Friday, March 5, 2010

An Austin Visitor's Guide to Upscale Dining

***This guide has been updated. The latest version can be found here.***

With South by Southwest right around the corner, several Austin food bloggers are working on compiling a meta-guide to help visiting foodies make the most of their meals while they're in town. I'm tackling higher-end dining - for conference goers on an expense account or who are looking for a little bit of a splurge. There is no way to make this guide completely comprehensive, so I've mostly tried to limit the list to places that either I or people I trust hold in the highest regard. I've also tried to focus more on downtown or close-in options, since most conference-goers will be spending most of their time in that vicinity.

Restaurants denoted with an (L) (for "Local"), while maybe not all technically locally-owned, are at least unique to Austin (to differentiate them from the chains). I've tried to organize them roughly by area of town to help folks target places near where they happen to be.

Although this list is not meant to be comprehensive, I feel sure I've left something fantastic off. If your favorite upscale restaurant is missing, let me know!

View Upscale Dining for SXSW in a larger map

DOWNTOWN (broadly defined here as spanning from I-35 to MoPac,
and from Ladybird Lake to MLK):

(L) - Restaurant Jezebel - New American. How many places can you order a dessert preparation of foie gras? All right, then. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Wink - New American fare with a focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on personal attention. (4.5 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Lambert's - Not your father's barbecue - in only the best way. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Ranch 616 - Austin. About 300 specials a night, so get your ears ready when your server comes by. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - TRIO - the Four Seasons Hotel is all about exceeding expectations, and its restaurant, TRIO, does just that. It consistently turns out outstanding food combined with exemplary service. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Péché - absinthe bar that also happens to have excellent food and service. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - La Traviata - their carbonara will make you cry tears of joy. Blog post dedicated to this thing of beauty here. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Driskill Grill - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel. (3.5 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Belmont - Classic American fare with a swanky 60's vibe. It'll make you want to snap your fingers as you walk in the joint. (3.5 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Moonshine - the honest truth is that this is not my favorite place, but they do have some good offerings, and their stick-to-your ribs, homestyle cooking slant might be just the thing for folks visiting from more northern climes or...attempting to cure a hangover. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Cafe Josie - Island style/tropical fare in an accessible, relaxing atmosphere. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Parkside - New American. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Chez Nous - French. Everyone raves about it, but I've somehow never been. Don't let it happen to you. (4.5 stars on Yelp).

Max's Wine Dive - their slogan is, "Fried chicken and champagne - why the hell not?" Why the hell not, indeed. Particularly during SXSW. (3.5 stars on Yelp).

Three fancy steak chain restaurants - because sometimes, you just need a fantastic slab of meat in a dark room (yes, yes, I know that's what she said): III Forks (4 stars on Yelp); Sullivan's (4 stars); Ruth's Chris (4 stars on Yelp). [Edit: A kind commenter reminded me that there is an excellent non-chain option for steak - the very local Austin Land & Cattle Co. (4 stars on Yelp). When in Austin, do as the Austinites do and choose local businesses over chains!

Three fancy seafood chain restaurants - because...well, because I listed three fancy chain steak restaurants. Truluck's - (4 stars on Yelp); Eddie V's (4.5 stars on Yelp); and McCormick & Schmick's (4 stars). In a similar vein, we also have a Hawaiian fusion chain restaurant, Roy's (4 stars on Yelp).

Finn & Porter - it's a hotel restaurant, but you'd never know it from the food. (4 stars on Yelp).

Roaring Fork - the rugged Western cousin of Eddie V's. You've got to love them for having a menu item called "The Big Ass Burger." (4 stars on Yelp).

Z Tejas - Southwestern. It's a chain, but it's never done me wrong, and they've got my all-time favorite chile relleno. (4 stars on Yelp).


(L) - East Side Cafe - One of my favorite places to take out of town guests - homey, funky, and Austin-y, with a large garden on the premises that sources many of their herbs, decorative garnishes, and some of their veggies. Browse their adorable gift shop, Pitchforks & Tablespoons while you wait for your table. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - East Side Show Room - Even in a city full of funk, East Side Show Room brings the funk. Good, locally-sourced eats in a sumptuously steampunky setting. My blog post about it is here. (3 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Buenos Aires Café - lovely Argentinian food. I haven't eaten at this location, but the other location is terrific, and I have no reason to believe this one wouldn't be, too. (4 stars on Yelp).


(L) - Perla's - seafood, which you can eat on a lovely patio (because what else would you want to do while in Austin, Texas?) (3.5 stars on Yelp)

(L) - South Congress Cafe - New American in a casual-yet-upscale setting. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Vespaio - Italian. Reservations only available before 6:30 p.m. M-Th & Sunday - all other times, be prepared for a wait. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Paggi House - New American in a lovely setting. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Uchi - Sushi/Japanese. On the higher end of the pricey range, in part due to their tiny portion sizes. But every bite will be outstanding. (4.5 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Olivia - New American with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. Named one of 2009's Best New Restaurants in America by Bon Appetit. (3.5 stars on Yelp).


(L) - The Carillon - Located in the AT&T Conference Center & Hotel on campus, The Carillon could easily be a buffet restaurant in a large, well-funded university. And, in fact, during the day, it is. But at night, it transforms into a fine dining establishment with excellent food. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Fonda San Miguel - Interior Mexican in a warm, inviting atmosphere. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Chez Zee - It's hard not to feel special while you're dining surrounded by twinkly white Christmas lights and whimsical art. Their smoky olive oil is like nothing I've ever tasted. (4 stars on Yelp)

(L) - Mirabelle - with menu item descriptions as long as this blog post, you'll know what you'll be getting - and you know that it'll be good. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Musashino - as good as it gets in town for old school sushi. (4 stars on Yelp).

BIT OF A HIKE (North of 183, south of Ben White, West of 360):

(L) - North by Northwest - come for SXSW, eat at NXNW - almost too silly to be true. But this is one of the very few non-chain, upscale eateries in the area, it's consistently decent, and they brew their own beer. 'nuff said. (3.5 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Mikado Ryotei - not as good as Musashino for straight up, traditional-style sushi, but they've got some really excellent rolls here if that's your sushi preference. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Jack Allen's Kitchen - Jack Allen, the founding chef of Z'Tejas, brings a breath of fresh air to an otherwise-barren upscale restaurant landscape, the Oak Hill area. The flavors here are bright, fresh and innovative. If the Navajo Taco is on the menu when you go, it comes highly recommended. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - The Grove - A solid offering by experienced Austin restauranteur Reed Clemons - great food and wine + a spacious patio make for a relaxed, enjoyable meal. (4 stars on Yelp).

(L) - Hudson's on the Bend - specializing in wild game. (4 stars on Yelp).


  1. What if you got a job doing that all over the country? Please come do Sacramento next. :)

  2. Oh, Tegan. Can you say "dream job?" Sighhhh.

  3. well done, like my burger at roaring fork

  4. What are your thoughts on Fabi and Rosi. We ate there recently and loved it.

  5. Hi there, thanks for your comment! I've only been once to Fabi & Rosi. The mussel appetizer was fantastic, but the rest of my meal was just OK. I did love the atmosphere - very pretty.

  6. Chris, do you mean that your burger was cooked thoroughly, or that it was cooked competently?

    Either way, I love your comment!

  7. Great list! I missed one of my favorites, though. Austin Land & Cattle (4 stars on Yelp).

  8. You are absolutely right. I'm adding AL&C now.

  9. This post was well done in the competency sense - but I prefer to order my burgers "well done" in the thoroughness sense. Without specifying, too many places leave the patty too pink inside for my taste!

  10. Thank you so much for this list! I'm moving back to Austin after more than 10 years away and can't wait to eat more like an adult when I'm there. Your list is excellent. And Fabi and Rosi looks pretty divine as well.


  11. For those venturing east to Houston, you may find our blog on Houston restaurants helpful --

  12. Terrific list! However, you really should not use Yelp as a barometer. Some folks on there rate places like Uchi and Wink lower than Sonic or Mr Gattis. Go figure!!

  13. Anon: I myself am an active Yelper, and although I definitely do not agree with the general consensus on every place (and sometimes very strongly disagree with it), I still think that Yelp has a usefulness that standard food critics do not, i.e., it gives you a glimpse into what the average consumer's experience at a particular place is like. And Yelp becomes even more useful as you get to know the reviewers and can glean whose reviews you trust. It's certainly not my bible, and I understand why some people don't use it at all, but I think it can be a very useful tool, and am a fan.

  14. I agree it's a very good list. Consider adding Justine's, Haddington's, Congress, Perry's, and Soleil. (I eat out for work a lot.)

  15. Anon, I may just need to do an overhaul of this post each year, as the Austin food scene is changing so quickly! Definitely agreed re: adding Congress & Haddington's (although I've yet to visit the latter). I don't love Perry's, truth be told, and I've heard mixed reviews of Soleil, so feel I'd like to visit myself before adding. Justine's...well...worst service experience I've ever had. Full saga here:


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