The pandemic has been tough on Austin’s culinary establishments: Fine dining restaurants were reduced to takeout menus and Styrofoam boxes. Newer spots struggled to keep their footing. Old favorites shuttered permanently. To add insult to injury, Texas endured an apocalyptic “freeze” in February, forcing already-struggling restaurants to close for at least a week, longer if their pipes burst.
But things are finally looking up — on the brink of summer, with vaccines available to all, Austinites are getting back to doing what they love: dining in the city’s great restaurants, inside or al fresco, sipping cocktails, waving to acquaintances they haven’t seen in over a year. Six notable new restaurants have cropped up like flowers through sidewalk cracks, a reminder that Austin remains a city of vibrant growth.
Lutie’s (Hyde Park)
Not many restaurants transport diners to the past, but just in time for the second coming of the roaring ’20s, the brand-new Lutie’s is a relic of the Jazz Age. Housed in Commodore Perry Estate, a 100-year-old mansion-turned-luxury-hotel, the restaurant centers an elegant terrace overlooking a sprawling Gatsby-esque lawn adorned with tasteful string lights. Inside, the Ken Fulk-designed space pairs vintage tiling with deep-turquoise velvet furniture and a ceiling covered in lush green plants. Bradley Nicholson and Susana Querejazu, the husband-wife team at the restaurant’s helm, came up in some of Austin’s top dining establishments, including Uchi and Barley Swine, so they know culinary Austin — and it shows. Fun appetizers such as sunchoke falafel meet artful cocktails like the Indigo Kick (vanilla-infused vodka, blackberry basil shrub, local honey, lemon, and ginger beer). The kouign amann ice cream is a don’t-miss dessert.
Bar Moxy (Campus District)
In Austin’s new Moxy Hotel, Marriott’s concept geared toward younger travelers on a budget, the funky Bar Moxy will bring out your inner 22-year-old: A giant inflatable unicorn, the patio’s centerpiece, sits in front of a wall mural that proclaims “Love bites but so do I.” Diners sit on wooden swings or play ping-pong, PacMan, or Jenga, drinking craft beer and eating chips and queso and brisket tacos from Zombie Taco, the 24-hour taqueria in the hotel lobby. The vibe may be youthful with Instagram photo opps around every corner, including a monkey-printed wall outside the restroom, but Bar Moxy’s ambiance is tasteful and the service impeccable.
Swift Pizza Co. (East Austin)
The Swift family, beloved for their rustic farm-to-table restaurant Jacoby’s, where they serve beef from their own ranch, just opened a neighborhood pizzeria that they affectionately call “Swifty’s.” Some pizzas on the menu feature delicacies right from the family ranch: The “West Texas,” for example, is topped with smoked Jacoby beef, pimento cheese, caramelized onions, and barbecue sauce. Executive chef Brandon Fuller whips up childhood classics, including spaghetti and meatballs (from Jacoby beef, of course), mozzarella sticks, and Rice Krispies treats. The interior, designed by co-owner Kris Swift of Future Design Now, includes toy cases with vintage Legos, an Atari consule, monster wallpaper, and chandeliers constructed from vintage beakers. The music conjures ’80s mixtapes — David Bowie, Paula Abdul, Guns ‘n’ Roses.
Simi Estiatorio (Downtown)
Lovers of Mediterranean food are flocking to this new modern Greek spot downtown for the extensive list of “off-the-boat” seafood dishes, including Mediterranean white snapper, octopus with Santorini fava puree, and an “Acropolis platter” — oysters, jumbo shrimp, lobster, and crab — from the raw bar. Managing partner George Theodosiou wanted to showcase the best of his culture’s cuisine; trained in two of the world’s gastronomy meccas, Lima, Peru and New York City, executive chef Diego Sanchez, formerly of Baha Mar, deftly executes that culinary vision. The spacious white dining room (think clean lines, white chandeliers, and tea lights) creates a classic summer-on-the-Greek-islands vibe.
Sammie’s Italian (Downtown)
If there’s one thing a city can’t have too much of, it’s good pasta. Austin has several beloved Italian spots, including Red Ash, L’oca d’Oro, and Intero, but MML Hospitality just added one more, and like all of MML’s restaurants, Sammie’s is an instant fan favorite. Think red-sauce Italian, but posh — bartenders in red vests who address diners by name, house-made limoncello, the chef’s family recipe for linguine vongole. Dim lighting, modest glass chandeliers, polished wood, and the aroma of butter and garlic create a warm, cozy hideaway from the bustle of West Sixth. A slice of cheesecake provides the perfect dismount.
Favorite Pizza (Downtown)
As a bonus, MML Hospitality didn’t stop with Sammie’s Italian — in late June, they group will open Favorite Pizza right next door, bringing its restaurant count to a whopping 19. An homage to iconic New York-style pizza, Favorite will sling whole pies and individual slices, as well as subs, salads, gelato, draft beer, wines by the glass, and frozen cocktails. The space is small and simple, reminiscent of a Manhattan pizzeria with a six-seater bar and a counter for ordering. One wall pays tribute to the New York Mets, the owner’s favorite team. Sibling establishments Sammie’s and Favorite create a little New York City nook on West Sixth Street.
Diana Spechler is a novelist and essayist whose work appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, Harper’s, and elsewhere.