An Austin Survival Guide
I have lived in Austin for most of my life. That being the case you would hope that I have learned a few things over the years about what is good here and what isn’t. So I decided to write up a list of some great Austin spots for food, drink, and entertainment. This is by no means an exhaustive list but just a collection of some of my favorite places old and new. I’ll try to keep it updated over time as I make new discoveries and businesses come and go.
As a point of reference, I’m going to call the Austin Convention center “Ground Zero” (specifically the Northwest corner of the convention center at the corner of 4th and Trinity) and make any distance references from there.
The downtown area of Austin is easy to navigate with state capital building being the dividing point between East/West and North/South. Everything is laid out on a grid in the immediate downtown area with numbered streets running along an east/west line and named streets running north/south. Of course, there are exceptions. What would be 1st is actually Ceasar Chavez and runs just along the north side of Lady Bird Lake (it’s actually part of the Colorado River that runs all the way down to the Texas coast) and, naturally, South 1st st actually runs north/south but mostly on the south side of the lake.
Places within an easy walking distance of ground zero.
First things first, coffee. Austin is loaded with coffee shops and it’s common and acceptable to bring your laptop and work all day. Just remember to get a drink or buy something to eat once in a while. We want to keep these places in business.
Excellent coffee with a minimalist aesthetic. You can get a nice pour over here, an espresso drink or if you like Chai Late they have an excellent one. The baristas are knowledgeable and friendly. However, I wouldn’t call it a comfortable place to hang out for hours (it’s a bit austere) but you’re here for the coffee right?
Location (map): Northeast corner of Congress Ave and 4th st on the ground floor of the Frost bank building.
A larger location with plenty of seating. Good coffee. I don’t frequent this location but my experience at the South Lamar location is always a good one. There is also another location on Congress Ave a bit closer to the capital if you happen to be down that way.
Location (map): Congress Ave and 2nd street.
Juan Pelota Cafe
An interesting coffee shop that is actually in the corner of Lance Armstrong’s bike shop. They have great coffee and will do a nice pour over for you. They have expanded the seating in recent years and the wifi is always good. A few seats are outside for those nice spring days. It’s probably the best coffee shop within a short walking distance of Austin’s new Central Library.
Location (map): At the corner of 4th and Nueces St inside of Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop. Also, if you want to sound like a local Texan, Nueces is pronounced “Nā-chez” despite its rather obvious spelling to the contrary.
I used to bring my laptop and work here a couple times a week but that was years ago. They have managed to stay in business for what has to be more than a decade now so that’s saying something. However, in my opinion, there are much better places for coffee in Austin these days. I still wouldn’t discount Halcyon. If you are in the area it’s not a bad place to hang out.
Location (map): At the corner of 4th and Lavaca St.
There are a lot of great restaurants in Austin so trying to cover even a portion of them would be a herculean task. These are just a few of my favorites in the immediate downtown area. Also, if you see a food-truck that interests you then give it a shot. Some of them are downright fantastic.
A note about Austin restaurant attire. Shorts and sandals are welcome just about anywhere. If they require anything else then they aren’t Austin. In a few cases, I mention that a place may be slightly upscale which means that they probably have a white tablecloth and that’s about it – shorts and sandals should still be welcomed.
This isn’t Tex-Mex. I would classify Manuel’s as more interior Mexican food. Good margaritas with a nice relaxed atmosphere. I usually get the mole enchiladas. They’re delicioso.
Location (map): On the west side of Congress Ave near 3rd street.
Mexican but not Tex-Mex. Also interior Mexican but focused on the state of Oaxaca (I’m sensing a theme here). If you aren’t familiar with Oaxaca it’s the home of mole and they will treat you right at El Naranjo. Slightly upscale atmosphere but the food is crazy good.
Location (map): On the east side of Rainey St about half-way down.
Austin isn’t known for its Indian food but I think that G’Raj Mahal is one of the best in town. Lot’s of outdoor seating. Also located on Rainey St.
Location (map): Also, on Rainey St just a few doors down from El Naranjo.
Iron Works Barbecue
Location: If you run across it avert your gaze.
I wouldn’t classify Lambert’s as Texas BBQ. However, despite this apparent blasphemy, it’s excellent barbecue. Just about the only BBQ in the walkable downtown area, it’s a great choice. There is a new place called Cooper’s on Congress near the JW Marriot hotel but I haven’t been there and haven’t heard anything about it. Lambert’s is slightly upscale right across the street from City Hall.
A great little French Bistro that has been around for a long time. Slightly on the expensive side in my opinion but excellent food nonetheless.
Location (map): On Neches between 5th and 6th streets. Just a block from the convention center.
A great place for a healthy meal. Flower Child has a new location downtown and if you are in a mixed group with meat eaters and vegans alike this is a good option. You can add a protein (chicken, salmon, or steak) to any meal. I ate at this location a few weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised at how tasty everything was. I had the salmon (perfectly cooked), green beans (spicy), eggplant with a nice sauce and the sauteed spinach… it didn’t last long. Slightly pricey but excellent.
Location (map): On the corner of 2nd and Nueces St (just a quick walk from Austin’s new Central Library).
Whole Foods flagship corporate location. Just like your hometown Whole Foods but on steroids. They have five or six “restaraunt zones” inside the store with table or bar seating ranging from sushi, seafood, bbq, and Italian. There is also a really good wine bar located toward the center back of the store. They also have a massive food and salad bar that you can pick and choose what you want and pay by the pound. You’ll find yourself thinking, “I’ll have the brocoli because potatoes are sooo heavy”. See, built in healthy eating. There is a bunch of seating out front (inside and outside), along the smallish mezanine over the food bar area, or you can carry your meal to the expansive rooftop (minimal but workable seating). Whole Foods is a great option if you have a group of disparate eaters (split up, grab some food, and meet back at a table). Whole Foods corporate offices take up the multi-story office building above the store.
Location (map): Taking up the entire block at 6th and Lamar. Enter up top off of Lamar Blvd. or if you are walking in from downtown you can enter through the parking garage.
Good ‘ole diner hamburgers. Come for the burgers but stay for the onion rings. Hut’s has hands-down THE BEST onion rings I’ve had anywhere. I swear these things are half an onion each and have a great peppery cornmeal breading. Hut’s also has something like 20 different varieties of hamburgers each of which can be made as grass-fed longhorn beef, buffalo, chicken breast or 100% vegan veggie burger (GF buns available). My favorites are a toss up between the Ritchie Valens with chicken breast and extra jalapenos and the Keller’s Classic with longhorn beef. You can also get a daily lunch blue plate special and other diner classics.
Frank and Angie’s
A decent basic pie. Once upon a time I used to eat here but in recent years Austin has upped its pizza game and I have other favorites now. However, if you are in the area it’s still a great place to go and usually not crowded. They’ve been around for a long time so they’ve got to be doing something right. Right?
Location (map): On West Ave which is a side street between 5th and 6th streets. Right behind Hut’s Hamburgers. In fact Hut’s and Fank and Angie’s have the same owner and you’ll see the staff wearing one or the others T-Shirts. A ProTip here is that Frank and Angie’s has a large parking lot and if you are eating at Hut’s you can park in Frank and Angie’s parking lot even though it is not posted as such (just ask the bartender at Hut’s and they will confirm).
True Food Kitchen
I’ve eaten here once and it wasn’t too bad. If you are in the area and somewhat pressed for time it’s an ok option. On the healthier side but not purely vegetarian. The Charred Cauliflower was pretty good if you’re into that sort of thing. They have a few pizza options, bowls of various genres (quinoa, pad thai, etc) and some really tasty sounding entres.
Location (map): Located in the newly revitalized Seaholm Power plant just steps from Austin’s new Central Library and Trader Joe’s.
A legendary basement level Jazz room located off of Congress Ave. Long and narrow, dark and secluded with a decently stocked bar the Elephant Room is a great place to let the evening slip away. Check the website to see who is playing, when and if there is a cover charge.
Location (map): On the east side of Congress Ave mid-block between 3rd and 4th streets. Look down low for the neon sign in a small window at foot level.
The Driskill Hotel Bar
The Driskill Hotel is an Austin legend and it has a great lounge bar. I mean just look at this thing. The bar itself is rather smallish but if you are with a group of people you just might be able to grab a nook and cozy up for a nice relaxed drink or three. Daily Happy Hour: 4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.
Location (map): On 6th street about a block east of Congress Ave.
The Ginger Man
A classic Austin beer garden. With a wall of taps and just as many in bottles on the menu beer nerds can’t go wrong with The Ginger Man. There is a long bar or a bunch of cozy nooks for your group. On a nice night, the beer garden out back is a pleasant place to hang out. If you are hungry eat before going since they have only a few food options (more snack type stuff).
Location (map): On Lavaca St. midblock between 3rd and 4th. A short walk from City Hall where there is good parking. ProTip: Get a cheap coffee at Austin Java Co on your way back and get them to validate your parking ticket.
To be honest I haven’t been to Star Bar in years. But unlike a lot of places they are still here and longevity in a town that seems to constantly flip its bars and eateries that’s saying something. It is one of the original bars to move down 6th St and stake a claim outside of the seedier puke filled bar scene on 6th just east of Congress Ave. I always remember it as a good place to grab a cocktail. If you make it by here give me the current scoop if I don’t make it over there first.
Location (map): At the corner of 6th and Nueces. On a classier end of 6th street with a few other good bars to hang out in nearby.
One of the better whiskey and cocktail bars in Austin with a heavy dose of style. An atmosphere you can sink into and an extensive collection of spirits right in the heart of downtown. Sip on one of their expertly crafted pre-prohibition style cocktails or sit back with a Scotch from their impressive collection.
Location (map): 4th and Lavaca right around the corner from The Ginger Man.
Update: I can no longer recommend this place. In fact, I’ll warn you off of it. When I visited recently the selection of spirits was paltry and the place was overrun by young twenty-somethings looking for cheap drinks. When I asked the bartender for a simple bourbon he pointed to a handful of bottles on the wall and said, “This is what we have. We’re winding down our whiskey collection”. This place seems to have sold its soul to the jello shot.
Whiskey lovers listen up. THIS IS THE PLACE. Blackheart has some of the rarest Bourbons and Scotch’s anywhere. Some of them distilled exclusively for Blackheart. I’ve been here several times but I barely remember it… yes it’s that good. Most of the seating is outside so check the weather. Be sure to have a look at the website for their current list of in-stock whiskey’s. Tell ’em Pappy sent you.
Location (map): On Rainey St.
A Lyft Away
Branching out we get into a zone that I would consider a bit of a long walk or possibly a small adventure. These days with Lyft (back in Austin) you can get to these spots in just a few minutes and get out of the Convention Center and 6th St tourist traps.
My favorite coffee shop in Austin. To be honest the coffee here is nothing all that special. It’s not too bad but it’s not mind altering either. What Mozart’s has is location. Right on Lake Austin with great views. With tons of outdoor seating, this is a great place to step outside of the city and relax a bit. I work here often and I have to admit that the WiFi is a bit hit or miss… mostly hit but they do have their hiccups which is why I always bring my hotspot. If you are lucky they will be roasting coffee while you’re there.
If you are going to be here for a while consider getting a bottomless cup of coffee which is cheaper than most other shops regular single cup. Infinite self-serve refills with several varietals to choose from… and really, it’s pretty decent. ProTip: If you still want more coffee then ask the barista for a to-go cup and fill up on the way out. They will swap out your mug for a to-go cup even if you’ve been there all day. When they say bottomless they mean it.
Location (map): Way down Lake Austin Blvd. Definitely not walkable. If you are driving you may get lucky and find parking right in front. However, if not, then there is a large free parking lot across the street and up the hill.
Right on S. Congress Ave Jo’s is more of a coffee shack than a coffee house. Walk up and take it with you or grab one of their seats outside and sit for a spell. Probably not the best place to work on your laptop but just fine for drinking coffee and chatting. I only include Jo’s because if you are out for a stroll along S. Congress it’s a good place to take a break or grab a cup to take with you.
Not a bad place that I usually end up at when I’m in the area. Situated in an old house they have pretty good coffee, steady WiFi, and a not too bad breakfast taco. An ok amount of indoor seating with more outside.
Location (map): A few blocks east of I-35 on Cesar Chavez St. In fact, you could easily walk here from the Convention Center. However, for some reason, there is always a heavy transient population on Cesar Chavez St for the first block or two east of I-35 and I always get the feeling that it is a less than safe zone. Cenote is very near here but seems pretty safe in itself along with other points further east. So if this place interests you be prepared to be on guard for a couple of blocks or just take a Lyft right there.
Sushi with an eye towards tradition but not at all afraid to push the envelope. One of my favorite Austin restaurants and if asked where I wanted to go for a special occasion I’d probably pick Uchi. I love to sit at the sushi bar and watch the chef’s work their magic. For a 2+ hour meal experience order the Omakase (Chef’s choice). You’ll get 8 to 12 unique and inspiring small plates that just keep coming. Couple that with a bunch of sake and you’ll be rolling out the door on cloud nine.
Aside: Way back in the early days I popped into Musashino who at the time was one of the top sushi restaurants in Austin. Back then they were situated on the ground floor of an orientally styled building shared by the Chinatown restaurant. The sushi bar was a bit crowded but I managed to wedge my way into the only empty chair. I waited for a few minutes to be greeted which is odd for a Japanese sushi place where they usually yell at you as you enter the front door. Finally, the head chef came up and presented the sushi chef who would be preparing my meal. A young anglo guy who frankly didn’t look the part he was being asked to perform. So I thought I’d throw him a softball and ordered a Toro Nigiri. He deftly prepared the sushi in an expert fashion much to my surprise. It was delicious. My confidence bolstered I proceeded to work my way down my list favorites ending up with a hand roll. I have to admit I was surprised. This gringo sushi chef was really good and for some reason, that experience always stuck with me. Well, years later I discover Uchi just after it first opened and who owns the place? That’s right. That same sushi chef who turns out was Chef Tyson Cole owner of Uchi, multiple James Beard Award winner and all around badass chef. You just never know.
Location (map): Just up the hill a little way on S. Lamar in a small wood frame house (uchi).
A great farm-to-table place that always keeps you guessing. They change their menu constantly so you can always count on something new to try. Odd Duck is one of a rare breed that started in a food truck and then went brick and mortar. My favorite spot in the house is at the bar on right in front of the grill. You can watch the entire kitchen staff work their magic right in front of you as you chow down on what was just at their station moments ago. Be sure to try one of their new cocktail creations that are always unique and interesting.
Location (map): On S. Lamar not far from Uchi.
Matt’s El Rancho
The King of Tex-Mex. Matt’s is an Austin legend and they serve up some mean Tex-Mex. They have huge space and can handle a large party of folks. The outdoor patio area is really nice if the weather is good. Margarita’s here aren’t too bad and in my experience, they don’t skimp on the Tequilla. My favorite dish, one that I just can’t tear myself away from, is the chicken chili relleno with chipotle sauce. They top it with just a little bit of sour creme, a slice of raw onion, chopped pecans and raisins. I know it sounds weird. But, believe me, it works.
Location (map): A ways down S. Lamar almost at the top of the hill.
Magnolia has been one of my staple breakfast places for a long time. Open 24/7/365 you can always get an excellent meal. Breakfast is served all day long but their dinner menu is out of site too. My favorite is the John Harvey which is one breakfast taco and one pancake. The pancakes are usually about a half inch thick and as big as a dinner plate so one will do you. Be sure to get the gingerbread pecan pancake. There will probably be a line for weekend breakfast but it shouldn’t be too bad of a wait during the week.
In my opinion one of the, if not THE, top spot in Austin for OG Texas Barbecue. Meat by the pound, sandwiches, and sides. I know that ordering cooked meat by the pound is weird but that’s the way we do it down here ya’ll. If you’re unsure just ask the person taking your order. The brisket and the beef ribs will send you into a meat coma that you may not survive but it’s so worth it. Be prepared for a wait but nothing on the scale of Franklin’s. Don’t get me wrong though there will be a line, a long one, but it’s manageable. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. In fact, a lot of Austin’s BBQ joints are closed on Mondays so get your fix in over the weekend.
Location (map): A little ways down Cesar Chavez on the east side of town.
Dia Due started out without a restaurant or even a food truck. In the beginning, as a supper club, they would host a fantastic evening meal at some incredible location. We attended several times and each time we were blown away. Later they opened up a food truck that would appear at the local farmers market on the weekend with wild boar tacos and fried duck eggs. Chef Jesse Griffiths is a super laidback guy and his new brick and mortar restaurant and butcher shop reflect his style. Expect wild game, local produce and whatever else may be in season or that Jessie and crew have managed to hunt or forage.
Dai Due also offers extensive classes through their New School of Traditional Cookery. I have taken the feral hog butchery class and the man knows his stuff. I now have my eye on one of the long weekend guided trips out to hunt deer or fish along the Texas Gulf Coast. Hunt, fish and then learn how to prepare it. Pure awesome.
Casa De Luz
Step into a serene space right in the heart of Austin. Casa De Luz offers vegetarian macrobiotic food. If you want to eat super clean in Austin then Casa will do right by you. You can get just the soup and salad or get the full meal that also includes the current dinner plate. You don’t need to worry about what to order here since there is only one thing on the menu at a time. Check the website for today’s menu. But be forewarned that it isn’t always accurate.
When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use.
When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.
Home Slice Pizza
My favorite Austin pizza joint. Big floppy slices of hot New York style pizza. I love a Neopolitan woodfired pizza as much as the next person but Home Slice uses a rocket hot steel oven just as God intended. Grab a slice and a beer at the bar or stay for a whole pie. The main restaurant is closed on Tuesdays but you can still get a slice at the walkup location next door at More Home Slice. In Crust We Trust.
Location (map): On S. Congress Ave across the street from Hopdoddy.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar
Gourmet burgers and local craft beer. If you want a good burger you’d be hard-pressed to surpass Hopdoddy. The Parmesan Truffle Fry’s are fantastic. Try the El Diablo if you dare. Nice bar to sit at with a decent beer selection
Location (map): On S. Congress Ave next door to Güero’s which is also a good choice for Tex-Mex.
Damn good tacos. If there were such a thing as a gourmet taco I think that Torchy’s might come close to qualifying. I tend to get either the Trailer Park, the Fried Avocado, or the Dirty Sanchez taco. The Dirty Sanchez is no longer on the printed menu but they’ll make it if you ask for it since they have gone the “secret menu” route. The Diablo sauce is great but can get hot quick… try cooling it down with a little poblano ranch sauce on top of your taco.
Torchy’s may be trying to give Starbucks a run for its money on the number of locations around town. There is even one popping up way out yonder near where I live.
Location (map): Everywhere
After much agonizing, I have decided that Taco Deli is my favorite Austin taco place. The choice wasn’t easy but I really like Taco Deli’s more simple and traditional style. Better flavor combos than a plain old egg and cheese tacos but not nearly as exotic as Torchy’s. I tend towards the Chicken Fonterra Fondido (keto dieters get it in a bowl). ProTip: The best breakfast taco in Austin doesn’t have any eggs and it’s called the Otto (available until lunch starts at 11 am).
The Doña sauce requires special mention here. This stuff is like crack. Seriously, if I could open a vein and let it pour in I would. I like this stuff so much that I spent a good month trying to recreate it in my kitchen. Everyone thinks that it contains avocados. Trust me it doesn’t. My version is pretty great and I keep a quart jar of it in the fridge at all times (seriously). Thankfully they now sell it at Whole Foods. Just promise me to seek help if you start dreaming of Doña sauce.
Location (map): A couple of locations but the nearest to downtown is probably the Spyglass location. You will definitely need a ride. ProTip: Walk off the tacos with a hike in Austin’s greenbelt which has a recently revitalized trailhead at the end of the street.