In many ways, South by Southwest’s cancellation in March 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic was a harbinger of things to come. For the city, state, and many thousands of attendees, it was the first time we felt the impact of our new reality. The festival laid off nearly one third of its staff and Austin’s hospitality industry lost vital income from one of its busiest seasons.
Two years later, SXSW is mounting an IRL comeback March 11–20 (the fest was all digital last year), with ten days of film, music, and technology. Out-of-towners will find a city changed. Along with additions to the skyline, the city’s restaurant and bar scene—especially in areas surrounding the festival’s venues—has added exciting newcomers and said goodbye to some familiar favorites. Scoring reservations is not just a perk—it’s essential.
Now that we’ve made it through two years of a global pandemic, it’s time to party—or at least soak up a bit of normalcy. Whether you want a locally owned place to nosh in between screenings, to reunite with long-lost fest friends, or just to soak in all the action sans badge, here’s where to drink, eat, and tweet.
The neighborhood—anchored by office buildings that largely sat empty for the past 24 months—has seen a remarkable amount of turnover during the pandemic. Perennial SXSW favorites like Second Bar + Kitchen and Italic have closed, but new spots have popped up to take their places.
Devil May Care
Though it opened in 2019, this will be Devil May Care’s first South By. The central location, sexy interiors, and Mediterranean-inspired menu are sure to make this lounge/restaurant a favorite of festivalgoers. The menu has a mix of shareables and snacks, so consider this spot for an intimate catch-up session or dinner with a smaller group of colleagues. The cocktail program is among the best in this stretch of downtown, and even includes an espresso martini so you can order the Gen Z–approved drink without judgment.
Foxy’s Proper Pub
Owners Heather and Steve Potts closed their downtown restaurant La Volpe (French for “the fox”) in 2020, but transformed it in early 2021 into Foxy’s Proper Pub. Its location, on Brazos Street, is within walking distance of the Austin Convention Center and Rainey Street. The menu offers traditional Irish pub food, including Scotch eggs, a full Irish breakfast, classic fish and chips, and extensive beer and Irish whiskey selections.
Qi Austin Modern Asian Kitchen
The opening of Qi Austin Modern Asian Kitchen in late 2020 was a bright spot in an otherwise dark time. Chef Ling Qi Wu’s other restaurant, Lin Asian Bar + Dim Sum, carted in a new generation of dim sum restaurants in Austin, and is another eatery you shouldn’t miss. Qi Austin’s menu is more high-end than its sister restaurant’s, and includes some harder-to-find ingredients, such as alligator. And since this is a chef Wu project, there is a robust dim sum menu, which includes her famous soup dumplings.
Though red-sauce Italian restaurants are a staple in most large cities, they’re not common in Austin. Sammie’s, one of the newest eateries from Austin-based McGuire Moorman Hospitality, has fare familiar to East Coasters, such as chicken parm, baked manicotti, and the fanciest mozzarella sticks this side of the Mississippi. Start off your meal with an Italian Tuxedo martini, made with Italian gin and an absinthe rinse, or choose from the extensive wine list. If you’re looking to catch up with colleagues or impress a client, ask for a patio seat; the interior dining room can get loud when full.
When you’re strolling down East Sixth to Hotel Vegas or Volstead, things may look unfamiliar, but rest assured that longtime favorites like Tamale House East, Las Cazuelas, and Brew & Brew are still open for business (it just might take you a minute or two to find them amid the construction). East Austin has also welcomed a host of new spots, including Birdie’s, which has been named a best new restaurant by the New York Times and Texas Monthly.
Bright and fun Canje is a reflection of chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph, who uses his Guyanese childhood as inspiration for the menu. Locals speak about the jerk chicken in hushed, reverent tones, and the hiramasa ceviche will convert even the most dubious fish eater. The roti, a version of which first appeared on the menu at Emmer & Rye, the restaurant Bristol-Joseph co-owns with chef Kevin Fink, is itself a divine experience. And because of Bristol-Joseph’s experience as a pastry chef, ordering dessert is nonnegotiable. This dining room can be loud, so if you’re talking business during SXSW, ask for a patio seat.
Cuantos Tacos has been slinging mini tacos (what others might call street tacos) since 2019. They’re genuine Mexico City–style tacos too. The nixtamalized corn tortillas hold fillings prepared in a choricera, the Mexico City–standard cooking apparatus. It looks like a metal sombrero with a raised convex tower popping up from a circular trough bubbling with manteca. In that lard are luscious cuts of suadero, subtle sliced lengua, aged chorizo, and more. A trompo for tacos al pastor is set up on weekends.
While it’s of course not new, Franklin’s dining room has been closed for nearly two years. And just in time for SXSW, the most famous line in barbecue is back. Smoked brisket is what most folks are willing to wait hours for, but the pork ribs, smoked turkey, pulled pork, and house-made sausage are all of the highest quality. The stunning beef ribs are available Saturdays only, and the restaurant is closed on Mondays.
Since High Noon rode into town in fall 2020, it has become one of the most popular bars on the East Side. Thanks to an all-star hospitality and design team, this “psychedelic Western bar” (the multicolored ceiling tiles light up) has both style and substance, and will make out-of-towners feel like they’re really in Austin. A robust cocktail menu includes the Cassiopeia, a funky take on the Paloma, and a watermelon margarita.
Over the past two years, Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi have created culinary excitement with Nixta Taqueria. Carnitas made from duck thighs are tender with a light sweetness, and sit atop a freshly made corn tortilla. The enchilada potosina taco uses a corn tortilla infused with chiles, and brims with spice. Then there are daily or seasonal specials that meld Mardanbigi’s Persian heritage with Mexican flair. Andrés M. Garza, the director of masa development, is taking things even further with his own experiments, including tetelas, triangular filled masa, and two-foot-long quesadillas known as machetes. If you were to check out one taco spot in town during SXSW, Nixta Taqueria should be the one.
Led by executive chef Mike Diaz and inspired by owner Lynn Miller’s family recipes, Oseyo offers traditional Korean fare such as bibimbap, kimchi fried rice, fried chicken, and dumplings. A solid menu is made even more delicious with dipping sauces and house-made banchan (small sides). Vegetarians will find much to love on Oseyo’s menu—and all vegetarian dishes can be made vegan by request.
Pizza lovers will dig Sammataro, a food truck located in the same lot as Cuantos Tacos. Attached to the black-and-white trailer is a wood-burning oven that dishes out New York–inspired pies. The menu is simple, offering a classic cheese pizza with choose-your-own toppings such as pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, and garlic.
Parked at High Noon is Texsueño, where West Texas native chef Brandon Martin reinvigorates Tex-Mex cuisine from the inside of a food trailer. The menu includes fried-to-order crispy tacos filled with lightly seasoned ground beef, flautas swimming in a smoked tomatillo ranch dappled with chile oil, soft sweet potato tacos with a bright pecan and golden raisin salsa, and shimmering carnitas topped with zippy salsa morita. All of these fantastic dishes are served on nixtamalized corn tortillas, which Martin prepares and rolls out right before your eyes.
If you’re heading south to music venues like Continental Club, or catching a flick at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, there are even more spots for sips and bites.
The pain of learning that the South First Street location of Sway was closing after nearly a decade was dulled by news that 1417 was moving into its space. Grab a seat on the patio and feast on a menu of French and New American fare like blue cheese beignets and oysters under the live oaks or head indoors and enjoy steak frites and mussels. The wine list is thoughtful and filled with interesting selections.
One of the few barbecue joints in the area open seven days a week and open late is CM Smokehouse, inside Bouldin Acres in South Austin. It serves a multitude of creative barbecue dishes like smoked, deep-fried baby back ribs tossed in wing sauce and smoked brisket Philly cheesesteak. From the Gringo Loco menu, try the quesabirria tacos, smoked fajita torta, or the famous brisket crunchwrap.
Summer House on Music Lane
Tucked behind celeb haunt Soho House is Summer House on Music Lane, on the ground floor of Hotel Magdalena. The eatery boasts the perfect patio for enjoying Austin’s spring weather. Try the smoked salmon tartine, the whipped feta, the Smash Burger, or the Forager Bowl, a delicious main that just so happens to be vegan and gluten-free.
Goodbye to the ones we lost
Austin has lost a fair number of beloved restaurants in recent years because of the pandemic, rising costs, or other reasons. Downtown was among the hardest hit, with SXSW mainstays like Second Bar + Kitchen and Italic departing. Dai Due Taqueria, a stand in downtown’s Fareground food hall, also closed during the pandemic, but the original Dai Due on Manor Road remains open. Daruma Ramen, the petite ramen shop on Sixth Street also closed, though sister restaurant Kome, in North Austin, is still operating. And Le Politique, famous for its swoon-worthy interiors on Second Street, is seemingly closed. (New Waterloo, the hospitality group behind the restaurant, has yet to declare the restaurant closed for good, though a recent peek in the windows shows it’s still dark and empty.)
If you’re looking for Lonesome Dove or Easy Tiger, double-check the address before heading out. Chef Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove closed on Colorado Street to make way for a new high-rise, though it has since reopened in the former Italic space just a few blocks away on West Sixth Street. Easy Tiger, which called Sixth Street home for years, has moved to the East Side, where it has a bigger space (plus parking, which the downtown location lacked).
Austin also said goodbye to decades-old restaurants, including La Mexicana, Cafe Josie, and the Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard (the South Congress locale is still open for all your 24-hour diner needs). The area just north of the UT campus had two heartbreaking losses in recent months: Spider House Cafe, which closed because of the pandemic, and Texas French Bread, which was destroyed in a fire earlier this year.