We’re all guilty of it to some degree. Instead of choosing a restaurant by the quality of the kitchen, we make our eating decisions with the speed of a double tap. Letting acquaintances know you have eaten at the latest hot spot has become more important than actually having a great time.
The problem is that a meal can’t be had in a two-dimensional image. Hashtags can’t tell you whether an entree is pleasantly briny or over salted, whether a dessert is lightly honeyed or cloyingly sweet. There is scant mention of service or the wine program’s mettle. And when someone is paid to post, you betcha they will say the experience was the best they ever had.
Still, even in this moment of Insta everything, a few Austin restaurants have stood the test of time. And they have done so by doing what restaurants used to do: earning word of mouth instead of buying breathless hype. Now is as good a time as any to rediscover them. This month, put down your phone, listen to the conversations around you, and savor every bite.
Austin hospitality vets Lisa and Emmett Fox have had a tough go of it the last few years. First, their West Campus stunner Fino closed in 2015, followed by their South Lamar Italian spot Cantine in 2017. Fortunately for Austin, Asti Trattoria has weathered the storm. The dining room doesn’t look as sleek as it used to, but restaurants don’t become neighborhood favorites by bowing to every design trend. Instead, Asti became a Hyde Park gem thanks to dishes like delicately fried calamari, creamy risotto with a buttery olive tapenade, and a luscious chicken Marsala that even Nero would find decadent.
Sure, you’ll be eating under a popcorn ceiling instead of industrial beams, and the plating is done with spoons instead of tweezers, but Chez Nous has been Austin's standard for upscale French dining since 1982. The Lyonnaise salad is as good of an entree as anything on the menu. It’s not exactly doctrinaire — mixed lettuces sub for pure frisée and a touch of color is added with red pepper and tomato — but the Dijon vinaigrette is wonderfully sprightly, the lardons hit all the right bass notes, and the poached eggs are perfect every single time.
Fabi + Rosi
There’s no doubt that New American eateries lead Austin’s culinary conversation, but with so many restaurants in the category, there’s inevitably a repeat of the key talking points. As chefs move from restaurant to restaurant, the tricks they take with them (Sumac! Turmeric! Harissa!) can feel numbingly the same. The antidote is the classical German fare chef Wolfgang Muber has been serving on Hearn Street since 2009: heritage pork schnitzel, earthy hasenpfeffer, and a chocolate mousse that succeed not because they are trendy, but because they are always great.
Fonda San Miguel
We all get enamored by celebrity, but the last time we checked, Ryan Gosling hasn’t won a James Beard Award. But if a personality as exacting as legendary food writer Diana Kennedy gives an endorsement, we all should listen. Fonda San Miguel has gone through some changes over the years, switching from classic Interior Mexican cooking to Nueva Cocina cuisine and back, but it still remains a beacon. Newer promotions like its guest chef series (the next one is February 7) are spreading the gospel of regional cooking to a whole new generation.
Texas French Bread
Hip is a hot commodity these days, but somewhere in the millennial pink blur, we all seem to have forgotten how to appreciate charm. Need a lesson in its worth? Subscribe to owner Murph Wilcott’s newsletters, which muse on everything from family to new hires and always begin with “Dear Friends.” His TFB isn’t exactly the same restaurant that his mother Judy Wilcott built, but he continues one of its most enduring legacies: the belief that the communities built around food are to be treasured.
Food writers (including myself) devoted a lot of babble to the recent Italian boom, but — with a few exceptions — it brought us more instead of better. Over the last decade, Vespaio and its attached sister restaurant Enoteca have largely stayed out of the press (and certainly you rarely see them pop up on feeds as #foodporn), but dishes like house tagliatelle with speck ham and oyster mushrooms and a simple but seductive pappardelle bolognese speak for themselves.
It’s difficult to understate the importance of Mark Paul and Stewart Scruggs’ Wink in the development of Austin’s current culinary scene. They were committed to showcasing local ingredients at a time when the fanciness of a menu item was calculated by the number of airplane miles it logged. They plated with vibrant purees and vinaigrettes when white gravy was Austin’s preeminent sauce. And they proved that diners in our little big town were willing to pay to experience all of the above. Also, they still make the best veal sweetbreads in town.