Two-Day Towns: Austin, TX

If want to learn about restaurant design, Austin is not the place.

If you want to stand in line, Austin is the place.

Don’t get me wrong: Austin is an incredible food town with a great vibe and unique local foods, quirky brands, and, of course, barbecue. But the restaurant spaces fall into two categories: trying too hard or not trying at all.

Oh, and a third: containers/food trucks/food trailers/Airstreams/metal boxes/dumpsters transformed into “places that serve food.”

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Saying there are a lot of food trucks is a grand understatement. Although it would be more accurate to say that there are a lot of crazy scrap metal found or constructed food venues every 50 feet. Every small plot of unused land or former parking lot has beome a collection of food venues.

 And barbecue is a religion, of course. Why else would you actually wait hours in line for brisket and a loaf of white bread? (Franklin, Ruby’s, Kerlin, and La Barbecue come to mind, though I’m sure there are many others.)

 But the lines don’t stop at smokers and brisket. Turns out Austin residents and guests alike also stand in line for tacos, burgers, hot dogs, and pizza.

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Before we really get into the food, you have to stay somewhere.

There are really two good neighborhoods to choose from for out-of-towners and first-timers. Downtown is the safe, easy choice chock full of Radissons, the Hyatt, the W, Four Seasons, JW Marriott, Omni, and every other major hotel brand you can imagine. Many are right on the river, and all are close to the 6th Street district. It’s a good jumping off point to walk the city or riverside.

But South Congress (just across the river) is the better choice. It’s cool neighborhood with character and more personality than the typical downtown convention/tourist area. South Congress began its re-emergence around 1999 and is now a collection of local retail and food venues peddling everything from cowboy boots (because you are in Texas, after all) to grilled cheese (because really, why not?).

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In South Congress, the best choice is Hotel Saint Cecilia. It’s a little quirky, extremely friendly, and a perfect blend of luxury-boutique-meets-hipster-cool. The interior courtyard and small bar area (above) is actually one of the best hotel hangouts we’ve seen.

The hotel group’s sister property, San Jose, is just down the street, and is another fun choice.

Another newcomer, the South Congress Hotel, is a bit bigger. It features food and retail on site, and it’s really thoughtfully designed (in keeping with the required South Congress vibe, even though it’s brand new).

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But the best part about being on South Congress is just walking up and down the street between the food trucks/containers, the old taco shacks, and the restaurants. And you’d better be walking, because you’ll want to work up an appetite. The street has everything from the original Hopdoddy burger place (which still has lines), Vespaio Enoteca and Restaurant, Guero’s Taco Bar (now huge), Home Slice Pizza (yes, lines, but also has a takeout window), Torchy’s Tacos (recently relocated), and everything from juice to cupcakes to pitas.

There’s also a little bit of an underbelly late-night music scene, and some cool and quirky retail shops including Parts & Labour, with all local Texas designers, and By George. And it still has tons of authentic places selling hats, boots, costumes, vintage clothing, and every other weird thing you’ve never thought to buy (but will want the second you see it).

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Within walking distance, you can also find a few other food gems. Elizabeth Street Cafe on Elizabeth Street (clever) is a French Vietnamese restaurant and boulangerie—say that three times fast. It’s a don’t-miss place for pastries and Stumptown coffee all the way to bahn mi and pho.

Lenoir on 1st is a pretty little spot with a destination-worthy wine garden in the back complete with fire pit. It’s also a good example of how to mask an unattractive exterior.

Almost every place in the neighborhood has outside seating, and almost all have heaters for when it gets “Texas cold” (when the thermometer dips into the 60s).

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On Lamar, you’ll find the almost-famous Uchi and Uchiko sushi joints, and famous Odd Duck and Barley Swine. The teeny-tiny-with-tall-tasting-menu Barley Swine served its last meal at this location on New Year’s and will be reopening much further north in the coming weeks, and will expand with more seats and a la carte options.

Odd Duck also on Lamar is designed as one big bar area, with all the action centered around the bar and the cooking suite directly behind it. Kitchen theater from all sides, and we loved it.

The food at both (same ownership) was highly creative, using local purveyors and ingredients. The best part? They feature fine food in extremely casual settings, which hits the sweet spot of how people like to dine today.

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Flipping across the river, the Lower East neighborhood is the new “it” place. The “it’ is still a little scarce, but walking the neighborhood is a trip. There are some great food finds in the area, but they’re a bit spread apart on Cesar Chavez and 6th Street, respectively. Heywood Hotel is a new hip boutique hotel, but its location on Cesar Chavezand right next to a funeral home was pretty iffy.

If you’re one of those line-seeking barbecue lovers (still not sure we fully understand that) try Kerlin’s or La Barbecue (Franklin BBQ and Ruby’s are further north).

The two hotspots getting the most attention in this area are Qui (from Top Chef winner Paul Qui) on 6th Street, and the most notable newbie, Launderette, a little further south on Holly Street. Launderette is a creative must-stop that popped up right in the middle of a neighborhood.

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A few other food notes:

You’ll never win a fight over the best tacos in Austin—mostly because it’s too hard to choose. Many list Torchy’s, Tacodeli, and Guero’s, while others call them overrated. For food “container” tacos, Pueblo Viejo on 6th Street always pops up on the list, and it was pretty good.

It’s a drive up to UT Austin land, but Dai Due is an inventive butcher-shop-meets-supper-club. When you run across a fresh, cool concept like this, it’s worth checking out. And it seems the butchers are all chicks.

Restaurant Congress is officially dead as of January 1, 2016. The nationally acclaimed, $250-prix-fixe-menu restaurant proved our theory. No one likes fancy dining for sport, no matter how good. The group’s more casual adjacent restaurant, Second Kitchen & Bar, is taking over the space.

Eater.com is one source we use for notes on local food scenes. But they named Juliet, a 6-month-old Italian place, one of the country’s prettiest restaurants. Ummmm. Okay. A bit overdesigned in some areas (most notably the bathroom and hallway leading to it), with the world’s worst restaurant lighting. For Juliet on the positive side, though, the food (apps, mostly) was well-executed.

In a nutshell, how does Austin rate as a two-day town? If you want the famous Austin barbecue, you’ll probably be standing in lines for two days. Otherwise, Austin is a funky find—best if you can walk the entire city.

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