Welcome to The Infatuation’s Austin Greatest Hits List.
Obviously you’re familiar with the concept of a “greatest hits” album, but let’s be clear that what you see before you is not meant to be the Now 24 of restaurants. This list is a carefully selected collection of the restaurants most essential to the Austin experience - the spots you should hit first if you’re new to town. Our Austin Greatest Hits includes establishments that have been around since before Austin was cool, alongside newer spots that have proven themselves worthy - from late-night diners to Tex-Mex classics to upscale Southern food spots.
Just like you wouldn’t introduce someone to Tom Petty without starting with “Free Fallin’,” we wouldn’t send someone unfamiliar with Austin to a new Italian small plates spot without sending them to one of these restaurants first. And you shouldn’t either.
Added 10/2018: Ramen Tatsu-ya, Emmer & Rye, Fricano’s Deli, Justine’s Brasserie, Perla’s, Vespaio, Veracruz, Home Slice, La Barbecue
Eating ramen in hot weather is like shaving your beard when you’re drunk - there are probably better decisions you can make. But since you’re going to do it anyway, it might as well be at Ramen Tatsu-ya because it’s the best in the city. They have a few locations now, but we prefer the one on South Lamar because of its proximity to all the bars nearby (it makes a great one-two punch of dinner and drinks). The tonkotsu is simple and near perfect, and if you want to try something different, go for the tsukemen dipping ramen. They serve some good small plates as well, but it’s really all about the noodles here. Well, that and the air conditioning.
Austin is known for a lot of things, but perhaps nothing more so than tacos. And no taco establishment is more essential to this town than Torchy’s, an empire born and bred out of the Austin food truck movement. These days, they have brick and mortar restaurants all over town, so be sure to check out their prime location on South Congress. Hit it for lunchtime tacos for best success.
After walking by all the bars on Rainey that feel like passing an entire floor of Hollisters at the mall, you’ll find some peace at the end of the street at Emmer & Rye. The waiters all act like they’ve known you since third grade, there’s a list of interesting small plates, and a rolling dim sum cart for good measure. The cacio e pepe pasta and Johnny cakes are usually on the menu, and should definitely be on your table, but since they source everything from the best farms in the area, their seasonal dishes are all great as well. And if you’re having trouble deciding, just ask the server to bring anything that comes with their homemade roti bread.
Franklin Barbecue has earned a reputation as the best place for smoked meats in the entire country. The brisket here is excellent, yes, but whether it’s worth the five-hour wait is up to you. Do not expect to eat here unless you arrive by 7am. Line up and bring a book (or mimosas).
Justine’s is Austin’s worst kept secret. This classic spot is “hidden away” deep on the Eastside, so it’s not the kind of place you’d just drive by. If you’re going to Justine’s, it’s because someone knows how great it is and feels similarly about you. It’s a tiny house with dark lighting, limited seating, and a big patio under twinkling lights, which is basically the background of every stock photo of couples being romantic. And while you’ll definitely see dates happening here, you’ll also find plenty of people who look cooler than you and are eating escargot with their friends on a Tuesday.
Austin’s best 24-hour establishment. Whether it’s 3pm or 3am, Magnolia is our all-time favorite place to sit down to a table full of pancakes, breakfast tacos, migas, and Mag Mud (their take on queso). With two equally great locations that are perfectly positioned for your post-drinking needs (on either side of downtown), Magnolia is an establishment we truly can’t imagine Austin without.
If you’ve spent any real time in this city, you’ve eaten great Southern food (if not - you’re doing it wrong). But unless you’ve been to Olamaie, you’ve never had Southern food on this level. This is the kind of meal that haunts you - starting with the most incredible biscuits you’ll ever eat (they’re not on the menu, but do not let that stop you from ordering them). You don’t need an excuse to go to Olamaie, but it also makes for an excellent place to celebrate just about anything.
You can sit outside in Austin almost any month of the year - with a short break in the summer for 110 degree days and that one week in January when it drops below 40. So it makes sense that there’s no shortage of great patios, but there are few better spots to eat and drink outside than Perla’s. You’ll sit under a large tree while servers bring you oysters and make you feel like you’re vacationing in a small beach town - despite being able to hear the traffic of South Congress and see a guy testing out his “Cowboy Mime” act for tips. Even so, you’ll still end up staying here all afternoon.
Because South Congress didn’t have enough going on, it’s home to yet another Austin staple, Vespaio. If you’re celebrating or someone’s planning on putting down their boss’s card at the end, definitely go heavy on the pastas and main dishes. They’re expensive, but very worth it, from linguine with clams to prosciutto wrapped shrimp and veal saltimbocca. And if you’re you’re craving Italian food, but don’t want to spend as much, or you’re dining with your three-year-old who likes to shout “butts” every so often, go to their more casual space next door - Enoteca Vespaio.
An activity that Austin does better than just about anyone else: the outdoor drink-and-hang. When it comes to spending time outside with alcohol and food, our city excels. And no spot is better evidence of that than Contigo, with its sprawling, awesome back patio (modeled after the owner’s South Texas hunting ranch), great cocktails, and the kind of shareable plates that can keep your crew going for hours. If you’re new to the city, or a visitor, hit Contigo at Happy Hour for a real sense of how this town likes to live.
Austin has always had great tacos. And queso. And pancakes. And burgers. But pizza? Up until a few years ago, Mr. Gatti’s was as close as we got to good pizza. But that pizza drought is now a thing of the past, thanks in large part to Via 313. They managed to make Detroit-style (aka thick, square cut) pizza seem completely at home in Austin, and have grown from a single trailer to a full-on empire. Whether you’re grabbing a pie from the truck after a few beers at Craft Pride or sitting down at one of their brick and mortar locations, this thick-crust pizza never disappoints.
Regardless of when you graduated, stepping onto a college campus brings out certain strong emotions, like nostalgia and fear. But walking into Fricano’s at UT will immediately take you back to the good memories. You’ll find giant, affordable sandwiches, sports on all of the TVs, and zero judgment when you show up in sweatpants, because last weekend someone came in drunk at 2pm with no shoes on. Get the spicy Reuben or pastrami on rye and even if you show up starving, the sandwiches are large enough that you’ll always have another half for later.
The seminal food, alcohol, and cinema combo experience. What once began as a little art house theater is now a national franchise. Always check their schedule, because when they’re not showing whatever big movies are out right now, there might be a Big Lebowski quote-a-long, or similar caliber of cult movie experience happening. Their kitchen has expanded far beyond popcorn (which is excellent, by the way), offering everything from vegan cauliflower buffalo wings to beer milkshakes.
Because not everyone has the time or commitment to wait in line all morning for smoked meat, we have to be real about other, more achievable barbecue options in town. But it would be a disservice to say that you’re only going to La Barbecue because it’s gettable. The beef rib is gigantic and something everyone you’re with is going to want to try, their brisket has enough flavor that it doesn’t need sauce, and their sausages are made in-house. We also think they put more effort into their sides than most of the other barbecue spots, from the spicy chipotle slaw to mustard-y potato salad.
The original gourmet ice cream experience in Austin. Gone are the days when employees would be drunk on the job, pouring bourbon into the ice cream itself. Amy’s has grown up into a well-oiled ice cream machine, but still remains a quirky, family-friendly mainstay of the Austin experience. Even if you’re not hungry, go watch their servers perform daring, impromptu acrobatic ice cream scooping.
Veracruz making this list is like a Soundcloud rapper making it to Coachella. There are a lot of great taco spots in town, but Veracruz has steadily earned the respect of, well, everyone. What started as one food truck has since expanded to five locations, including a physical restaurant, but if you want the full experience, go the truck on Cesar Chavez - and make sure to get a migas taco. We prefer weekday breakfast over lunch at Veracruz to avoid waiting in a long line, but truthfully, we’d wait in line with 100 people who refer to themselves as “amateur house DJs” just to eat here.
One of Austin’s great paradoxes: our vegetarian food is just as good as our BBQ. And Bouldin Creek Cafe is certainly the most popular - if not the best - place to get it. It’s a spot that brings the classic Keep Austin Weird vibes, while appealing to pretty much everyone - meat eaters and meat avoiders alike.
Yet another entry on this list that started as a food truck, Odd Duck combines the kind of food you wouldn’t be surprised to eat at a fine dining establishment (snapper ceviche, duck breast) with the kind of environment you wouldn’t be surprised to find on the outskirts of some small, funky Southern town. It’s a place to eat very well and feel great while you’re at it (that feeling is even better during Happy Hour, when select dishes are half off).
An old Tex-Mex favorite at 6th and Chicon that proudly serves biscuits and clarified butter with your migas and fajitas. It’s the original Eastside breakfast experience, with a loyal fan base. We fear it’s at risk for being bulldozed soon, so go now before a Dallas-based real estate developer beats you to it.
Don’t bring a New Yorker to Home Slice. If you do, they will spend the whole time talking about how great pizza is in New York. There will be a lot of “this is good but…” and we just can’t listen to another New York City pizza PSA. This South Congress institution should be praised by itself, not only in comparison. It’s accessible and affordable, the staff is friendly, and most importantly, the pizza is some of the best in the city. And if you’re not up for pizza, their Italian sub and Greek salad are both stand-outs. So take your New Yorker friends to Franklin and leave Home Slice for us.
This East Cesar Chavez Tex-Mex breakfast joint has maintained a straight-up, no-nonsense vibe since opening over thirty years ago. Juan used to greet every single customer with a smile, a handshake, and a big bear hug. He’s not around as much these days, but his son fills his shoes well, spreading his dad’s positivity via breakfast tacos. Their speciality “The Don Juan” - a heap of eggs, tortillas, potatoes, bacon, and cheese - is the most economical food coma you’ll have in your life.
Interior Mexican cuisine served in a stunning space. In particular, anything doused in their mole is exceptional. If you’re going on a weekend, make sure to get a reservation, as this is an old Austin favorite for date night and special occasions.