F&W names the best Austin restaurants including an exceptional upscale diner, a wildly popular taco truck, a Top Chef winner’s ambitious projects and the city’s two most essential barbecue spots for brisket lovers. Plus: great bars and top cafés. » F&W’s Full Austin Travel Guide
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Austin Restaurants: Insider Picks
At 10 a.m., six days a week, the line starts forming at this East Austin spot. By around 1 p.m., the “sold out” sign is up, and frustrated brisket fans have to come back another day. In just a few years, Aaron Franklin has become one of Austin’s top pitmasters, which is saying a lot in this smoked-meat-crazed part of the country. His following is deserved: slow-smoked for up to 18 hours, the all-natural beef brisket from Montana is incredibly rich and delicious. He also smokes beef ribs, turkey and beef-and-pork sausage, serving them with a sweet-tart sauce spiked with espresso. franklinbarbecue.com
Superbly talented young chef Bryce Gilmore cooked in San Francisco and Aspen before returning to his hometown to serve chef-y comfort food at the Odd Duck Farm to Trailer (now closed). His second solo effort is this unpretentious 30-seat restaurant painted to resemble a weathered red barn. Out of an open kitchen, Gilmore cooks creative small plates with unexpected flavor combinations (a grilled carrot salad, for instance, comes dressed with a vinaigrette made with browned butter, marcona almonds and sherry vinegar). barleyswine.com
Photo © Jay B Sauceda.
The 56-story Austonian condo building has transformed both the city’s skyline (it’s Austin’s highest building) and its dining scene. Star chef David Bull runs all three of its eating and drinking establishments on the ground floor, including the elegant restaurant Congress and the chic and airy Second Bar + Kitchen. The latter is a great spot for playful comfort food, like wood-fired pizza topped with pulled pork and green chiles, and creative cocktails such as the Gin + Jam, offered with house-made marmalade and jam that diners stir in themselves. congressaustin.com
Ned Elliott has found an unlikely home for his ambitious cooking: a gritty Austin building that once housed a skateboard shop. Elliott has cooked in some of the country’s finest restaurants, including New York City’s Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (closed) and Picholine. Now he uses that training to create dishes as refined as crispy beef tongue with horseradish-yogurt sauce and microgreens, and as unfussy as a fried green tomato BLT. fndaustin.com
Native Texan Rene Ortiz looks to Mexico for both La Condesa’s design (a collage of vibrantly colored Mexican billboards adorn one wall) and its menu: ambitious ceviches, tacos, tostadas and larger plates like roasted sea scallops with brown butter yucca puree. The bar features an 80-bottle tequila list and creative cocktails by renowned mixologist Junior Merino. lacondesaaustin.com
Austin Restaurants: Splurge
Chef Tyson Cole, who has sliced fish in Tokyo and speaks fluent Japanese, pushes Asian fusion in an aggressively Western direction at Uchi, housed in a converted 1930s bungalow illuminated by custom light fixtures fashioned out of fish baskets. Cole combines superfresh seafood flown in every day from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market with familiar ingredients for beautiful dishes that are zingy, vibrant and unexpected. His signature Uchi-viche, for instance, incorporates salmon, striped bass, tomato, bell pepper, garlic and cilantro. Cooked dishes are just as innovative and delicious, including crisp panko-crusted green tomatoes and the lusciously smoky, salty, fatty Bacon Steakie, pork belly glazed with sweetened, reduced fish sauce. uchiaustin.com
Photo © Rebecca Fondren.
Before Paul Qui won Top Chef: Texas, the ninth season of Bravo’s hit series, he rose through the ranks of Uchi, one of Austin’s most ambitious restaurants. Now, at its bigger and more casual sister spot, Uchiko, Qui makes modern dishes that share a similar ethos: Asian in spirit with Western ingredients, combined in inventive, dazzling preparations. The Jar Jar Duck, for instance, is a delicious combination of smoked and confited duck, supercrunchy duck cracklings, sweet kumquat confit and pickled endives served in a glass jar. uchiaustin.com
Austin Restaurants: Classic
The Driskill Grill at the Driskill, Austin’s oldest and most atmospheric hotel, remains an iconic restaurant, with its stately dining room, flurry of servers and sense of history—it’s where Lyndon B. Johnson had his first date with Lady Bird Johnson in 1934, and proposed later that day. Chef Jonathan Gelman lends a sense of fun to his daily-changing menus that are rooted in French tradition but nod to Texas and the broader South: The branzino, for instance, is cooked in a cast-iron skillet and arrives at the table accompanied by smoked cheddar and duck confit grits. driskillgrill.com
This five-decade-old Texas institution is known for two things: tender, slow-smoked brisket and phenomenal live music in a giant backyard that holds over 1,000 people. A famed Austin tradition is the Sunday Gospel Brunch, with live singing, two-stepping and a buffet spread of buttermilk pancakes; cheesy, garlicky grits; fried cornmeal-battered catfish; and the stellar smoked brisket. stubbsaustin.com
Austin Restaurants: Best Value
Photo © Vanessa Escobedo Barba.
At this 24-hour restaurant, chef Andrew Curren applies fine-dining skills learned in New York City to diner staples, like meat loaf dressed up with bacon-braised greens and sweet-onion gravy and an amazing roasted banana-and-brown sugar milk shake. In the morning, the colorful industrial-style space is a power breakfast spot for Austin businessmen; late-night, it’s dominated by the post-concert crowd. 24diner.com
After 20 years of cooking in restaurants with acclaimed chefs like Norman Van Aken, Michael Rypka struck out on his own in 2006 with Torchy’s Tacos, a silver food truck parked near Bouldin Creek. His menu of amped-up street food shows his love for the deep fryer: fried avocado tacos, fried chicken tacos, Baja fried-shrimp tacos with cabbage slaw and chipotle sauce. That insanely popular food truck has spawned 10 brick-and-mortar spots across Austin, Houston and Dallas. The grooviest location is still the original, now stationed in a trailer park with other mobile food operations, umbrella-covered picnic tables and fire pits. torchystacos.com
Debbie Davis’s cheery, bright diner offers a small menu of Southern comfort food, including a grilled pimiento cheese sandwich, crisp crab cakes and grilled Hill Country quail. Still, most folks go for the sublime burger—arguably the best in Austin. It’s a by-the-book burger, with ripe tomatoes, red onions and organic bibb lettuce as accompaniments. The generous patty (six ounces of Niman Ranch beef) is always juicy and flavorful, and the buttered, toasted bun and thick, hand-cut sweet potato fries are reliably excellent. countercafe.com
A side-project from Top Chef winner and Uchiko chef Paul Qui, East Side King food trailers have three regular locations outside local bars, where they serve irreverent and delicious Asian fast food. Each menu varies, but there is lots of deep-frying involved, from deep-fried roasted beets served with spicy Japanese mayonnaise to deep-fried chicken loaded with herbs, onion and jalapeño in a steamed bun. eskaustin.com
This humble-looking sandwich shop on the outskirts of town has become one of Austin’s unlikeliest foodie hot spots. Co-chefs John Bates and Brandon Martinez prepare almost everything in-house, including bread, charcuterie and extra-spicy mustard. Their most ingenious concoction: the house-made pickle tucked into their smoked duck pastrami sandwich, flavored with allspice, honey, peppercorn and caraway to mimic the flavors of rye bread. Noble Pig is usually only open for breakfast and lunch, but serves a four-course prix fix dinner ($65) once a month with ambitious plates like poached bass with sugar snap pickles and pancetta-ham hock foam. noblepigaustin.com
Austin Restaurants: Coffee and Breakfast Spots
Photo courtesy of Progress Coffee/ Orange Cone Agency.
Joshua and Sarah Bingaman took over part of a 1942 warehouse to create this industrial chic café that blends their love for art, music and sophisticated coffee. Supporting Austin’s indie community, the shop sources custom blends of fair trade, organic, shade-grown beans from local roasters Owl Tree Roasting and organic produce for the café menu, and even gives away its nitrogen-rich coffee grounds to patrons who compost. progresscoffee.com
Actress Sandra Bullock owns and occasionally visits this café and florist on busy 6th Street. In a beautifully restored, pre-18th century building, Walton’s Fancy & Staple attracts a big breakfast and lunch crowd. Baristas pull expert espresso drinks on a La Marzocco espresso machine; customers order pastries and sandwiches (made with house-baked bread) from a counter. When possible, the café menu features stellar ingredients from area farms, like hydroponically grown lettuce from Bluebonnet and chèvre from Water Oak Farm. waltonsfancyandstaple.com
This Warehouse District bar has an old tavern vibe, with wood beam ceilings and exposed red brick, but specializes in a trendy spirit: absinthe, available in 12 varieties. The signature drink is an adult milk shake that combines house-made vanilla ice cream, cherry liqueur and the once-outlawed green spirit. Chef Jason Dodge’s bar menu features rustic small plates from France and Italy that might include mushroom arancini with truffled egg, salt cod whipped potatoes and pork belly confit. pecheaustin.com
This party complex offers bowling, karaoke rooms, live music and an eclectic American comfort-food menu by chef Trish Eichelberger that features tamale balls stuffed with pulled pork, quail hot wings tossed in bacon fat and served with Sriracha-spiced sauce, and buttermilk-brined, cast-iron-fried chicken. Cocktails include the classics, as well as creative renditions like the Heirloom, a refined take on the Bloody Mary prepared with pepper-infused vodka, tomato water, basil, cherry tomato and smoked salt. thehighball.com