Driving home from work tonight on my usual route through downtown Austin, I stopped at the light on Riverside and South First Street right in front of the bright orange Hooters marquee. As you may know, South by South West (SXSW) is in full swing down here, causing additional traffic jams but allowing me more time than usual to ponder my future. In those moments, I fast forwarded 24 hours and envisioned myself, a few Lone Stars deep, sitting at that Hooters because I was at a show downtown and could not wait more than 30 minutes to post up and eat something. It was not a pretty picture.
As traffic started to move, I had a moment of clarity and began to mentally map out all the restaurant options within walking distance of downtown that could prevent me from ingesting fried chicken and curly fries three days in a row. I also imagined that visitors to Austin might find themselves in the same situation and could appreciate some suggestions from a local on where to eat. And although they are not the only game in town, I can assure you that any of the following are great even sober:
Casino El Camino (517 East 6th Street) is primarily a bar tucked away between other venues and souvenir shops on East Sixth but serves up some of the best burgers in Austin. G'Raj Mahal (91 Red River Street) is a new Indian food trailer right off of Rainey street and across from Clive Bar. Though it might sound sketchy, as one could wonder how there is decent Indian food in Texas much less on wheels, I assure you it's delicious. It's also open until 3am. Moonshine (303 Red River Street) is an old standby - nothing life-changing but a crowd pleaser and known for their weekend brunch buffet. Across the street and down the block is Iron Works (100 Red River Street), one of my absolute favorite BBQ spots in Austin, which I have professed my love for previously. Parkside (301 E 6th St.) is a more upscale place in the middle of East Sixth street specializing in oysters and featuring divine french fries. Chez Nous (510 Neches Street) is a great little French restaurant that qualifies as Austin fine dining. Heading west to the other side of Congress is Frank (407 Colorado St), a restaurant serving hot dog-style fancy sausage, like rabbit and venison, and excellent cocktails that involve the likes of bacon infused Makers Mark and brandied cherries.
Just south across the river, for activity centered in the South Congress area, Perla's (1400 South Congress Avenue) has become one of my favorite seafood spots with excellent cocktails. Botticelli's (1400 South Congress Ave) has very decent Italian and beer garden in the back.
And then for the ultimate Austin experience there is always the street of South Austin food trailers, including The Mighty Cone (1603 South Congress Avenue - brainchild of Hudson's on the Bend), BBQ, Crepes and Hey Cupcake! (1600 South Congress Ave) for something sweet. Home Slice Pizza (1415 South Congress Avenue), offering some of Austin's best pies, now has two adjacent stores: one a restaurant, and the other a walk up window open until 3am. The Woodland (1716 South Congress Ave) is another spot that serves something for everyone, from mahi mahi to chicken potpie, although the real stars of the show are the cocktails. Enoteca Vespaio (1610 S Congress Ave), the more casual bistro offspring of Vespaio, has excellent thin crust pizza and pastas and South Congress Café (1600 South Congress Ave) is great for continental fare but usually has a wait even without the SXSW crowds.
Over by West Sixth, near the original Whole Foods mothership, is Hut's Hamburgers slinging creative, delicious burgers and chicken sandwiches. Ranch 616 (616 Nueces Street) is a funky place right off West Sixth that advertises frog's legs in paint on the side of the building but can satisfy even the less adventurous. Mulberry, (360 Nueces Street #20) over by the Austin Music Hall, is a superb little wine bar that never seems to be crowded and dishes up everything from cheese plates to sashimi to braised pork belly. Garridos (360 Nueces Street) down the block has excellent tacos and brunch.
In the end, you could be sustained on free tacos and Lone Star alone for the duration of SXSW...only time will tell. But at the end of the day, if I have saved just one starving, tipsy or tired person from dining at PF Changs three days in a row because they didn't know where else to go, my work here is done.