Brisket is the king of Texas barbecue, and Aaron Franklin is the king of brisket. In the hotly debated and constantly shifting landscape of Austin barbecue, there's one constant, and that is the excellence that happens in the smokers at Franklin Barbecue on East 11th Street. Jaded Austinites bemoan the long lines (arrive by 7:30 a.m. to be safe), but the four-hour wait is just part of the experience, and once you step up to the counter and are handed a sample morsel of brisket, those hours melt away in a rush of fatty, oak-smoked perfection.
The Texan obsession with meat extends beyond just barbecue at Dai Due, a butcher shop-slash-restaurant that focuses on consciously sourced and underappreciated proteins. The stars of the show are their butchers, who break down whole animals behind the counter. Picking up a grassfed steak or venison sausage to cook at home makes for a fantastic meal, but dine in and let Dai Due's chefs wow you with everything from grilled wagyu baby back ribs to a brunch-only wild boar patty melt. They also haven't forgotten their pop-up restaurant origins and offer a nightly three-course supper club featuring Gulf seafood or some of their rarer wild game. Also not to be missed: the Sunday night tallow-fried chicken.
Matt's El Rancho
Austin's taste buds were raised on gooey enchiladas and bowls of thick, creamy queso. Matt's El Rancho is the godfather of those Tex-Mex comforts, dating back to an East 1st Street location in 1952 (and further back to a tamale cart in 1923!). Nowadays it's on South 1st, inside a massive hacienda-style restaurant that seats 500. Matt's army of regulars all have their favorites, but walk through the airy dining room and you'll see on nearly every table an order of the restaurant's all-time classic, the Bob Armstrong Dip, named after a former Texas Land Commissioner who asked the kitchen for "something different" and thus inspired the creation of this iconic mix of queso, guacamole and ground taco meat.
When Olamaie opened, all anyone wanted to talk about was the biscuits. A secret off-menu favorite, they're now available to order in bulk to go. Their rabid following shows the respect Olamaie pays to even the humblest Southern foods, which the chefs here elevate to fine-dining levels of quality. From riffs on shrimp and grits to hush puppies to boiled peanuts, they re-envision comfort food without forgetting its roots. And although some of the ingredients might confuse old-school diners, there's no denying the beauty of their hulking pork chop or wagyu rib eye.
From the chef who brought the ramen craze to Austin, Kemuri Tatsu-ya blends the concept of a Japanese izakaya with that of a Texas barbecue joint. Of course the menu features ramen (with beef broth and brisket), but there's so much more than just noodles. You'll want to order plenty from the Smoked section of the menu, which features a buttery fish collar, BBQ eel, and spicy pork ribs rubbed with gochujang pepper. The mix of Texas technique and Japanese flavors makes this the most-exciting part of the menu, but it's also a good idea to order some skewers (beef tongue, chicken hearts) and the classic chicken karaage. And if chicken heart isn't wild enough for you, dare to order off the Exotic menu — we recommend trying the squid guts (once).
Austin's always been a health-conscious city full of vegetarian options. One of the most beloved is Veggie Heaven, a Taiwanese comfort-food restaurant that opened in 1998 on Guadalupe Street across from the University of Texas. It was a student favorite, thanks to cheap lunch specials with an appeal that extended beyond just vegetarians, and has now relocated to West 6th Street, where it continues to stay true to its roots with a broad menu of nonmeat dishes under $10. The most iconic is the Protein 2000, fried and battered tofu nuggets in a sweet and savory brown sauce that are as healthy as they are filling.
Austin has a surprisingly deep pizza scene. Arguments abound about who serves the best slice, but as an all-around restaurant, Bufalina wins hands down. Few spaces in town capture the same understated cool; it strikes a perfect balance between date spot and place to bro-out on some 'za. The oven is right there in the dining room, constantly cranking out bubbly crusted Neapolitan pies from open to close. The hippest servers in town dance between the packed tables, attentive and friendly but never overbearing. The pizza is the main course, but with apps like ricotta gnocchi in cactus pesto and snapper crudo with prickly pears, you could easily skip the pies altogether.
Like many areas in East Austin, Holly Street and Cesar Chavez have seen a recent revitalization that's brought a wealth of new neighborhood restaurants. Launderette was one of the first, opened by James Beard nominees Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki. Their irreverent approach to small plates refuses to be categorized by genre. The menu is organized into snack-y bits like striped bass crudo and Burrata, wood-fired specialties like octopus in brown butter, and vegetables for the table, which include grilled broccoli with compressed pear. Dishes are best shared, but there's one that should be ordered solo: the Plancha Burger, a simple patty topped with American cheese and special sauce that's a strong contender for best in town. Also, don't forget dessert — the birthday-cake ice cream sandwich is a must-order, no matter how full you are.
Jester King Brewery
Austin's beer rep is on the rise nationally, with much credit due to Jester King. As its name suggests, it has an irreverence for traditionalism, but with a royal execution. The farmhouse brewery a short drive outside Austin is a requisite pilgrimage for beer lovers with a curious streak. Spontaneous fermentation, barrel aging and head-scratching ingredients are the norm. An excellent example is the Aurastone, an ale aged in Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc barrels, refermented with spent peaches and apricots, then finished with lime leaf and pink sea salt. In addition to insanely creative brews, the Jester King compound is home to some of the best Neapolitan pizza in town, served by Stanley's Farmhouse Pizza.
Everyone loves a neighborhood bar, but with Austin's development boom they're becoming harder to find. East Austinites mourned the loss of Longbranch Inn, one of the neighborhood's longest-running watering holes, on 11th Street when it closed in 2016. Thankfully, new owners stepped up and kept the bar's original spirit while carefully changing with the times, adding an affordable but serious cocktail menu and a food trailer serving Detroit-style coneys, and taking down the horrendous artwork. The atmosphere at Nickel City is still dive-y, but you can tell the guts are as professional as it gets, which earned this spot a nomination for Best New American Cocktail Bar from Tales of the Cocktail.
Cooking is in Bryce Gilmore's blood. His father leveled up Mexican cooking in Austin with Z'Tejas, his uncle Ralph raised the bar on fish tacos at Turf N' Surf, and Bryce has evolved Texas-style cuisine into more than just meat plus fire. Although those are still two of his primary ingredients at Barley Swine and no one will be disappointed by classics like aged pork chops, the vegetables are just as important, and the kitchen staff maintains regular communication with farmers to understand each season's harvest. The menu changes daily, but the one dish that has never left the menu is the shiitake dumplings: ravioli-like pockets of dough stuffed with a mouthwatering mushroom broth on a fluffy bed of tender scrambled eggs, topped with whatever's fresh from the farm.
When Titaya's temporarily closed in 2013, there were near riots among Austin's pad Thai fiends. It's hard to top the homestyle nature of a family-run Thai restaurant, especially when the level of care elevates the food beyond strip-mall expectations. The generous heap of pad Thai noodles is the perfect antidote to basic Thai cravings, and the signature wings, marinated in garlic, peppercorns and fried lemongrass, are a must. It's hard to go wrong with any of the staples, from curries to stir-fries to regional noodle dishes like khao soi, but for the best experience, turn to the Titaya's Classic Dishes section of the menu, where you'll find more-unusual entrees like Pad Cha (fried catfish in a spicy herb-garlic sauce).
Austin's craft-cocktail renaissance means there are a dozen places to find a perfect old fashioned, but it can be tough to find the right balance between vibe, menu and hospitality. Small Victory isn't easy to locate — the long, shotgun-style one-room bar sits at the top of a spiral staircase over a nondescript parking garage — but once you're there it's like entering a Prohibition-era haunt without the pretension of most speakeasy-style bars. Snack on one of the city's best meat and cheese plates while you enjoy signature drinks like the Artists' Special, a smoky variation on the whiskey sour with Scotch, sherry, lemon juice and grenadine. And if you feel like keeping it classic, just refer to the build-your-own-martini chart on the menu, which walks customers through ordering their preferred spirit, level of dryness and garnish.
Austin's coffee scene has exploded over the last decade, with influential roasters like Cuvée and local institutions like Caffe Medici training a community of baristas so tight-knit that they hold monthly latte-art competitions. One of the most-recent and tastiest additions to the scene is Fleet, a tiny cafe that's an alternative to the computer-lab environment at most of the city's other coffee shops. Founded by a pair of Cuvée and Medici alums, the shop serves pour-overs, flash-brewed iced coffee and a perfect shot of espresso, as well as a menu of creative specialty drinks like an iced coffee tonic.
Inspired by the owners' ranch of the same name, Contigo cooks Texas-style comfort foods in one of the city's most-beloved patios. The restaurant opened in 2011 and immediately redefined alfresco dining, especially when it comes to lazy weekend brunches. The menu leans meaty, with fantastic burgers, steaks, sausages and fried chicken (only on Thursdays!), but also includes fresh seasonal Texas vegetables like okra and cucumbers. The menu won't offend any traditionalists, but where Contigo really excels is when it breaks from the mold with twists on classics like the roasted tomato kolaches and the must-order ox tongue hash.
Veracruz All Natural
Taco trucks and trailers in Austin come and go (literally), but one that isn't moving anytime soon is Veracruz All Natural. People constantly argue about the best breakfast taco in town, but it's hard to dispute the greatness of Veracruz's migas. Strips of tortilla give a snappy crunch to the mix of scrambled eggs, onions and peppers. A handful of cheese glues the eggs to the tortilla, and neon-green slices of fresh avocado top it off with a touch of creaminess. Douse it in one of their several salsas for a breakfast you'll never forget.
Veracruz All Natural
Vegetarian cuisine is anything but bland at Mr. Natural, an old-school Mexican bakery slash vegetarian institution. The daily-changing lunch special has fueled plant-eaters since 1988. Just $8 buys a salad, sides like gorditas or potatoes au gratin, and flips on traditional Mexican dishes like potato flautas and picadillo de soyas. Order off the main menu and the move is the Burger Boss, a soy patty topped with sauteed mushrooms, onions and avocado. Housemade agua frescas pair nicely with the city’s largest selection of vegan pastries for dessert.
Neighborhood cafes are all about providing the comforts of home cooked with just enough verve to make each dish unreproducible. There are dozens of places in Austin to score a heaping breakfast along those lines, but none feel quite as welcoming as Counter Cafe. Take a seat at the tiny diner for one of the best shows in town: a crew of short order wizards cooking with the precision of ballet dancers. The biscuits and gravy are eye-opening and the poached eggs with stone-ground grits keep things Southern, but lighter fare like the red quinoa porridge lets the quality of their locally sourced ingredients shine. Arrive later in the afternoon and the must-order is the burger, a hefty patty bursting with juices that have dribbled down the chins of thousands of Austinites.
Special-occasion restaurants are important to a city's dining culture, but more often it's the homegrown casual chains that define diners' diets. Few have as much of an impact as Tacodeli, whose footprint is far larger than just its five brick-and-mortar locations, thanks to a wholesale breakfast-taco business that makes the Jess Special (migas, Jack cheese and avocado) one of the most-ubiquitous tacos in town. Tacodeli is more than just breakfast, though. Its outposts along Barton Skyway and Burnet Road have become lunch landmarks to those who live and work nearby, with powerfully seasoned and sustainably sourced meats filling tacos like the Cowboy (dry-rubbed beef tenderloin, corn, onion, pepper, guac and queso fresco) as well as more inventive daily specials like the banh mi taco.
Fonda San Miguel
Austin's Tex-Mex reputation precedes it, but there's more to Mexican food than mounds of melted cheese. Fonda San Miguel was one of the trailblazers of regional Mexican cuisine, from the Yucatan (cochinita pibil) to Oaxaca (so many moles). It's one of Austin's most-cherished spaces, a distinguished but still casual dining room lined with art that feels distinctly Mexican but at home in Austin. It's an excellent place for dinner, but the best time to visit is brunch. Reservations are crucial — after 40 years in business, the word is definitely out on the restaurant's impressive spread, which covers the full range of its menu plus a diet-destroying dessert buffet.
Fonda San Miguel
Emmer and Rye
If there's one restaurant in Austin that wins the eyes-bigger-than-your-stomach award, it's Emmer & Rye. The main menu, packed with heritage-grain pastas like White Sonora Tortellini and Blue Beard Durum Spaghetti, is indulgent enough already, but the kicker is the dim sum tray, a rolling temptation housing small bites like red snapper with peach and prickly pear agua chile, plus the famous Yellow Bolita Corn Johnny Cakes. Each dish is such an elegant composition that it's hard to say no, making eating here one of the most-fun (and filling) dining experiences in the city.
The lineage of Austin fine dining traces back to Jeffrey’s. It opened in sleepy Clarksville, just west of downtown, in 1975 and for years served as the city’s premier special-occasion restaurant. The bones are still the same, but the keys changed hands in 2013 with restaurateur wunderkind Larry McGuire now at the helm. Subtle changes give away that there’s fresh ownership (like the Wes Anderson-inspired valet track suits), but the spirit stays the same. It’s a place for celebrating with classic American cuisine, including grilled and braised short ribs and pork chops, all sourced from Texas ranches, but it wouldn’t be a visit to Jeffrey’s without a prime, dry-aged steak roasted over live oak.
Jeffrey's of Austin
The Texas beer scene is booming, and there's no finer place for a taste of it than Craft Pride. The Craftsman-style bungalow feels like a remote cabin transported onto bustling Rainey Street, complete with an exhaustive tap list of all-Texan brews. Beers from legacy Austin breweries like Independence and (512) are always available, as well as new Austin classics like Pinthouse Pizza's Electric Jellyfish. Going hyperlocal is a strong move, but it'd be a shame to leave without tasting the rest of Texas, from Magnolia's Lone Pint to Dallas' Community Beer Co. Thankfully, Craft Pride makes it easy to sample the entire state with its 5-ounce small pours and generous samples.
Most people wouldn't associate Texas with sushi, but sister restaurants Uchi and Uchiko have been breaking that stereotype since 2003 and 2010. They import fish daily from Japan and break down whole fish each morning. The bites are immaculately constructed (no extra soy sauce required), but it's not just the nigiri that sets Uchiko apart from the city's other sushi restaurants. The rest of the menu is equally impressive. Experienced Austin diners have committed to heart the flavors of iconic dishes like the Hama Chili (yellowtail, ponzu, Thai chile and orange supreme) and Shag Roll (tempura, avocado, salmon and sun-dried tomato). But veterans also know to always check the specials menu for the freshest imports from the Tsukiji fish market, plus composed dishes that showcase the up-and-coming kitchen staff, who often go on to start fantastic restaurants of their own.
LeRoy and Lewis
With so many fantastic Texas barbecue joints in Austin, it's hard to open anything new that stands out from the pack. Evan LeRoy, the pitmaster behind LeRoy and Lewis, can cook a brisket with the best of them (he used to man the smokers at Freedmen's), but his new trailer operation tucked a block off South Congress Avenue refuses to be boxed in. You won't find a traditional three-meat combo plate here; instead, expect smoked beef cheeks, a barbacoa torta or sliced porchetta, all sourced from local farms. The sides also extend beyond the typical beans and slaw, incorporating Asian flavors like kimchi and sambal. Texas traditionalists, fear not — this spot is still serving brisket, albeit only a few days a week.
Carpetbagging burger chains like In-N-Out and Shake Shack may have breached Austin's city limits, but locals know that the best quick burger in town comes from P. Terry's. With guilt-free meat, meticulously sourced potatoes and a staff as attentive as any in town, the owners have created an empire of 15 locations that all exemplify the same care that made the Barton Springs Road location such a hit. Pro tip: Ask for grilled onions, grilled jalapenos, and a treat for your dog.
Austin's proximity to the coast means that Gulf seafood isn't hard to find, but it's an open secret that many restaurants buy theirs from Quality Seafood. The fishmongers don't toss fish like footballs (a la Pike Place in Seattle), but a walk along their fish counter reveals a bounty of delicious seafood delivered fresh every day. It makes for an excellent pit-stop on the way home from work, but for those without a knack for shucking the monstrous Gulf oysters at home, Quality Seafood doubles as a restaurant that will fry, grill or bake up anything in the seafood case.