie pizza sealed the deal for me, with roasted root veggies, caramelized onions, raw spinach, and so many other flavors. There’s something about this pizza, I swear. The roasted corn, Ladybird’s take on Elotes, was equally elaborate and delicious. Both the pizza and corn boasted a savory cilantro oil for the win.
Johnson’s ingenuity at Ladybird’s springs from various experiences. He grew up surrounded by women who had a passion for kitchen concoctions, and their joy in creating something beautiful, delicious, and tangible to share became a driving force in his life.
The chef also speaks with great appreciation of the many mentors who continue to support and inspire him. He works to use all food products possible, running his brainchild at less than five percent food waste. He espouses 100 percent ownership among his staff and is the first one to take out the trash, sweep the floor, or wash the dishes. No divas allowed.
Johnson emphasized that Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen is an incubator. He and his well-paid staff are constantly exploring and making changes as needed, to both individual dishes and the overall menu. One example of how he turned a kitchen accident into a win was the day someone left onions in the pizza oven until they were burned. Instead of pitching the charred onions, Johnson pulverized them and played around with spices until he came up with his coveted Black Spice. Such resourcefulness serves Ladybird’s and its customers well.
If you need another reason to patronize this local restaurant, then you should know your business supports a life-changing cause. Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen donates a portion of its proceeds to End the Backlog, a national organization working to end the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits.
Throw on Your Dancing Duds and Go
Skylark Lounge and Ladybird’s Austin Kitchen have come into their own. They are slaying this game and the secret’s out. Yelp recently appointed Skylark Lounge the #1 live music venue in the United States. So, what are you waiting for? The night is young; the food is divine; and the music is destined to make your body move.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Which bands and meals have you enjoyed at Skylark and Ladybird’s?
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