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.
But things are finally looking up — 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. Eight notable new restaurants have cropped up like flowers through sidewalk cracks, a reminder that Austin remains a city of vibrant growth.
J Carver’s (Market District)
From chef-owner John Carver of hugely popular Red Ash, this all-American chop house and oyster bar in Downtown Austin opened in July. Choose between the 30-day, wet-aged bone-in filet and either of the 50-day dry-aged prime cuts, all wood-grilled to your preference. Pair it with fresh market oysters or go all out with the wood-roasted shellfish tower and complete the meal with handmade tagliatelle and seared foie gras. The upscale ambiance — gold accents and velvet chairs — adds a nice touch with a well-stocked wine cellar.
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, opened in April, 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.
Justine’s Brasserie (Govalle)
Fall brings the exciting news that, for the first time, Justine’s is now taking reservations. Drinks flow At the energetic French brasserie tucked away in the eastern neighborhood of Govalle between plates of garlic-herb escargot, moules frites, and charcuterie boards of cheese and meats. Popular with the late-night crowd, Justine’s has long been a go-to for a weekday nightcap or the ideal place to start your weekend nights. The seductive red interior is dimly lit, while the outdoor patio provides a more chill atmosphere. A covered outdoor tent with chandeliers and red draping is the perfect romantic date night setting with conversations over a glass of bubbles.
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. Moxy Hotel debuted in Austin in January as the first Moxy in Textas.
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, opened a neighborhood pizzeria in April 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 downtown modern Greek spot, opened in May, 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 this April, 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.
Canje (East Austin)
The celebrated hospitality tastemakers behind Emmer & Rye, Hestia, and other top restaurants are opening the doors to modern Caribbean restaurant Canje in hip east Austin this fall. The name comes from the canje pheasant, the national bird of Guyana — from where the cuisine of this restaurant is primarily inspired. Other islands, from Jamaica to Puerto Rico, also play a part in Canje’s cooking techniques. Think family-style sharing meals such as red snapper filet swimming in rich coconut milk dotted with pickled okra and served on a banana leaf. You’ll want a heaping of white sonoran roti (Mexican-style flour tortillas) to wipe the plate clean. The fruit-driven cocktail program will be accompanied by a small but mighty natural wine selection.
Diana Spechler is a novelist and essayist whose work appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, Harper’s, and elsewhere.
Annie Lin contributed to this reporting.
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