Retro Cocktail Lounges & Coffee-Rubbed Brisket

Austin is still the only city I know where, without understanding quite how you got there, you can find yourself drinking cocktails at 2 a.m. with a couple of ex-strippers; a Russian-American financial consultant whose hobby is belly dancing; and a gravel-voiced, chain-smoking, good-old-boy lobbyist named Bill.

On the other hand, food journalism is the only job I know that allows you to impress a gang like that with what you do for money. While we knocked back drinks at the new Belmont—with leather chairs, Brubeck on the sound system and a smoky atmosphere somehow achieved without smoke—I talked about where I’d been in my quest to see how Austin’s food scene had evolved since the days when I lived here, played in a bad band and survived largely on carnitas burritos and beer.

Admittedly, back in those days I hadn’t been eating at places like the Driskill Grill at the Driskill, Austin’s oldest hotel. It has gone through many chef changes over the years but remains an iconic restaurant. I loved the ravioli filled with intense duck confit and tangy Port-Salut cheese. Many other spots now rival the Driskill Grill, including Cibo, where I had superb potato gnocchi with an oxtail ragù from F&W Best New Chef 2001 Will Packwood. At Wink, the disks of caramelized fennel under sautéed sweetbreads seemed just what fennel was put on earth for, while a robust plate of chicken enchiladas with green tomatillo sauce at Zocalo Cafe Taqueria Fresca made the idea of healthy Mexican food actually seem appealing.

For Sunday brunch I hit Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, which opened in late 2006. At only $25 a person for all you can eat, it freed me from having to choose between sticky-sweet, brown-sugar-and-coffee-rubbed brisket and maple-and-coriander-crusted pork ribs. I managed to follow those with decadent green-chile carnitas tacos at the new Torchy’s Tacos truck .

“You ate at all those places in two days?” one of the ex-strippers asked.

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” I replied.

She said, “Wow. I’m really glad I’m not a man.”