Fonda San Miguel welcomes you to a world of its own through a pair of massive wooden doors. The rustic stenciled walls and artfully faded colors could pass for a centuries-old estate in the Mexican interior. Dignitaries visiting the capital city are invariably dragged (quite happily) to rollicking Güero’s, a vast, brick-walled former feed store where half the city seems to converge on the weekends; if tables are scarce, perch at the tiled salsa bar and watch the tortilla lady perform miracles with masa. Vivo’s shady wooden deck has enough blooming hibiscus, banana trees, and ferns to stock a rain forest; it’s a green heaven during Austin’s nine months of summer.
Ciudad’s serene, verdant patio and interior sprawl of stylishly appointed rooms, complete with heavy carved columns and slate floors, transport you to a classic hacienda of Mexico City’s golden age. Gloria’s hodgepodge of cozy rooms, splashed with kaleidoscopic colors and folk-art details and brimming with energy, makes it a happy place to visit time and again.
With strings of twinkling white lights and walls covered with mirrors and deep blue and teal vinyl, flashy Yum Balam is a little bit of hip, contemporary Mexico City in El Paso.
Follow the footpaths through lush patio gardens, beyond the serenade of trickling fountains, to find Cowtown’s most romantic dining room. In Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana, set within Joe T. Garcia’s, soothing Mexican music wafts from stereo speakers, candlelight flickers off stone walls, and each course is delivered on a different artful plate.
Pull up a leather bar stool or plant yourself on Hugo’s enchanting patio, with power fans and a serene fountain. The historic building has been beautifully restored, with tall, dramatic windows and industrial-chic copper-stained-concrete floors. Handwoven rugs in an earthy palette set off the smart decor. Las Alamedas, a grande Memorial-area mansion with shady bayou views, ornate Spanish colonial pieces, and soft flamenco music, has the feel of a private hacienda. Settle into the original Ninfa’s on Navigation for a sweet-tart frozen Ninfarita, the only frozen margarita in town worth its salt, while you wait for a table in this aged casita, which was a tortilla factory in the forties. Dining nooks painted in electric blue and gold are fitted with old-fashioned vinyl chairs and faded photos of Mama Ninfa, and the waitresses wear elegant embroidered Mexican dresses. Nostalgia rules at pristinely preserved Felix Mexican, a testament to a bygone era. Hedges of pink and red hibiscus welcome regulars to this charming Spanish white-stucco-and-tile casa with soaring ceilings, Mexican chandeliers, and chairs painted in bright piñata colors. Some prefer the architecture to the retro food. Nowhere but Irma’s will you find twenty baby dolls in the ladies’ room, whimsical tea sets in old armoires, dining-room chairs with heart-shaped backs, and a vintage refrigerator decoratively stocked with bottled Coca-Cola. Movers and shakers, politicos, and hungry downtowners just keep coming.
Christmas, Mardi Gras, and Cinco de Mayo have all exploded in Mi Tierra’s gloriously tacky dining rooms, where piñatas, Christmas lights, and shimmering banners festoon walls, columns, and ceilings. The nod for most-cutting-edge restaurant design on the River Walk goes to trendy Acenar, with its soaring space, multiple levels, eye-popping colors, and cool, umbrella-shaded terrace. At La Fogata, banana trees and bougainvillea run riot through interconnected red-tiled patios lit at night by pink and blue neon. A languid fountain, a massive oak tree, pots brimming with purple-leafed bromeliads—La Fonda’s shady patio all but demands a celebratory round of margaritas.