Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Guide to Upscale Dining in Austin - 2014 Edition

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

For the last four years, I've covered fine dining for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide. Although single bloggers are no longer covering an entire category in this year's Guide, I wanted to update this post for 2014 anyway. As with previous years, my suggestions are divided into areas of town, and I have limited my selections to only locally-owned restaurants. I've added a little eye candy for you this year, as well. Enjoy!
DOWNTOWN (broadly defined here as spanning from I-35 to MoPac,
and from Ladybird Lake to MLK):

Arro - The upscale, French sister to Easy Tiger and 24 Diner, Arro seems to suffer from some consistency issues. But the better of my two visits here was so lovely that I wanted to include it in this guide. They offer a three-course dinner for $25 that's a great value.

Cafe Josie
Scallops at Café Josie
Café Josie - After a change in ownership in 2012, Café Josie's menu and interior were overhauled. The new menu has been modernized, and after quite a few meals there, I've been very impressed. Don't miss their brussels sprouts - they are currently my favorites in town.

Chavez - A brand new hot spot for Southwestern fare by experienced restauranteur Shawn Cirkiel, who brought Parkside and Olive & June to Austin (see below).

Clark's Oyster Bar - I've only visited Clark's once (so far), but thoroughly enjoyed my experience there. I thought the prices were on the steep side for what you get, but I am glad for a spot to add to the short list of locally-owned seafood restaurants.

Congress - Executive Chef David Bull was the first to open an Austin restaurant with all-prix-fixe dining. My blow-by-blow of a 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).

Driskill Grill - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel. The surrounds will delight the traditionalist in you, but the menu is more modern than you might expect.

La Condesa
Aguachile at La Condesa
La Condesa - It took me a couple visits to hit my sweet spot here, but now I'm a huge fan. Flavorful, interesting Mexican fare in a gorgeous and interesting space. The small plates are the star of the show here.

Lambert's - Not your father's barbecue. Think pork ribs with a fennel-coriander rub, brisket with a brown sugar and coffee rub, and brussels sprouts with bacon and brown butter.

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 - Quirky...like 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.

Swift's Attic - Inventive small plates (for example, edamame served with pop rock salt) in a wonderfully steampunkish space.

TRIO - The Four Seasons Hotel is all about exceeding expectations, and its restaurant, TRIO, does just that.

Market Snacks at TRACE
TRACE - In the super-cool W Hotel Austin, TRACE focuses on locally-sourced products. Their executive chef, Larry Kocurek, used to own his own charcuterie business - you'll see this influence on the menu here, and should definitely sample their charcuterie offerings.

Wink - Another great spot offering New American fare with a focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on personal attention. If you're celebrating a special occasion, let them know; they'll print up special celebratory menus just for you.


Buenos Aires Café - Lovely spot serving up - you guessed it! - Argentinian fare. If you have room for dessert, they've upped the ante with their quatro leches cake. Extra leches is always a win in my book.

East Side Cafe - A glimpse into the good old days when Austin was more hippie-funky, with a large garden on the premises that sources many of their herbs, decorative garnishes, and some of their veggies.

East Side Show Room - Good, locally-sourced eats in a sumptuously steampunky setting. My blog post about it is here.

Hillside Farmacy - This sweet little place is housed in a building that once was home to a pharmacy, and they've kept many of the accoutrements of the previous occupant intact. Their menu covers everything from raw oysters to ribs, and they've got you covered for every meal - opening at 9a daily and closing at 10 or 11 at night.

La V - This brand new (opened March 6th!) restaurant has been getting a ton of buzz from the food blogger community. A French spot inspired by Provence that bills its wine list as "world class." I can't wait to try it.

Mettle - It took me too long to discover Mettle, but my first visit had me clamoring for more. Wonderful food by a chef with a résumé that includes Alinea and a stint with Thomas Keller.

Salty Sow
Triple Fried Duck Fat Fries with 110 Minute Eggs at Salty Sow
Salty Sow - On the casual end of upscale dining, which is one of the things I like about it. I'm a sucker for their triple fried duck fat fries, the truffled deviled eggs, the crispy chicken thighs, and the butterscotch boudino. Also, I love the fact that an entire section of their menu is dedicated to "Things in a Jar."

qui - I have long been a fan of Paul Qui. Many years ago, back in his Uchiko days, he prepared what may very well be my favorite meal of all time - a blowout, multi-course wine dinner that I feel sure I will never forget. So I'm sad to report that my first meal at his signature restaurant fell so far short of my (admittedly very high) expectations that I have not been back. That said, manymany people rave about this place, so it seems like I should include it on this list. YMMV.


Barley Swine - Interesting, innovative fare from a chef with a nose-to-tail philosophy. They now take reservations (yes!), which means I can delete my kvetching from last year's post about the three-hour wait I once endured to eat here.

Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Lenoir - Like eating at the home of owners Todd and Jessica Duplechan. The concept is simple: any three courses for $38; extra courses are $10. The food is wonderful and the service is exemplary. Don't miss it (and be sure to make a reservation).

Odd Duck - A food trailer that grew up to be a brick & mortar, by the same chef-owner as Barley Swine (above). Full blog post here.

Olivia - New American with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. The open and well-lit space, designed by Austin architect Michael Hsu, is part of its charm.

Paggi House - One of the more romantic spots in Austin; it also happens to host my favorite brunch buffet in town. Their patio has a great view of the city.

South Congress Cafe - New American in a casual-yet-upscale setting. They don't take reservations, and there can be a long wait at peak hours. Consider yourself warned.

Sway - Modern Thai dishes that pack a serious flavor punch. Full blog post about it here.

Pitchfork Roll at Uchi
Pitchfork Roll at Uchi
Uchi - Sushi/Japanese fusion. It's a scene, and usually requires a wait, but it's worth it. Don't miss the hamachi nabe.

Vespaio - Italian. Its sister restaurant next door, Enoteca Vespaio, also offers delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Zax - A bright, laid back spot with a dog-friendly patio 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 - One of my very favorite special occasion spots in Austin. 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.

Epicerie - French-inspired. On the casual side of upscale dining, but also on the delicious side, so it merits a mention here.

Grilled Octopus at FINO
Grilled Octopus at FINO
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 - A tiny place with a completely open (and similarly tiny) kitchen surrounded by bar seating so you can watch the action while you swoon over your food. The food here can be a little adventurous (in a good way) - I once tried venison heart tartare here.

Hanabi - A lovely neighborhood sushi restaurant with consistently very fresh fish and some of the most earnest service I've ever encountered. Full blog post about it here.

Komê - One of the few sushi places in town where my non-raw-fish-eating husband gets excited about ordering sushi. Both the raw and the cooked offerings here are excellent - and surprisingly affordable (for sushi). I just wish they took reservations, as there is usually a wait, and their waiting area is cramped and uncomfortable.

Musashino - Consistently good old-school sushi. If you're dining with non-sushi-eaters who don't feel like eating tempura or teriyaki, they'll let you order Chinese food from Chinatown upstairs.

Olive & June - This Italian restaurant from established Austin chef Shawn Cirkiel is a favorite of mine. I love their Sunday dinners, when they offer a very generous multi-course meal for $29 (children 12 and under are free!), A blog post about my first meal at Olive & June can be found here.

Mussels at Texas French Bread
Mussels at Texas French Bread
Texas French Bread - This little bakery and café offers a wonderful dinner service. It's one of my favorites for a casual but delicious meal. Much of the food is locally sourced, and everything I have tried has been beautifully prepared. Plus, it's BYOB, which I love.

Uchiko - The sister restaurant to Uchi. I've heard their food described as more "masculine" while Uchi's is more "feminine" - I guess my taste buds are hermaphrodites, because I love both spots.

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

Café Malta - Tucked away in a strip mall that also contains a tobacco shop and a Taco Bell, Café Malta definitely qualifies as a hidden gem. To my surprise and delight, they make most everything from scratch, from their pastas to their preserves.

The Grove - A solid offering by experienced Austin restauranteur Reed Clemons - great food and wine + a spacious patio make for a relaxed, enjoyable meal. There are two locations, both on the west side of town - one off 2244, and the other in Lakeway.

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

Trout Salad at Jack Allen's
Trout Salad at Jack Allen's Kitchen
Jack Allen's Kitchen - Jack Allen, the founding chef of Z'Tejas, brings a breath of fresh air to otherwise-barren upscale restaurant landscapes (locations in both the Oak Hill area and Round Rock). The flavors here are bright, fresh and innovative. Try the Navajo Taco or the trout salad - both are fantastic.

North by Northwest - One of the very few non-chain, upscale eateries in the Arboretum area, it's consistently decent, and they brew their own beer. 'nuff said.

Soto - Many of my food blogger friends rave about this sushi spot; for reasons I can't quite explain, I have yet to visit it.

Did I miss your favorite spot for a fancy meal? Leave me a comment!


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