Just as Central Texas has proven itself an incubator for the technology and music industries, area chefs have put Austin and San Antonio on the map (and into the national consciousness) as dining destinations, dripping with ambitious talent. Central Texas has long been a cultural crossroads, a special blend of the American melting pot, where Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Anglo settlers, Germans, Czechs, and African Americans all left a deep imprint—culinary and otherwise. Barbecue, Mexican, and Southern comfort still have a home here, but these chefs have redefined the staples; a visit to Central Texas and its young guard talent just may yield the best taco, brisket, and fried chicken you’ve ever eaten—not to mention world-class sushi, otherworldly pastry, and sublime cocktails.
That said, Austin and San Antonio are two distinct markets. The Austin restaurant scene started developing in the early aughts, with chefs like Mark Paul going farm-to-table at Wink and Rising Star Restaurateur Tyson Cole introducing his signature brand of sushi at Uchi. The home of Whole Foods quickly embraced the chefs’ refined (but not quite fine) dining, setting the foundation for Austin’s current crop of restaurants. Now this town’s restaurant scene is run with youthful exuberance and a strong devotion to local product. Guys and gals with a dream, DIY spirit, and culinary chops have a real chance of making it here.
And a number of the chefs we tasted with got their start in one of the hundreds of Austin “food trailers.” These vessels of quick, cheap bites park darn near permanently at “trailer parks” (this is the South after all) dotted around the city—and never too far from a pack of bars, of which there’s no shortage. Sixth Street is your answer for a wild night with coeds and tequila shots, but for proper mixology head to East Sixth Street to The Volstead and East Side Show Room. The town’s top restaurants also boast serious mixology programs.
Beer brewing is also a big part of Austin's culinary scene, and a number of young guns are firing up beer aficionados, following in the footsteps of legendary local brewer Pierre Celis.
In San Antonio, any chef-driven restaurant is a risk. Thankfully, a handful of talented chefs are betting they can turn around the city’s dining scene. Chef Andrew Weissman bet big on his hometown, opening fine-dining Le Rêve in 2001. And though it’s shuttered, he gave a new generation of talent and diners an alternative to the chains and Tex-Mex that still dominate the food options here.
The San Antonio of today supports up-and-coming Restaurant Gwendolyn, an homage to Texas foodways. It embraces cheeky The Monterey, a restaurant devoted to the fine combination of cold beer, good times, and superior Southern cooking. And forgiving real estate prices and the slow trickling in of national trends has helped Rising Star Restaurateur Jason Dady launch new concepts (tasting menus, a wine bar, fresh pasta, and barbecue) and see his empire grow along with the city. Cocktails are nothing to scoff at in Alamo city. Recent host to the San Antonio Cocktail Conference and home to our 2012 Rising Star Mixologist Jeret Peña, it’s not hard to find good, boozy sips in San Antonio.
Our advice for tackling a Central Texas food trip? Come hungry. Explore both high- and low-brow eateries. And whatever you do, make the trip to San Antonio. It’s the new frontier of Texas dining.
Bacon is a chefs’ playground where pigs’ bodies are the wonderland. At this colorful, fast-casual joint off South Congress, Chef Tyler Johnson has the enviable job of making 350 pounds of bacon weekly (in any flavor his heart desires), plus any number of hams, bellies, and porky products. And that beloved bacon is woven throughout the menu. Excessive? Perhaps. But locals seem to agree that everything tastes better with cured hog belly. Bacon does gangbusters for brunch with bacon-studded, fried chicken-topped waffles, and steady business with the lunch crowd, serving heaping sandwiches, creative specials, and sides.Recommended:
Barley Swine’s dining rooming defies the mantra that “everything’s bigger in Texas.” There are just a handful of wooden high-tops and a few counter stools squeezed in front of this open kitchen—a perfect vantage point for diners to watch 2011 Austin Rising Star Chef Bryce Gilmore (and his t-shirt-clad crew) craft his Southern-inflected, farm-to-table cuisine. Caron got his start at Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, a food truck he opened in 2010. Barley Swine is its brick-and-mortar sibling, with more refined dishes and plating but the same strong sense of place. Barley Swine is a virtual trough of Texas ingredients with meat and veggies getting equal billing on the menu. Pastry Chef Kyle McKinney dips into the local pantry for his desserts, as well, to Christina-Tosi-esque desserts inspired by childhood favorites: candy bars and bowls of cereal.Recommended:
If the British haven’t discovered food trailers yet, they could find their model in Bits and Druthers. Housed in a wooden trailer painted with the Union Jack, the team at Bits and Druthers serves shatteringly crisp fish and chips with classic malt vinegar and optional (addictive) curry dipping sauce. You can also opt for a fried fish sandwich, occasional Beef Wellington, and ice cream. Located just off East Sixth Street, it’s the perfect trailer to hit before catching a film at adjacent Eastside Drive In or kicking off a night of drinking at nearby bars.Recommended:
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Set on the University of Texas campus in the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, Carillon could be any number of generic hotel restaurants. But, apparently, UT invests in more than football. Inside, Carillon oozes luxury. The heart and creative soul of 2012 Rising Star Hotel Chef Josh Watkin’s food and beverage program, this subdued fine-dining beauty is home to Watkin’s elegant, modern cuisine. Deconstructed plates, reengineered techniques, and globe-trotting combinations await diners in the form of three- and four-course tasting menus. And for a $20 steal, the uber-knowledgeable Sommelier Patrick Jones can pair top-notch wines with your meal.Recommended:
Congress is Austin’s fine dining jewel, from which 2012 Rising Star Chef David Bull crafts playful, cerebral cuisine. White leather, handcrafted tables, and modern metal chandeliers set the tone for Bull’s tasting-menu-only format. Dinner here is an experience: Bull’s dishes layer an idea, flavor, or ingredient on each plate, and diners can choose to savor the combinations, thinking through each bite, or devour them with sheer pleasure. And no evening at Congress is complete without wine pairings from Rising Star Sommelier June Rodil, who presents guests with little known gems, beers, and tableside charm.Recommended:
Contigo would be as at home on the range as it is nestled in the arms of urban Austin. The dream of boyhood campmates and now business partners Ben Egerton and 2012 Rising Star Chef Andrew Wiseheart, Contigo is an open-air, casual watering hole with a slow Southern vibe and an ample dose of hospitality. In true cowboy style, a fire pit outside recalls evenings on the range. But things really warm up in the kitchen and behind the bar: Wiseheart makes some of the best food in town, making playful bar chow and elegant composed plates—all with a strong sense of Texas identity. And Mixologist Houston Eaves is not only the maker of Austin’s official cocktail of 2012 (which says a lot for this hard partying town), his drinks menu has something for every drinking stripe—day drinkers, bitters-trending cocktailians, and after-dinner drinkers looking to wind down (or up) with one of Eaves’ many steamin’ Hot Toddies.Recommended:
The Driskill Grill is a stalwart of the Austin dining scene. Long before the latest guard of chefs moved to town, the Driskill Hotel’s signature restaurant served as the city’s fine-dining center. And in its latest incarnation, with Chef Jonathan Gelman at the helm, the Driskill Grill continues to be a standard bearer for creative, contemporary cuisine. Service here is unparalleled, a combination of French table service—with a cadre of waiters at your beck and call—and the fine art of Southern hospitality. Young gun Sommelier Scott Oda pairs wines with enthusiasm, taking guests for sensory tours of a glass’s region, varietals, and terroir.Recommended:
Mismatched seating, vintage lighting, and a submarine port over the bar are only part of the charm of East Side Show Room, a gypsy space and late-night haunt for Austinites in the know. Chef and Partner Sonya Coté crafts strictly farm-to-table fare with a daily changing menu. More than bar food, diners can feast on elegant seafood dishes, scrumptious charcuterie, and homey desserts that veer more savory than sweet—not to mention killer, crispy fries when potatoes are in season. And lead Mixologist Chauncey James churns out successful updates on classic cocktails (we were stirred by his martini) that you can sip while listening to live music. East Side is a fluid space—“there’s no structure,” says Coté—where you might go for a drink but end up feasting and dancing the night away.Recommended:
You would be so lucky if Fabi and Rosi were your neighborhood restaurant. Tucked away on a side street off Lake Austin Boulevard, this elegant converted home—with chandeliers and white tufted banquets—is the love and work of Chef Wolfgang Murber and front-of-house front woman Cassie Murber. The two met abroad while working on a private yacht, and Austin native Cassie imported Wolfgang to her hometown. Murber has in turn brought his Southwest German training and culinary heritage to Austin. And while he’s gained a name for himself with schnitzel and spaetzle, Murber’s at his best blending Texas product and identity into his refined European menu. Fabi and Rosi is that special kind of place where refined food, quiet ambiance, and “mom and pop” hands-on service create the perfect place for first dates, large parties, romantic nights out, and relaxing weeknight meals.Recommended:
Beyond the perimeter of hip Austin sits Fino, a Mediterranean gem housed in a two-story office complex. The setting may be suburban but the Chef Jason Donoho’s Spanish-influenced cuisine is anything but. Just follow the colorful “FINO” sign and ascend the stairs to enjoy paellas with just the right ratio of soccarat for scraping and updated (addictive) almond gazpacho with cold-smoked grapes. Sommelier and bar man Josh Loving approaches pairings from new and old guard perspectives—he sticks with classic wine pairings but doesn’t shy away from mixing cocktails for pairings when the opportunity arises. Diners can sit on the open-air patio in good weather or settle into the modern, silver-streaked interior when Austin hits it high-heat peaks.Recommended:
The décor at Foreign & Domestic is the opposite of luxe. In this cinderblock house of modern comfort food, the chairs are Ikea, and plates Crate and Barrel, and storage racks line the walls. The lucky few diners who get to eat at the restaurant’s long counter or one of a dozen two-tops get a full monty view of the kitchen crew prepping, cooking, and making the magic of F&D happen. 2011 Austin Rising Star Chef Ned Elliott wants to reinvent comfort food, and his inquisitive, technique-driven explorations into familiar flavors do just that. Perhaps his greatest skill is packing every imaginable ounce of depth and umami possible into dishes—a skill that explains, and validates, the restaurant’s healthy portion sizes. (You just don’t want to stop eating.) Partner and Pastry Chef Jodi Elliott’s desserts exemplify comfort—with a wink. She tops her ice cream with French fries (like a gussied up Wendy’s Frostie with fries) and takes her seasonal fruit pies to the next level with a quick dip in the deep fryer.Recommended:
Get to Franklin Barbecue early or plan on leaving empty handed. 2011 Austin Rising Star Chef Aaron Franklin’s sublime Texas-style barbecue—it’s all about the beef and dry rub here—usually sells out by 2pm each day. Around 11am, lines start forming at the modest cinderblock building, and for those lucky enough to get a taste, Franklin offers bucket-list-worthy brisket, house-made sausage, pork butt, and ribs. The sides are Southern standards: slaw, beans, potato salad, and squishy white bread (for build-your-own sandwiches).Recommended:
What’s not to love about a hefty, fried mass of dough slathered with all manner of (presumably) stoner-inspired sweet and savory toppings? Fried chicken strips, bacon, maple, chocolate fudge, cream cheese icing, and grilled bananas all make an appearance on this doughnut truck’s menu thanks to owners Paul Samford and Ryan Palmer. Gourdough’s (a play on the Spanish word for fat) doesn’t care about your waistline so much as it begs you to have fun with your food. So grab a seat at a nearby picnic table, grab plenty of napkins and some plastic cutlery, and embrace the joys of glorious junk food.Recommended:
Industry veteran Jack Gilmore ran corporate kitchens for Z’Tejas Grill for two decades before opening the first home for his brand of Texas cooking. At convivial, casual Jack Allen’s Kitchen in South Austin’s Oakhill neighborhood, Gilmore serves a confident mishmash of Southern, Southwestern, and barbecue favorites—it’s a restaurant with a true Austin identity. Pastry Chef Diana Sanchez crafts the sweets for Jack Allen’s, making comfort favorites big enough to share (or hoard) and updating classics with a little Texas spice. The restaurant has an expansive patio, a bar perfect for watching Texas church services (that’s football, for you non-believers), and a wide-open dining room that’s great for families and large groups.Recommended:
After a split from his Taylor Texas clan, Pit Master John Mueller opened his first solo barbecue pit, JMueller, in late October 2011. And from his South Austin trailer and adjoining smoker, he smokes 600 pounds of meat per day, namely Texas-style beef brisket with melting marbles of fat and toothsome pork ribs with just the right amount of chew and texture. His is classic Texas barbecue with an exclusively salt and peppery rub and post oak flavor, stoking the smoker’s gentle heat. Barbecue sauce is an extra to the meat’s starring role—it’s made of ketchup, water, butter, salt, and pepper. You can count on Southern sides like coleslaw, potato salad, beans, and cheesy baked squash to round out your meal.Recommended:
Justine’s is an improbably sexy little bistro and bar. It’s a little rough and tumble, like your favorite restaurant in a seedy Paris neighborhood, with deep red walls lined with vintage photos, art, and mirrors. Chef Casey Wilcox’s menu is rooted in classic French fare, but he’s playful and talented enough to bring his menu into a wholly modern context. Coquilles St. Jacques takes a dip in Basque waters and salads become an artful tangle of textures and flavors. In warm weather, guests can sit in Justine’s front courtyard, where they might enjoy a precise pâté, a glass of wine, and Austin’s best taste of France.Recommended:
La Condesa reinvented Mexican for Austinites. Missing are the sombreros hanging from the walls and cheesy enchiladas steaming on the table. In their place, bright modern murals shout from concrete walls, and 2011 Rising Star Chef Rene Ortiz’s equally modern cuisine sings with nuanced flavors and ingredients from the Mexico’s rich culinary diversity. Pastry Chef Laura Sawicki follows suit with sweet, composed meditations on ingredients like beets and hoja santa. Even her flourless chocolate cake—normally a throwaway to chocolate lovers—has deep, dark chocolate flavor, oomph from banana, and a kick of chile spice. La Condesa and her chef duo catapult Mexican food to the realms of refined Japanese and French cuisine—without losing sight of its South of the Border heritage. Equally satisfying are elegant dishes and down home updates like street corn, margaritas, and tacos.Recommended:
Chef John Besh’s first venture outside of the New Orleans market, Lüke San Antonio is a Texified twist—think leather, longhorns, and lone stars—on his French bistro concept. Chef Steve McHugh holds the reins here, upholding Besh standards, like house-made sausage, and forging his own way with dishes like deep-fried quail. A long oyster bar is the downstairs centerpiece, bringing fresh gulf brine to landlocked San Antonians. The airy, windowed space overlooks the River Walk, and there’s outdoor dining where you can bask in the sun and enjoy the promise of a good meal.Recommended:
It’s a taco. It’s a wrap. It’s Mighty Cone. One of Austin’s first hot food trucks, South Congress mainstay Mighty Cone serves crispy fried bites inside paper cones. The cone is really a delivery vessel—born to feed hungry hoards at the Austin City Limits Music Festival—for a Southern-style taco built with flour tortillas, fried meat (shrimp, chicken, and hot dogs) or avocado, slaw, and dressing.Recommended:
Pull up a seat, ya’ll. This Texas restaurant blends Southern hospitality with a modern, sustainable edge. There’s a garden out back, and Chef James Holmes welcomes diners through what looks like the back door—everybody’s family here. And Holmes’s wink-at-your-Southern-grandma dishes (“lamb fries” are deep-fried testicles and sweetbreads a play on sweet-and-sour chicken) are served in a sleek, Marfa-inspired space. Pastry Chef Taff Mayberry plays with nostalgia without going full-blown comfort, and in a nod to Austin’s party scene, often douses his desserts with a healthy splash of booze.Recommended:
Chef Andrew Weissman planted early seeds of culinary change in San Antonio (and Texas) when he opened the now-shuttered Le Rêve over a decade ago. And in his latest ventures, Sandbar and Il Sogno, Weissman ventures to new types of cuisine while upholding the standards San Antonio expects of its star chefs. At Il Sogno, small touches make all the difference in thoughtful Italian cuisine. Waiters deliver trays of cucumber, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes—a buffet to flavor your water. Gnocchi are feather-like pillows and lardo melts over oven-fired foccacia. And Italian grape lovers rejoice: Sommelier Gabrielle Howe effortlessly pairs Il Sogno’s all-Italian wine list with Weissman’s classic Italian dishes.Recommended:
Paggi House is a place to experience the history of Austin. The second oldest building in the Austin, Paggi House originally served as an antebellum inn, and since the 1970s, it’s housed a restaurant with sweeping views of downtown and the Colorado River. In its latest incarnation, regulars flock here for Chef Ben Huselton’s updated American cuisine and wine pairings from Sommelier Chris McFall (who runs one of the better cellars in the city). Attentive service, a bar for the strictly liquid crowd, and an expansive stone terrace complete the Paggi House package.Recommended:
Parkside has energy. A few volts come from the eclectic, loft-like space, decked with a raw bar for eating seafood and pristine oysters. And a lightning bolt’s worth comes from Chef Shawn Cirkiel’s seasonal, ingredient-driven food. There’s a Californian freshness to his plates, with only-in-Austin twists that reflect local product and flare. Pastry Chef Steven Cak’s sweets veer from comfort-food favorites (doughnuts) to intense meditations on single ingredients (Strawberries Six Ways).Recommended:
Located in the former Le Rêve space in downtown San Antonio, Restaurant Gwendolyn has nondescript Victorian décor with soft yellow walls, imperfect mirrors, and antique sideboards. Its mission is anything but demure, however. 2012 Rising Star Sustainability Chef Michael Sohocki’s ode to his grandmother, Restaurant Gwendolyn, exists to support San Antonio’s farming community. Period. It may not be a radical concept on the surface, but Sohocki digs deeper for inspiration than farmers’ market bounty. He looks to the very roots—Pre-Industrial Revolution roots, that is—of San Antonio food culture. Sohocki eschews modern cooking technology and ingredients, favoring mortar and pestle over a food processor and salt and pepper over complicated spice combinations. His cuisine gives diners a look backward and forward at agriculture’s limitations and, most importantly, the value of good, honest food.Recommended:
“Buckle up girl,” says the sign on the front of The Monterey. Team Monty wants you to sit back, crack open a cold can of beer, and chow down on good, solid food. The Southern gastropub fare comes courtesy of 2012 Rising Star Chef Quealy Watson, who has a way with big, bold flavors (must be the Texas in him) and a certain South of the Mason Dixon Line favorite: fried chicken. Pretensions don’t exist here, in the food or décor. Bobble heads, dolls, and clown figurines rest on shelving above the bar; look-a-like mustachioed and Frida Kahlo grandmas designate the restrooms. Outdoor seats outnumber indoor spots, so on a warm night, you not only can get a plate full of goodness and a brewskie, but also a big, fat slice of the Texas sky.Recommended:
As the name implies, The Noble Pig is a celebration of everything porcine. It’s also a devotion to the craft of good, honest food. Owned and manned by 2011 Austin Rising Star Artisans John Bates and Brandon Martinez, The Noble Pig is a petite charcuterie, bread, and sandwich shop on the far edges of North Austin. Serving a growing neighborhood (and downtowners smart enough make the drive), the shop boasts impeccable sausages, terrines, and pâtés, along with creative, addictive sandwiches made on fresh-baked bread—none of which will set you back more than $10.Recommended:
At one of the classier trailer parks in Austin, Torchy’s Tacos, along with Holy Cacao and Man Bites Dog, shares a funky tin building with fans and a stage for live music. Politically-themed tacos (a nod to the Texas state capitol) share a menu with kitschy Southern items that put Sunday picnic flavors into a handy tortilla wrapper. The salsas are more than concession to the condiment-crazed; this truck makes a mean tomatillo salsa and chipotle sauce. The trailer park is one of eight Torchy’s in the city, so no matter what neighborhood you’re in, you can easily satisfy a taco craving.Recommended:
Fresh pasta was scarce in San Antonio when 2012 Rising Star Restaurateur Jason Dady opened Tre Trattoria several years ago. Now Dady and his team make more than 300 pounds of it each week to sell at Tre’s two locations, downtown and Alamo Heights. (We visited the expansive downtown location and its big al fresco-dining deck.) Much of Dady’s menu is designed for family style eating, making it an ideal spot for groups and friends who know how to share (otherwise, last bite battles might ensue). Dady’s food is confident and adopts the Italian mantra that less is more when good ingredients are involved. And if fresh, hearty, and unfussy Italian is what you crave, Tre has the goods to satisfy.Recommended:
2011 Rising Star Restaurateur Chef Tyson Cole has crafted his signature style of globe-trotting-with-a-Texas-twist sushi at Uchi since 2003. Fish is the star here, and Cole deftly smokes, cooks, and serves it raw to anchor plates with wild textures, flavors, and ingredient combinations. Peaches snuggle up to raw sea bass and salmon, and smoked yellowtail perches atop sturdy fried yucca chips (possibly Austin’s best nacho). And whether you sample from the sushi or kitchen menus, dessert is an absolute must at Uchi. 2011 Rising Star Pastry Chef and ICC Presenter Philip Speer takes regional and comfort favorites, boils them down to their purest forms, and transforms them (with the help of gastro-toys and serious creativity) into elegant, bursting-with-flavor desserts that have character, nostalgia, and innovation to spare.Recommended:
Uchi sister restaurant and spinoff, Uchiko, is no stepchild sequel. It’s a larger space than Tyson Cole’s original sushi temple and has the same Texas-modern-meets-Asian interior. And the food, though less sushi-focused, bares a similar stamp of innovation and regional character. This is how Austin does Asian. 2011 Austin Rising Star Chef Paul Qui (of recent “Top Chef” fame) is cooking contemporary Japanese-American cuisine that (dish after dish) manages to hit every flavor note—salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Each bite brings a new combination of flavors and textures, pulling you through the meal in search of the next sensation. Fellow Rising Star Pastry Chef Philip Speer mans the sweets program at both Uchi and Uchiko, so you can expect the same sense of play and craftsmanship in his menu here.Recommended:
Wink did farm-to-table in Austin before heritage breeds and vegetable provenance were cool. And what Chefs Mark Paul and Stewart Scruggs have created is an intimate, relaxed, no-pretense haven for enjoying (relishing) food and drink. The tiny restaurant space and its adjacent wine bar share daily changing and multiple-course menus, giving guests the opportunity to choose their experience—have a quick drink and bite, sit down for a lavish meal, or enjoy a tasting experience solo while nerding out over wine with one of four staff somms. The only aspect of the meal that’s not up for debate is adhering to the restaurant’s local credo: 80 percent of Wink’s product is sourced in Central Texas. And in Paul’s hands, that Texas product gives Wink’s food a sturdy, delicious American backbone.Recommended:
Wurst Tex draws on the Central Texas’s Czech and German cooking traditions to feed Austin’s trailer-visiting masses snappy, flavor-packed, and often exotic sausages. Visitors to Wurst Tex can choose from classic bratwurst, tubes of vegetarian “sausage,” juicy hotdogs, and links made with the likes of venison, rattlesnake, and duck. We love the Pepperwurst with a tingling black pepper heat—it’s a perfect pair with the heaping helping of sweet grilled onions and peppers that top each wurst.Recommended:
This microbrewery has a rounded arsenal of beers, drawing from the usual suspects (IPA, porter, and a Belgian wheat). Brewer Kevin Brand was bitten by the brew bug while a student at the University of Texas, earning a medical engineering degree. Now he has his finger on the pulse of Austin taste-makers, having to more than doubled his brewing capacity to keep up with demand. To mix things up, Brand often uses casks from a local Jack Daniels’ distillery to age his brews. Distribution is still local—you can sample Brand's beers at local watering holes and farm-to-table events and purchase pre-filled growlers at Austin retailers.(512)also offers several tastings and tours on Saturdays.Recommended:
Brewer Will Golden and his partners Adam DeBower, Michael Graham, and Mike McGovern consider themselves "local brewers, hell bent on excellence." They offer four canned year-round options here, as well as a few seasonal beers on draft, which are also sold through local retailers. Golden and his crew regularly track sales at such establishments and can tell you which brews are popular with the gals and which with the guys. The brewery is planning on holding tours soon, but they are not during set hours, preferring to keep a lower profile than most.Recommended:
Brewer Jeff Young began his career as a chemist before hanging up his lab coat for a brewer's smock. After falling in love with Austin, he wanted to start a business and was convinced that a brewpub was the way to go. One of the first of its kind, the co-operative now offers its brews to member-owners who pay the one-time $150 fee (members also get a single vote in membership decisions). Beers are sold on premises, and are broken down into “rational” (simple combinations, such as molasses with porter), “irrational” (a little more work, such as wild fermentation and fruity combinations) and “infinite” (currently a single beer, which is barrel-aged). The food at Black Star is mostly bar grub and snacks with a few twists, including toffee-covered, sweet-and-spicy beer nuts and beer-battered Portobello and chips.Recommended:
Bohanan’s in downtown San Antonio is the center of the classic cocktail renaissance. Perhaps better known for their steaks, the Bohanan’s team recently brought in Sasha Petraske to revitalize its bar program (Petraske went so far as to help jump-start the local cocktail appreciation with a Cocktail Conference). And his work, along with head Mixologist Chris Ware, has brought the cocktail back to its rightful place in the dining experience. Before guests hit their tables, they stop at the bar for an Old Fashioned to get their appetites rumbling (necessary preparation for big Texas steaks and traditional sides), and they might stop back by for a digestif to help seal and settle the meal. Expect old-fashioned service, historically accurate drinks (they’re still around for a reason), and a great meal.Recommended:
Esquire Tavern has a storied San Antonio history. The watering hole opened the day Prohibition was repealed, and had you visited in 1980s, you likely would have met drug dealers, prostitutes, and knife-toting locals—not to mention politicians and businessmen. Circa 2012, the bar still draws a diverse cliental, but the main attraction is the cocktail program from Mixologist Jeret Peña, who left a gig as a tequila ambassador to help re-open this space. Peña and his crew operate behind the longest wooden bar in Texas (a full 100 feet), executing modern, delicious drinks, frequently laced with mezcal. Esquire Tavern is a downtown sight unto itself, with reproduction wallpaper to match the original coverings, tin ceilings, and a wrought iron-wrapped porch with a river view. For the cocktail-obsessed, and really anyone in favor of a top-of-the line drink, it’s a must stop in San Antonio.Recommended:
Having crafted more than 240 individual brews since opening, Freetail is constantly experimenting with new combinations and malts. As owner Scott Metzger says, the menu has great beer and good food, most of it focused on specialty pizzas, build-your-own sandwiches, and artisan salads. Nearly a dozen beers are offered on tap at any one time, but on occasion Freetail offers guest beers from neighboring microbreweries. The brewpub also offers free WiFi for customers. Metzger's foray into brewing began after studying economics at Fordham University in New York, but his desire to be a community focal point is what drives him now. The barrel-aged and fruity flavors of Metzger's signature brews are what likely drives his customers to line up at the brewpub each day at 8am.Recommended:
Highball is high times with vintage bowling lanes, themed karaoke rooms, some of the best fried chicken in Austin, and cocktails from the father of Austin mixology, Bill Norris. In late 2011, Norris—who has made over drink menus all over town, most recently at Haddington’s—revamped the drinks menu here and at adjacent Alamo Drafthouse, a cinema that serves cocktails and dinner with movies. Pull up a set at the expansive bar or partake in the mixed adult fun of drinking and bowling—either way it’s impossible not to have a good time at Highball.Recommended:
Self-styled "artisan of ales" Ron Extract and Brewer Jeff Stuffings follow the brewers' creed of instilling a sense of "terroir" in their brews at Jester King. Located on an authentic farmhouse, Jester brews with local ingredients and harvested rainwater. Although it’s impossible to buy beer directly from the brewery (as per Texas state law), and they forbid you from bringing your own glass for tastings, you can fill up your complementary mug with six year-round brews. Jester also produces bottled beer, which is sold at local retailers (the draught beers are usually sampled during tastings only). Tastings are held most Saturdays from 1pm to 4pm, with three brewery tours a day.Recommended:
For more than a decade, Jo’s Coffee on South Congress has served a cross-section of Austin’s keeping-it-weird population, all of whom sit in the mornings, watching each other drinking coffee (from the city’s Owl Tree Roasting) and downing breakfast tacos. Simple sandwiches sustain the lunch crowd, and baked goods from local Baker Barrie Cullinan feed the carb- and sugar-starved. The best-selling drink—the Iced Turbo—is a socially acceptable, Southern-inflected form of breakfast crack with a shot of espresso, full-strength coffee, sugar, chocolate, and hazelnut syrup.Recommended:
Second Bar + Kitchen is Congress’s casual sibling, drawing in lunch crowds and diners looking for comfort favorites. Burgers, chicken and dumplings, queso fundito, and meatballs all make menu appearances, executed with care by 2012 Rising Star Chef David Bull and his team. Mixologist Billy Hankey runs the bar program at Second Bar, leaning on the seasons and music (he was a long-time sound technician for major label bands) for cocktail inspiration. And whether you want a light prelude to a meal or a hefty drink to help get the weekend started, Hankey has your recipe.Recommended:
With two locations—one near Austin’s restaurant row district and the other near Lake Travis—Uncle Billy’s advertises a straightforward menu: beers and BBQ. It offers daily specials (cask night samplers), gives monthly brew tours, and sells pony kegs and growlers. Brewer Brian Peters, helped found Live Oak and start Austin's craft brewing movement in the 90s. Now at Uncle Billy's, Peters experiments with yeast strains to make some of the city's best brews. Pull up a chair, order some 'cue, and learn about this city's beer history and future (glass by glass) at Uncle Billy’s.Recommended:
The Volstead is a no-nonsense bar (minus the stuffed tapir on the wall) that serves beer, shooters, and pristine cocktails with equal fervor. It’s a bartenders’ bar, where you can get just what you want, when you want it, without any judgment from the staff. Mixologist Justin Elliott—a recent New York transplant—is the man behind the amari-heavy drinks menu, and he’s on a mission to find the perfect spirit upon which to build each drink. We think he’s succeeded. In his hands, you’re sure to sip on a spirits-forward, balanced, and just bitter cocktail, that is, unless you want a Bud in a bottle and a shot of Jameson.Recommended:
The Driskill is the grand dame of Austin Hotels, and, recently celebrating its 125th anniversary, she’s still the pulsing heartbeat of the city. On any given night, the upstairs bar and lounge area is packed with families, businessmen, and revelers, all listening to live music and taking in a swig of the city. And a great number of the city’s events begin up its sweeping staircase in a fit-for-a-belle ballroom. The service at the Driskill is impeccable; every member of the staff takes a great pride in passing on a piece of Texas hospitality. Whether you’re dining at the four-star Driskill Grill or requesting a new toothbrush, you are the Driskill’s top priority. Its 189 guest rooms—decorated with Hill Country charm—are split between the original 1886 structure and a newer tower constructed in 1929. If you’re looking for history, great food, or just a good time, the Driskill is waiting.
Hilton Austin offers the conveniences of a large conference hotel with the ultimate downtown location—it’s steps from Sixth Street party central and the Austin convention center. Its Tower Health Club and Spa boasts a pool, state-of-the art fitness equipment, and a tranquil spa for pampering. And guests can stop by fine-dining Finn & Porter at happy hour for specials on Chef Triet Huynh’s sushi or stay for a memorable dinner of creative steaks and seafood from Chef Ryan Gosset. Comfortable, business-ready rooms complete the stay.
Hotel Contessa, located on the winding San Antonio Riverwalk, is the only all-suites property in San Antonio, and its 265 rooms are larger (much larger) than the average New York City apartment. Guests can unwind in their spacious environs or hit the sites in next-door downtown San Antonio. For homebodies and the workout obsessed, a heated outdoor pool, fitness center, and the Woodhouse Spa on the hotel’s top level offer guests relaxation, fitness, and a stunning view of the San Antonio skyline. The Spanish-styled architecture of the building (renovated last year) spills over into its dining options, namely La Ramblas, where Chef Brother Luck serves dishes like Eggs en Cazuela for breakfast and paella and tapas for lunch and dinner.
Step out of the boho-chic shops of South Congress and into the urban oasis that it Hotel San Jose. Built in 1939 as a motor court, the refurbished bungalow-style rooms circle a postage stamp pool and courtyard, where you can drink sangria and nibble on appetizers before hitting the town. The décor is rustic Texas modern with low-lying platform beds, Eames chairs, concrete floors, cowhide rugs, and vintage rock posters. Plus, each room has a front porch and chairs; it’s a mini Southern home away from home, only with a better decorator. Low-key luxury is the key here: mini-fridges are packed with Texas Amber Bock and other local brews, along with sparkling Topochiko, and the bathroom is stocked with herbal Malin and Goetz soaps and shampoos. For breakfast, and a taste of the Austin community, just cross the parking lot for a coffee, an egg and bean taco, and an hour or so of people watching at Jo’s.
Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin (named for the state’s founder) is a stone’s throw from the Texas State Capitol Building, and the city’s power brokers regularly meet on its upstairs terrace for drinks, bargaining, and a taste of Chef Patrick Newman’s upscale Texas-style bar food (think ancho shrimp and five-spice quail) at Stephen F’s. Travelers in the know enjoy the perks of staying at an international chain (reward points, ahem) with an ample dose of local charm—the hotel was originally constructed in 1924 and has historic landmark status. Intercontinental club members can enjoy complimentary Champagne at teatime, cocktails at happy hour, and a breakfast buffet for the morning after. And all guests can take advantage of the whirlpool, heated lap pool, and extensive fitness equipment.
With views of San Antonio’s eponymous canal, the Westin Riverwalk Hotel is a luxury hotel that eschews corporate stringency for a bit of Spanish colonial warmth in its spacious lobby. Rooms lose some of that ambience but are as well-equipped as you might expect for a Westin, and larger than many of its other sister hotels. Notable amenities include outdoor heated pool, spa and a Spanish version of high tea offered daily. Also a plus: restaurant Zocca offers rustic Mediterranean fare by night and a worthwhile Tex-Mex breakfast during the early hours, both of which can be eaten in a spacious alcove next to the river.