Where to Eat in Austin: 25 Top Texas Restaurants
Everyone knows Austin’s reputation as a music town, but these days the Texas capital is just as renowned for its food. Whether it’s smoked brisket worth a five-hour wait or sushi crafted with fish flown direct from Tokyo, the city is hungry for both traditional Texas flavors and dishes that confound stereotypical expectations. Here are 25 of restaurants and bars that make the city worth devouring.
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For brisket snobs, trips to iconic Texas barbecue joints are like pilgrimages. There's a wealth of legendary places to visit within a short drive of the city, but the most-beloved of them all is located right on 11th Street just a block east of downtown. Franklin’s worldwide reputation for the best bite of brisket in the universe draws staggering crowds, such that a line forms at sunrise. There's no dodging the queue (unless you're Obama), so be prepared to spend a few hours in the sun teased by wafts of post oak smoke coming from their hulking metal smokers. Those hours disappear though once you've reached the front of the line, where their meat cutters slice off a sample bite as a reward for your patience before the real meat nirvana begins. Pro-tip: They do accept bulk pre-orders, but they need to be made at least a month in advance.
Back in 2003 when Uchi opened its doors on South Lamar Blvd, Austin was best-known for sloppy plates of enchiladas and its proximity to Lockhart’s holy trinity of Texas barbecue. Uchi didn’t change that all on its own, but their finer dining approach to Japanese cuisine — equal parts reverence and creativity — became an inspiration to chefs across the city. Today, it still stands as many locals’ favorite special-occasion restaurant, with its meticulous approach to serving perfect bites of nigiri, sashimi and craveable rolls like the classic Shag (tempura, avocado, salmon, sun-dried tomato), made with fish flown in daily from Tokyo. Fish is also the go-to main course (daily specials include baby yellowtail and Santa Barbara uni), but the rest of the menu is still worth exploring thanks to standouts like the wagyu beef hot rock, hama chile (yellowtail, ponzu, Thai chile) and a must-order lemon-chile Brussels sprouts. Also worth noting: Their happy hour is one of the best in the city.
Matt's El Rancho
Although it was the lifeblood of Austinites for decades, these days Tex Mex is more of a guilty pleasure. There are dozens of fantastic places to try some, but Matt’s El Rancho rises above the rest, serving gooey plates of chicken enchiladas drowned in red sauce since 1952. The welcoming interior is reminiscent of an adobe hacienda, sprawling and warm with a buzzing crew of servers scurrying from table to table, each likely carrying a steaming bowl of their most popular dish: the Bob Armstrong Dip. Named after a former Texas Land Commissioner who asked a cook to improvise on their classic queso, the dip features ground taco meat and avocado, which soak up the melting cheese to make for perhaps the city’s heartiest bowl of queso.
Despite the scorching heat, al fresco dining is the norm in Austin, and there are few patios as beloved as Contigo's. The ranch-inspired Texas cuisine nudges traditional dishes in creative directions, but never strays too far from their comfort roots. First thing to know is the burger has a rabid following thanks largely to the melt-in-your-mouth challah bun. Second is the rabbit & dumplings, a down-home gamey dish that crosses over onto the brunch menu. Brunch is one of the best in town, with a smorgasbord of pastries like blueberry-and-cream kolache, a perfect sweet complement to a strikingly savory beef tongue hash. Parents take note, the huge patio is a perfect place to let the kids run wild.
Go to: Contigo
Chef Bryce Gilmore has cooking in his blood: His father helped turn Z Tejas into a multi-state institution. Bryce struck out on his own in 2009 with the Odd Duck trailer, where he developed a reputation for snout-to-tail cooking and scouring farmers' markets to find the very best produce. Now Odd Duck has grown into a popular brick and mortar, but his most-ambitious dishes are served at Barley Swine, a temple to Texas cooking that consistently tops critics' lists for best restaurant in the city. A move from South Lamar to Burnet Road doubled seating capacity, but it's still an intimate environment for enjoying everything from twists of fresh pasta filled with shiitake broth to pig-face carnitas, all served with a side of Texas hospitality.
Cultural geography buffs might argue that Texas isn’t really part of The South, but that hasn’t stopped the city from cultivating its own signature style of soul food. At the heart of a Texas meat-and-three is the chicken-fried steak, a heart-stopping battered and breaded filet of beef smothered in creamy white gravy. Fierce debates revolve around the city’s best, but for one served with a side of Austin music history, Threadgill’s is the place to go. The walls are decked with pieces of music history, and even a quick hello to proprietor Eddie Wilson, the original manager of the long-lost Armadillo World Headquarters, can spin into an hour-long chat about the first time Willie graced their iconic stage.
Go to: Threadgill's
Veracruz All Natural Tacos
What makes the perfect taco trailer? It starts with the tortillas, soft and thin corn or flour with just a touch of char. There should be a little grittiness to the experience — you are eating out of a mobile structure after all. And of course there should be crisp shreds of pastor, fresh-grilled fish and mounds of breakfast migas capable of turning any morning into a special occasion. Naturally there should be agua frescas to sip while you wait (and for tacos this good, it’s worth it).
Go to: Veracruz All Natural
Austin’s late-night options are limited, but perhaps it’s because most everyone knows that the best after-hours eats come from 24 Diner. A mix of timeless diner tropes with a slick designer polish, the kitchen serves massive portions of riffs on classics using locally sourced ingredients. The chicken and waffles is the city’s best and the thick butcher-style burger is a knockout, but for those not wanting to feel their food in the morning, salads like the watermelon-tomato version offer fresh options that are big enough to share. And be sure to try their bread, baked fresh every morning at sister spot Easy Tiger.
Go to: 24 Diner
Never before have Austin’s two primary food groups fused into something as delicious as Valentina’s. The cross between barbecue and Mexican food tastes so natural, it’s amazing it didn’t happen until 2013, when Valentina’s launched as a humble trailer outside West 6th watering hole Star Bar. Several moves later, they still operate out of a trailer, but it’s now flanked by an expansive dining area. Like any Texas barbecue joint, brisket is not only king, but one of the city’s very best. That brisket takes on new meaning before 11 a.m., when stacked on a bed of beans, potatoes and two slightly runny eggs that hide a freshly made flour tortilla. If that wasn’t enough, bacon completes the taco to make for a full day’s worth of calories. After the breakfast rush ends, they pivot to a double threat of by-the-pound meats and fusion tacos, like smoked carnitas and cerveza beef fajitas, each bursting with smoky flavors that could only come from Texas.
Go to: Valentina's
Long gone are the days of slackers loafing around cafes with a cup of coffee in hand and not a care in the world, but coffee shop culture still plays a huge part in the city’s creative communities. Medici led the specialty coffee charge in the mid-aughts, introducing the city to lighter roasts and responsibly sourced beans in spaces both modern and welcoming. They’ve grown to five locations, but the best to visit is still their West Lynn bungalow location, which still has its fair share of loafers, though these days they’re more likely to be bootstrapping start-ups than strutting across a stage in cowboy boots. Despite the chill vibe, the baristas aren’t slacking — they’re regular competitors at the monthly barista competition known as the Thursday Night Throwdown.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that thousands of Austinites start their day with a TacoDeli breakfast taco. Their ambitious catering operation services most of the city’s best coffee shops and hipper convenience stores with breakfast tacos, to the extent that it’s tough to walk a few blocks without stumbling onto one of their Jess Specials (migas, cheese, avocado). Their morning menu is fantastic, but lunch is the best time to visit, thanks to a diverse menu of tacos bursting with fresh flavors and crisp textures. They’re not boutique tacos by any means, but what separates TacoDeli from the rest is just-what-you-want fillings (avocado everywhere!) that don’t melt into one mushy tortilla wrap. Try the cowboy taco (beef tenderloin, grilled corn, caramelized onions, guac), al pastor or mole pork, and don’t miss out on specials like the Guacasabe Tuna. Also important to note, everything tastes even better thanks to the friendliest staffs in town.
Go to: Tacodeli
Parking and craft cocktail make strange bedfellows at Garage, a hidden haunt in the base of a downtown parking structure. Look for the understated “Cocktails” stencil on the side of the otherwise unassuming concrete building and enter to find yourself in a ‘70s influenced space with a revelrous vibe and bartenders so ingenious, one of their creations earned the title of Official Drink of Austin (the Indian Paintbrush with vodka, grapefruit, lime, and rosemary). Lovers of brown spirits shouldn’t miss the Junior Jr. (bourbon, brown-butter wash, grenadine, lemon, apple bitters) or their selection of rare Japanese whiskeys (not to mention Pappy Van Winkle). After working up a hunger with a few cocktails, try some of their “fuel” inspired by the different regions of Italy.
Fonda San Miguel
In terms of old-school institutions, few Austin restaurants have the longevity of quality as Fonda San Miguel. The Rosedale palace of Mexican cuisine expresses the diversity of the whole country, from Oaxacan moles to Yucatan cochinita pibil, in one of the most-elegant but inviting spaces in the city. The skylit dining room adorned with modern Mexican art feels South of the Border in brightest, best way. Sopes, rellenos and a variety of seafood dishes like camarones abodabos or broiled pescado Veracruzano fill out the menu. But the real draw is the Sunday brunch, perhaps Austin’s most-extravagant serve-yourself array of several types of moles, mounds of grilled meats, and trays of delicious Mexican pastries. With so many options, there’s no way to go wrong — except by forgetting to make a reservation.
Go to: Fonda San Miguel
Emmer and Rye
The lineage of Austin fine dining traces back to Jeffrey’s. It opened in sleepy Clarksville, just west of downtown, in 1975 and for years served as the city’s premiere special occasion restaurant. The bones are still the same, but the keys changed hands in 2013 with restaurateur wunderkind Larry McGuire now at the helm. Subtle changes give away that there’s fresh ownership (like the Wes Anderson-inspired valet track suits), but the spirit stays the same. It’s a place for celebrating with classic American cuisine, including grilled and braised short ribs and pork chops, all sourced from Texas ranches, but it wouldn’t be a visit to Jeffrey’s without a prime, dry-aged steak roasted over live oak.
Go to: Jeffrey's of Austin
Austinites fiercely debate the best burgers with almost as much rigor as the debates over tacos and brisket, but most agree that one of the strongest contenders comes from homegrown chain P Terry’s. Established in 2005, they’ve grown from a humble drive-thru a few blocks from Barton Springs to 14 locations across the city. Comparisons to In-N-Out are apt — it’s an inexpensive thin flat-top burger that uses quality beef and local produce — but don’t expect animal-style here. If you want to go off-menu, the move is grilled onions and grilled jalapenos. And should you have any complaints (you won’t), legend has it the comment number on their bags goes straight to Patrick Terry’s cell phone.