The Top 20 has long been one of our reader favorites on Dining Out with Rob Balon. We’ve made changes from time to time, but there are so many great restaurants out there that the Top 20 no longer seems adequate. So, welcome to the Top 25!
Many, many changes.
First, let’s review our criteria for inclusion: consistency and excellence of dishes from the kitchen, innovation, overall dining experience, and value offered to the customer.
These are my opinions and mine alone..I have dined at each restaurant on this list on multiple occasions.
Rob Balon, PhD
New to the list:
This Rainey St emporium is as classy a spot as we have in Austin. Exec Kevin Fink and Sous Page Pressley have a gem on their hands. The Cacci e Pepe (literally cheese and pepper) was singled out by Bloomberg News as one of the best dishes of 2016. Far from me to argue. I’ve tried it and it’s spectacular. The Lamb with Tabouli and Miso is equally amazing.
Todd Duplechan learned from the master, Elmar Prambs, on how one composes a fine restaurant. And Lenoir on S. 1st is just that. This little 32-seat homage to passion and originality is an amazing place to visit. Each dish on the [$45] prix fixe menu is imbued with Duplechan’s deft touch and his French-influenced farm to market philosophies.You can choose from a variety of flights with three options in each.Some choose all three dishes from one flight. The Green Curry Gumbo lingers in my mind as does the Roasted Quail.
When I first heard the term “modern Southern cuisine” I wasn’t sure what to expect. But Olamaie has exploded onto the Austin dining scene with a brilliant burst of both old and new dishes. A taste of the Country Sausage Gravy or Ella Ramsey’s Smothered Cornbread to Kil’t White Button Mushrooms will truly make you a believer. Marvelous dining experience and seamless service. Kudos to Chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas.
Accolades keep piling up for this place [national as well as local] and for good reason. Their Charcuterie is absolutely spot on: a brilliantly conceived and executed amalgam of smoked and cured meats and cheeses. The steaks are beyond delicious and the Pork Chop rivals Perry’s 32 oz. monster not in size but in lip-smacking flavor. You could easily drive by the modest facade on Manor Road: DON’T!!!!
I have enjoyed watching the evolution of Amir Hamijaleki’s work in this restaurant. Adjacent to Circle C at Slaughter and Escarpment, The District spans the gamut from Middle Eastern to New American. And every dish is a consumate performance in execution, plating, and taste.Want proof? Be it the Lamb Kabobs, The Bronzini, or the stunning Prosciutto Flatbread this place just rocks. Welcome to the show Amir!
Amir and borther Ali have also opened the Oasthouse Gastropub on 620 across from Concordia U.
How many times has a restaurant from Dripping Springs ever made it on to anyone’s Austin-area Top 25 list, let alone mine? The answer is zero, nada, zilch, nyet, Until now!
This a great restaurant in every sense of the word. Carl Shroyer came down from Washington state to open this place and Chefs Chae Donahoe and Rob Walzyck work wonders in the kitchen. The soups are always astonishing. The appetizers include some of the best crab cakes and fried oysters anywhere. Newest appetizer special is a stunning soft shell crab.The entrees range from the searing Trautwein Shrimp to the must-have Pedernales Pork Chop, And oh yes, they have THE best Carrot Cake in Austin. It’s located at the corner of 290W and Highway 12 near what is euphemistically called downtown Dripping Springs.
Chef Rene Ortiz should have been a high stakes poker player. His instincts are spot on and he has the discipline of the players you usually find at the final table. With co-collaborator Laura Sawicki he patiently has moved past La Condesa and Sway with a restaurant carved from a former laundry on Holly St.
The mood is a cross between Mediterranean and New American and the food is impeccable. Riveting flavors, the kind for which Ortiz is known, are the reasons that Launderette is a James Beard finalist.
Open about five months now, Juniper has quickly overcome some initial missteps to take its place among the best Italian restaurants in the city. This is another east side restaurant at 2400 E. Cesar Chavez.
Former Uchi chef Nicholas Wanes is at the helm and he did his homework, touring northern Italy’s Piedmont region [home of the great Brunellos].
The menu is engaging and I’ve tried some lovely dishes there, including the Chicken Liver with candied grapefruit, the Papperdelle with oxtail ragu, and The Spring Pasta with duck egg and whipped pecan chevre. This is the kind of restaurant Austin deserves and the reason for our expanded Top 25.
One doesn’t normally see a restaurant of this caliber in the Spicewood area off Highway 71. Most of the fare out here is lip smackin’ comfort food. But last year Apris Restaurant and Aviary opened its doors and I was smitten. The place, nestled on a hillside past Poodie’s does indeed produce its own honey.And the menu choices from the Pre Fixe to the Signature Tasting Menu offer a dizzying array of flavors. The Egg Toast and the Smoked Fish Dip are to die for. The Charred Spanish Octopus must be tried. And on the Signature menu, the Corpus Christi Sea Trout cured in seaweed [to die for] and the 120- day-aged Wagyu plate will amaze.
While it may be the name of Larry McMurtry’s timeless western novel, Tim Love’s new restaurant at the site of the former Kenichi at 5th and Colorado is certainly timely. Who doesn’t want a little cowboy chow now and then?
Used to be that Hudson’s On the Bend boasted the only Rattlesnake dish in town. No longer. Love offers a Rabbit-Rattlesnake sausage with Manchego Rosti and Creme Fraiche. This is seriously tasty. Also quite good is the Wild Boar Ribs with their proprietary BBQ sauce and pickled chilies.
And how about the Porcini-Crusted Spatchcocked Game Hen with a savory oatmeal and sweet pepper marmalade. And the Whole Roasted Berkshire Pig takes it over the top. Must try restaurant.
It took C.K. Chin and Stuart Thomajan forever to open this 5th St Chinese and Dim Sum emporium. But it was worth the wait. My first taste: that of the delightful Scallion Pancakes remains as does that of the Twice Cooked Pork Belly.
I love the Salt and Pepper Squid and the Crispy Whole Flounder. And of course the Dim Sum. The Tenderbelly Pork and Shrimp Shumai is amazing and the Shanghai Pork Soup Dumplings have astonishing mouth feel. I’m happy for these inveterate Troubadours of the kitchen and you’ll be as well when you try Wu Chow.
Shawn Cirkiel is extremely talented and he’s come a long way from the days of Jean Luc’s on Colorado [now Perry’s]. He opens restaurants at a fast pace: in the past 6-7 years we’ve come to enjoy Parkside, Olive and June, and Backspace. Cirkiel has also had a life-long passion for Spanish cuisine and has cooked at Spain’s first five-star restaurant, All that has led to Bullfight at 4803 Airport.
Bullfight features delightful cuisine and offers tapas-sized small plates like a Tortilla with caramelized onion and potato, Bacon-wrapped dates with Valedon cheese. The Fried Potatoes with Bravas sauce are also exceptionally tasty. He also has given Austin foodies a great gift: a Seafood Paella with clams, chorizo, shrimp and saffron.
I had my first taste of Paella in Barcelona many years ago and Bullfight’s version in quite similar. Well done Shawn!
Austin has seen several unsuccessful attempts to launch a genuine Izakaya. But Kazu Fukumoto, late of Musashino, has done it. The Japanese street food is irresistible and the atmosphere, replete with late night revelry, is a spot replication of this craze that began in Tokyo some years ago. I came to know Kazu while he was at Musahino and he is talented, and an overall class act., That reflects on this few new restaurant that has must visit status in our family.
Restaurants That Continue from our last Top 20
Paul Qui is an extremely talented and imaginative chef. The fact that he won Top Chef on Bravo several years ago simply amplified what a lot of Austin foodies already knew: this guy’s got game.
From earlier ventures at East Side Kings and Uchiko, Qui was ready to bring that game to the next level. And his namesake restaurant at 1600 E. 6th is a winner in every sense.
The Qui menu changes daily and the place just oozes a subtle type of charm. Just pick a day and you might choose a pre fixe dinner highlighted by a smoked Wagyu short rib with an ingenious combination of tamarind, tomato fresco and nasturtium [which strikes a balance with its peppery favor] or a an amazing Fried Chicken with green curry, egg yolk custard, bronze fennel, and a sal de gusano [with sea salt and toasted and ground agave worms. And so much more!!!
Most Austin foodies are aware of the story of how Barley Swine, helmed by Bryce Gillmore [Jack’s son], morphed from the Odd Duck trailer to a constantly packed little bistro on S. Lamar and now to a much larger location on 6555 Burnet. Bryce has definitely got the Gillmore family cooking genes and I believe he almost single-handedly revived Brussels Sprouts and Cauliflower as must-have items on Austin menus. Anyone who can do that can fill a restaurant of virtually any size with dishes like Shitake Pasta. scrambled eggs and grilled broccoli, Pig Skin noodles along with hot sauce and shrimp dumplings. Or how about Poached Red Snapper, koji butter and of course, Brussels Sprouts.
Aside from the great French food, what I love most about Justine’s Brasserie way, way out on E. 5th is their terrific attitude. It starts with their web site which features 8mm film of Justine and her grad school friends frolicking in a bathtub many years ago. The site also lists every negative review from Yelp, something one almost never sees, but in a way refreshing and delightfully sardonic.
That being said, if you’re craving the kind of country-style fare one might find in a little place outside of a Parisian railroad station, then this is for you.
The Steak Frittes are a delight:and the classic Coquille St. Jaques done in the Basque style, are another favorite of ours. We also love the Mussels Mariniere with more killer pommes frites.
The owners are alumni of Chez Nous and they have done quite well. The place is open very late and indeed we’ve had some of our more memorable meals in the wee hours.
This has long been our favorite hotel restaurant in Austin. Trio sits on the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. German-born Exec Chef Elmar Prambs intially opened it as the Cafe at the Four Seasons in 1986 and has been at the helm ever since.
The transition occurred to Trio occurred about 2008. I wasn’t initially wild about the decor [think early Vegas lounge] but the stellar food eradicated any doubts I might have had. Trio has long been known for its incomparable Sunday brunches and has been on top for so long that Prambs has assembled an impressive roster of alumni who have opened their own places: Todd Duplechan of Lenoir is just one example. A little-known fact about Prambs is that he occasionally invites food critics into his kitchen to get their feedback on new dishes.And he listens! No pretense about this guy at all: just a great attitude and greater talent.
This is a charming story. When a brash and talented young Chinese chef named Ronald Cheng opened Chinatown on Bee Caves Road in 1983, it took the town by storm. Cheng substantially raised the bar by introducing many different regional cuisines aside from the Mandarin most Texans were used to. Eventually Cheng and his wife divorced and the place was sold. But not before a great run.
Ronald went on to start another Chinatown on Greystone and also on 5th downtown. Both did very well.
Thirty years passed and after a serious illness and some time for reflection, Cheng decided he wanted to reopen the original Chinatown at the same Bee caves location.
He pulled it off and the results have been spectacular. Dim sum on the weekends and many dumplings and shumai are available during the week as well. The food, as always is innovative and amazing. Ditto for the uber-fresh sushi bar. The decor is simply astonishing with incredible works of art adorning the walls. There is simply no way that this restaurant could not be in our Top 25!
With a doff of the cap to his mentor Smokey Fuse at Mushashino, Tyson Cole opened Austin’s first truly upscale Sushi restaurant on S. Lamar. The menu was eclectic and offered up combinations that sushi fans had undoubtedly previously not considered.
Things like the Flounder with candied Quinoa or Maguro Sashimi with Goat Cheese and pumpkinseed oil. Disparate ingredients to be sure but they ushered in an entirely new way of looking at Japanese sushi and sashimi. The flavors caught on and the rest is history, Uchi lead to Uchiko and soon Cole was invited to compete on the Iron Chef. He lost to Morimoto but think the fix was in.
Pricy? Yes it is but, fish is flown in daily from the world famous from Tuskiji
market in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward [in November of 2016 the market will move to Tokyo’s Koto Ward]. In my opinion, worth it.
I have long been a fan of Chef Ben Nathan and his tenure at Cafe Blue in the Galleria has been marked by the celebration of his signature dishes: from the mouth-watering New England Clam Chowder, Cold Water Oyster Bar, and Coconut Shrimp to the Crab Stuffed Gulf Flounder and the incomparable Redfish Louisiane.
Wonderful steaks abound as well and Cafe Blue has perhaps the Best Cubano Sandwich in the city.
They’ve moved to a somewhat larger location in the Galleria and as always, Jason Landtroop has this place humming.
One of the most elegant and inviting downtown steakhouses has got to be III Forks at the corner of Lavaca and Caesar Chavez. The steaks from the Bone-In Ribeye to the insanely delicious Wagyu Tomohawk Ribeye are incomparable. This is a restaurant where service has not be forgotten, but rather, elevated to a new level. On your next visit ask for Mick and see if you don’t agree.
They have a knowledgeable and approachable sommelier who is spot on with his pairing recommendations. And Chef Adrian, who began his journey years ago at the sorely missed Cool River, has led a seamless transition in the kitchen from the departed Jamie Guttierez.
III Forks meets all criteria to remain on our list.
Rene Ortiz of La Condesa and Launderette fame struck gold back in 2012 with this Thai fusion restaurant on S.1st. Absolute rhapsody on my first visit. The Shu Mai was the first thing i tasted and it has remained in my repository of flavors ever since. The pork, shrimp and fermented bean and a dash of chili all worked beautifully. Neither can I resist the Pad Kwetio which is a sumptuous mix of wide rice noodles, tender pork belly, Chinese broccoli, and tofu. We are talking some ground breaking flavors here. And the salt and pepper Soft Shell Crab is a tenderly crisp forray into an enitrely new dimension of flavors.
My only negative is they have a sign the size of a postage stamp. But for that matter, Paul Qui doesn”t even have that:].
This stunning collaboration between owner Eric Earthman and Exec Damian Brockway at 315 Congress has wowed the downtown crowd.. They’ve wowed me as well. The ides of this restaurant is minimalism and proximity. There are no waiters per se: each patron sits behind a counter where a cook is preparing his/her food and has unfettered access to the process. The numbers refer to pre fixe prices for the number of courses your order. $95 gets one the 7-course without wine down to a 3-course pairing for $45. As Billy Joel famously said in Scenes from an Italian Restaurant “it all depends upon your appetite.”
Indeed. And at this place, you cannot go wrong.
While Miguel Rovago may no longer be a regular presence at the interior`style Mexican restaurant he and Tom Gilliland introduced to Austin the early 1970′, the place has stayed the course. Their dishes still delight with authenticity and great flavors and the Cochinata Pibil [Yucatan] is my favorite in the city. The Camarones al Majo de Ajo continue to be a delight. The Sunday Brunch remains a fixture and is one of the best in the city. This is the grandfather of all interior and coastal Mexican cuisine in the area and it’s still the best!
If we had a Top 30, these spots would have made the list.
So there it is foodies. Feel free to comment on this piece by reaching out to firstname.lastname@example.org. And happy dining, Such a list would have not been possible in Austin even a scant five years ago.