These are certainly interesting times for eating out in Austin, Texas. The former sleepy college town is well on its way to becoming a cosmopolitan city, and the attendant growing pains are vividly on display in a dining landscape previously dominated by tacos, burgers and barbecue. New, ambitious eateries have revitalized the scene, but, like a teenager with a new car, they've been all over the place, with varying levels of ambition and success (for a while it seemed as if three restaurants closed for every one that opened). The places listed here, though, both classics and newcomers, seem to have found their niche in an ever-changing environment by keeping things relevant, delicious and, yes, a little weird.
Occupying a handsome, understated building in Clarksville, just west of downtown, Austin’s grande dame of fine dining elegantly treads the line between special-occasion destination and comfortable neighborhood haunt. Slip into a sumptuous blue velvet banquette in the cozy bar or make your way to the posh country-French dining room, complete with wood-burning oven and flower bouquets worthy of a royal wedding. Roaming martini carts and Petrossian caviar set the stage for Texas-size steaks, like a 26-ounce, bone-in wagyu rib-eye, and luxe seafood dishes, like creamy risotto bathed in uni butter and bedecked by wood-roasted lobster, king crab and various other marine creatures. The wine list is impeccable (and half price on Sundays). Also check out Josephine House, Jeffrey’s more casual sister next door, where white shiplap and marble counters make a perfect setting for a California cuisine–style lunch or brunch.
1204 W Lynn St. Tel. (512) 477-5584
Austin’s undisputed master of the raw fish arts, Tyson Cole single-handedly raised the bar for Austin dining when he opened Uchi (meaning “house”), in 2003, and, seven years later, Uchiko (“child of Uchi”). Either location — the original, in a cozy bungalow, or the latter, in a larger, sleeker space — is ideal for sampling the James Beard award winner’s thoughtfully constructed menu of contemporary Japanese cuisine, both cooked and uncooked. Almost too gorgeous to eat are dishes like Tasmanian ocean trout from the Tsukiji fish market, the tender pink belly tarted up with basil and an apple relish. And the rolls are beyond imaginative, like the Shag, in which salmon, avocado and sun-dried tomato are nestled together and fried tempura-style.
801 South Lamar￼ ￼Blvd. Tel. (512) 916-4808
Make a little detour off busy Burnet Road, with its burger joints and secondhand shops, and you’ll come upon a vision: trees draped in multicolored lights sheltering an ornately painted hacienda right out of old Mexico. Expect to be transported the moment you walk through the heavy wooden doors into the plant-filled atrium, where you can sip on a Mezcal Mule and snack on tiny tacos al pastor. Fonda San Miguel’s classy main dining room, where original art lines the walls and black-and-white-clad servers gracefully move about, is the place to sample time-honored classics like enchiladas de mole poblano and cochinita pibil. Sunday brunch offers a vast selection of eye-opening delicacies and a festive atmosphere.
Fonda San Miguel
2330 W N Loop Blvd. Tel. (512) 459-4121
The view may be a parking lot and a nondescript stretch of Sixth Street, but the yellow-and-white-striped awnings, turquoise accents and mounds of oyster-laden ice evoke a coastal-cool vibe at Clark’s Oyster Bar. You can almost smell the salt air as you sink your gold-hued spoon into the masterful cioppino, with its raft of grilled bread slathered with roasted garlic. Or the catch of the day, simply grilled and served with a smoked-paprika vinaigrette. The burger with melty Gruyère and impossibly thin fries isn’t half bad either.
1200 W 6th St. Tel. (512) 297-2525
As you may have gathered by the name, grains are serious business at Austin’s latest dining darling. At the base of the aptly named SkyHouse apartment building, amid the bars and cantinas of Rainey Street, the glass-walled eatery is a sophisticated respite, where decorative accents like copper pots and sheaves of golden wheat are offset by a gleaming open kitchen decked out in subway tile and stainless steel. The menu runs the gamut, from butter-poached grouper to emmer strozzapreti with braised lamb. At some point a server will bring around a “dim sum” cart that you’ll be inclined to dismiss as gimmicky until you get a look at the goodies traveling past — Sea Island pea johnnycakes with pork shoulder, beef tartare with fermented black bean. NB: In 2016 Bon Appétit declared Emmer & Rye a “best new restaurant,” and chef Kevin Fink got a “best new chef” nod from Food & Wine.
Emmer & Rye
SkyHouse, 51 Rainey St., #110 Tel. (512) 366-5530
Hunker down for happy hour in the oak-shaded “wine garden” before venturing into a dining room that embodies the word “cozy.” Glass lanterns and billowy draperies belie the daring approach exhibited by the locally sourced, globally inspired menu. Few are able to pull off the kinds of eclectic pairings that proprietors Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan come up with: think smoky grilled quail with green mole and Chinese eggplant and olive oil-poached striped bass in a ruby-hued ponzu. At $45, the prix-fixe meal (choose three from the categories “Field,” “Sea,” “Land” and “Dream”) is one of the best deals in town. Be sure to visit Métier next door, Lenoir’s tiny shop of cooking implements both old and new.
1807 South 1st St. Tel. (512) 215-9778
Juniper’s woodsy-feeling dining room is subdued in all the right ways, its soothing tones of stone grey, ocean blue and moss green coexisting with a pristine open kitchen whose theatrics are limited to the occasional arc of orange flame. The drama here is on the plates, where chef Nicholas Yanes puts his own twist on Italian cuisine and presents it in beautiful, riotously colorful configurations. The ethereal puffy potatoes — like fancy tater tots — served with whipped Dijon are bite-size bits of heaven and an ideal prelude to entrées that range from rosy slices of duck with pickled pearl onions to pappardelle with a hearty oxtail ragù.
2400 East Cesar Chavez St., #304, Tel. (512) 220-9421
Pot likker, Tabasco, chowchow, benne seed — the menu at Olamaie checks off just about every “Southern food” box. But it’s no cliché here. Inside the little white cottage with black shutters, the grand traditions of pickled and smoked and stewed and fried are turned on their head and made new again, as with the crispy-skinned red snapper atop Carolina gold rice with a little hickory-smoked roe for good measure. Beef tartare turns out to be jewel-like cubes of wagyu graced with wedges of Valencia orange. If that all feels a little fancy, you should know that this place also serves the best biscuits in town. They’re not on the menu, but they’ll bring you some if you ask real nice.
1610 San Antonio St. Tel. (512) 474-2796
Around the corner from Shake Shack and across from the behemoth Alamo Drafthouse movie theater on South Lamar Boulevard, Vox Table has been quietly doing its thing for two years now, and it’s got a loyal following to show for it. The monochromatic space thrums with energy, and the menu is equally fun: Bacon + Eggs turns out to be grilled pork belly with a fried duck egg. Smoked hamachi arrives speared, along with a tomato “raisin” and pickled cucumber, with a plastic pipette full of coconut-soy vinaigrette — it’s a little awkward and you’ll feel foolish trying to eat it, but then you’ll fight your companions for another one. The long bar serves excellent cocktails; if your tastes lean savory, order the Sif’s Song, in which aquavit gets an infusion of tomatoes, capers and dill and is then shaken with gin and a salty-citrusy syrup.
1100 S Lamar Blvd., #2140 Tel. (512) 375-4869