Beyond the Festival: Live Like a Local in Austin
From South by Southwest to Austin City Limits to Fun Fun Fun Fest, easygoing Austin has become the city of the never-ending festival. While you may be in town for the music, make sure to step away from the crowd and get a taste of the many good haunts that locals love. It may be known as the live music capital, but this boomtown now has a food and drink scene that’s a draw of its own. Here are the latest locales for doing what Austinites hold dear: being outside, catching up with friends at a favorite bar or restaurant, and, of course, eating tacos.
Soak in the Sunshine
When the call of a pretty day can’t be resisted — and there are many such days in Austin — take to an outdoor patio and raise a glass to the sunshine with friends. Easy Tiger, a downtown bake shop and beer garden that has the best baguettes in the city, is a favorite spot for nibbling house-made sausages and giant pretzels, maybe even while playing away at the pingpong table on the ample back deck.
The light-strung patio at Justine’s, a French brasserie on Austin’s buzzing East Side, is an idyllic locale for sipping Sazerac with your steak frites and people-watching, an always-intriguing pastime here. Cooking up tasty fare such as escargots and steak tartare until 2 a.m., this late-night gathering spot makes for great post-concert dining.
Inspired by a Texas ranch, the streamlined, outdoor-centric Contigo serves creative interpretations of dishes, such as panzanella and pork liver pate, and cocktails, including the Pepino — a refreshing blend of tequila, cucumber, lime and mint. On cooler nights, grab one of the Mexican blankets and savor your tequila while sitting around the inviting fire pits.
Cozy Up at the Bar
After braving crowds to see the hottest music tickets in town, tuck away to the locals’ favorite watering holes to decompress. The funk and blues scene downstairs at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, the latest venture by local legend Steve Wertheimer of the iconic Continental Club, is always great, but if you crave some space for a tête-à-tête, slip upstairs to the red-hued lounge. Presided over by a mirror painting of a sultry, nude, reclining woman, this is the place to belly up to the bar with a friend and sip a cold local beer.
At Whisler’s, a laid-back but elegant bar where happy drinkers sip craft cocktails around outdoor picnic tables, check out the Mezcalería Tobalá upstairs. The tiny, candle-filled mescal bar lets you taste smoky mescals that are hard to find outside Mexico. The dedicated bartender will take you on a tour of the under-practiced art of mescal drinking, after which you can grab a bite at the East Side King Thai food truck downstairs on the Whisler’s patio.
With a chrome and white subway-tile bar lined with small tinctures and jars of brightly colored liquids, Weather Up feels like an apothecary’s wonderland. Drinks such as the Fairfax (bourbon, yellow chartreuse, ginger and lime), prepared with fresh-squeezed juice, make this Austin offshoot of a popular Brooklyn, NY, club an easy place to linger with a friend. And don’t let the cocktails totally steal the show — plates including crepes with duck confit and lamb chorizo will make you happy you came hungry.
Robert J. Lerma
With the steady flow of new Austin residents comes an equally steady demand for restaurants that push boundaries and startle taste buds. One star in the Austin culinary scene, Rene Ortiz, has locals swooning with his latest opening, Launderette, an unpretentious bistro housed in a revamped Laundromat on one of the quieter corners of the East Side. Almost everything Ortiz touches in Austin turns to gold, and Launderette — with wood-grilled hangar steak and fried oysters that bring you to your knees — proves to be his most delicious project yet.
The modern renderings of Southern fare at Olamaie (pronounced O-la-may) are inspired by 4 generations of women in chef Michael Fojtasek’s family, all named Olamaie — women who clearly knew their way around the kitchen. Locally sourced ingredients go into traditional dishes such as beet hush puppies, country sausage gravy and airy, melt-in-your-mouth buttermilk biscuits with sorghum butter, making a meal in this charming downtown cottage a fresh taste of the old South.
What the owner/chefs at The Hightower may have saved on its understated design — almost everything in the restaurant they built themselves — they lavish upon the food. Located in central-east Austin, not far from downtown, the Hightower is an unassuming spot to eat extravagantly (braised short ribs, Arctic char, buttermilk pie) without the hoopla and price of a fancy setting.
Fork & Taco
Eat a Taco
Austin is famously taco-centric. Far beyond the beans and cheese, there are many taco shops that are making the world rethink what a taco can be. Take Fork and Taco. Using as many organic, locally sourced ingredients as possible, this new leader on the taco frontier has concocted little taco masterpieces wrapped up in tortillas so fresh that they melt in your mouth. Who thought that a crunchy cauliflower vegetarian taco could be so good? But this casual little spot in central-north Austin is for meat lovers, too — the beer-braised brisket with horseradish crema rules.
If you find yourself hanging out and sipping a cold Topo Chico (imported Mexican bubbly water) at the picnic tables of the all-outdoors El Chilito while you wait for your order to be ready, you won’t be disappointed. This low-key setting is an easy place to make a friend or 2, and once those crunchy fish tacos meet your taste buds, you will be very glad you sought out this little East Austin hole-in-the-wall.