Monday, February 21, 2011

An Austin Visitor's Guide to Upscale Dining - 2011 Edition

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


It's that time of year again - in just a few short weeks, legions of visitors from all over the world will descend upon Austin for South by Southwest. In preparation for this event, several Austin food bloggers have once again gathered together to update, expand and improve upon our Food Bloggers' Guide to Austin (link is to the 2010 Guide; I'll edit with the link to this year's Guide once it's available). [EDIT: 2011 Guide is up; check it out here!]

I've decided to tackle the same categories I handled last year - upscale dining and Asian food (updated Asian food post should be coming shortly). There's been a lot of change in the restaurant scene here in the last twelve months, so although I'll be borrowing the format and a fair amount of content from last year's posts, there will still be plenty of new finds for folks who visited my post last year.

As with last year, I focused more on central Austin options, since most SXSW-ers will be in that area. Everything is roughly categorized into a particular area of town, and there's a handy map to help you find something near you. This year, I've also honed down my picks to my personal favorites and knocked out the chains, because we have so many fantastic locally-owned or -operated eateries in this town.

View Upscale Dining in Austin - 2011 Edition in a larger map

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

Austin Land & Cattle Co. - Need to get your iron up? Skip the chain steak joints and support a great local one.

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.

Cafe Josie - Island style/tropical fare in an accessible, relaxing atmosphere.

Chez Nous - It's hard to believe that this sweet French bistro has stuck it out in the midst of the nuttiest part of Sixth Street for nearly thirty years, but it has.

Congress - Executive Chef David Bull is swankifying Austin with this all-prix-fixe dining option. My blow-by-blow of the meal I had at Congress can be found here. Congress is part of a trilogy of restaurants in the same location - Second is a more casual (but still upscale), order-off-the-menu affair, and Bar Congress connects the two and is a great spot for a cocktail while you're waiting for a table (or a show to start). Do NOT miss the desserts here - pastry chef Plinio Sandalio's creations are genius.

Driskill Grill - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel.

Haddington's - A gastropub with excellent food and a terrific, laid-back atmosphere. Duck fat sazerac, anyone? Their stuffed trout is fantastic (photo here).

La Condesa - It took me a couple visits to hit my sweet spot here, but now I'm a big fan. Flavorful, interesting Mexican fare in a gorgeous and interesting space.

Lambert's - Not your father's barbecue - in only the best way.

La Traviata - Their carbonara will make you cry tears of joy. Blog post dedicated to this thing of beauty here.

Parkside - New American fare. If you're dining with someone who wants a more casual meal, send them back to the Parkside's sister restaurant, a pizza joint adjacent to the Parkside and aptly called Backspace (while you eat at Parkside, of course).

Péché - Absinthe bar that also happens to have excellent food and service.

Ranch 616 - Austin. I'm partial to the jalapeno-maize trout, but I don't really think you can go wrong here. Strong cocktails and a nice patio round out the deal.

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.

TRACE - In the super-cool W Hotel Austin, TRACE focuses on locally-sourced products and is one of my favorite brunch spots in town.

Wink - Another great spot offering New American fare with a focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on personal attention.


Braise - A very welcome new addition to the east side. I'm gaga over their beef osso buco, but have enjoyed everything I've eaten here. Full blog post here.

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.

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.


Barley Swine - I'm late to the game on this and confess that I haven't been, in part due to some mixed reviews I heard early on. But I've been hearing more raves than rants, so it's on my list to visit soon. By Bryce Gilmore, the proprietor at Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, one of the finest spots for trailer food in town.

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

Paggi House - One of the more romantic spots in Austin; New American in lovely surrounds.

South Congress Cafe - New American in a casual-yet-upscale setting.

Uchi - Sushi/Japanese fusion. On the higher end of the pricey range, in part due to their tiny portion sizes. But every bite will be outstanding.

Vespaio - Italian. Reservations only available before 6:30 p.m. M-Th & Sunday - all other times, be prepared for a wait. Its sister restaurant next door, Enoteca Vespaio, also offers delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Zax - A bright, laid back spot that I always enjoy. I have trouble veering away from the shrimp remoulade salad, but whenever I have, it's always been tasty. For those of you with refined bloody Mary palates, be sure to check out their build-your-own bloody Mary bar during brunch.


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.

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.

El Arbol - The star of this restaurant is its namesake tree, which towers majestically over the restaurant's spacious patios. Between the stylish décor and the beautiful waitstaff, it's quite possible to imagine yourself in Argentina (as opposed to across the street from a Burger King).

FINO - A wonderful hidden gem that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. The menu has a Mediterranean/Spanish slant, but there is something here for everyone...everyone with taste buds, that is. Its sister restaurant a couple of miles away, Asti, serves solid Italian fare.

Fonda San Miguel - Interior Mexican in a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Foreign & Domestic - Ned & Jodi Elliott bring with them some serious chef chops, including stints at Thomas Keller's Per Se. Their restaurant is playful and accessible, with a completely open (and tiny) kitchen surrounded by bar seating so you can watch the action while you swoon over your food.

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.

Musashino - As good as it gets in town for old school sushi.

Texas French Bread - this little bakery and café has been around since the early '80s, but just added dinner service within the last couple of years. I first tried them for dinner late last year, and was absolutely impressed. Much of the food is locally sourced, and everything I tried was beautifully prepared.

Uchiko - My favorite meal of 2010 occurred here. Considering I dine out twice a day nearly every day, that's saying something. The sister restaurant to Uchi, but I find it to be more playful and more accessible, and the portion sizes seem less teensy, all of which I appreciate.

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

The Grove - A solid offering by experienced Austin restauranteur Reed Clemons - great food and wine + a spacious patio make for a relaxed, enjoyable meal.

Hudson's on the Bend - Specializing in wild game.

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. Try the Navajo Taco or the trout salad - both are fantastic.

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.

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.

Did I miss something? Leave me a comment!


  1. Excellent list! And you reminded me to book a reservation at Congress. I forgot about March Madness. Or maybe I'm in denial. Love Southby but man does it turn our city into a cluster****.

  2. You got Wink, but forgot Zoot! (I know it's way out in Bee Cave...)

  3. Trattoria Lisina I think is worthy of this list. Still the best authentic Italian restaurant in the greater Austin area IMHO.

  4. Great list, MC! Next stop, brussel sprouts.

  5. Great recommendations !

  6. What about Bartlett's? Some of the most consistently delicious food in NW Austin. It should for sure be added to the list.

    Also, you should check out Noble Pig. Amazing lunch and breakfast. Get the duck pastrami!

  7. Katy, I haven't been to Bartlett's since it switched over from being Houston's - I need to go back! And Noble Pig has been on my list, too. Thanks for the suggestions!


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