For us, there is nothing better than stumbling upon a hidden gem in the heart of Austin. Well, in this case, we stumbled upon a gem after a friend took us there despite our insistence that we knew "every good coffee shop in the city."
Well, we didn't.
The fact that Alta's Cafe has remained relatively under the radar is surprising. Nestled in the Waller Creek Boathouse on the shores of Lady Bird Lake, right between the Rainey Street District and downtown, it seems a natural addition to Austin's plethora of "top 10 coffee shop" lists and "best new patio" articles. But, despite its locally sourced menu, a beer list teeming with Texas favorites, an expansive view of Lady Bird Lake and a coffee program serving the renowned Blue Bottle Coffee, Alta's has remained a hidden gem of sorts.
Alta's is the brainchild of Michael and Charles Swail, the sons of Bill Swail who opened People's Rx in 1980. With backgrounds in investment banking and restaurant management respectively, Michael and Charles joined forces to launch Alta's Cafe earlier this year. (The cafe's moniker pays homage to Lady Bird Johnson's middle name.)
"The diversity of our backgrounds made for a good combination to explore starting a business together," explains Michael. "We stumbled upon the space at the Waller Creek Boathouse. There was an empty shell in this amazing environment. We presented our concept, negotiated a lease and the rest is history."
Part of that concept is remaining true to the Swail family legacy of healthful living. The Alta's team works in conjunction with People's Rx wellness coaches and chefs to craft the menu and offer exciting — but still mindful — food options. "We were looking for an opportunity to leverage the collective knowledge and experience of the team at Peoples to create a standalone cafe with its own brand — but with a strong connection to the Peoples culture."
Another tenet of the Alta's mission is to provide locally sourced products. Unlike other establishments that tout locally sourced as a selling point, Michael says that's just how he and his brother grew up. "[We are] focused on local products, healthy alternatives and environmental sustainability," he says. "This is what we grew up around in Austin and it's what we think Austinites want."
And with food options including Henri's Cheese, Lick Ice Creams, pizza from East Side Pies, pastries from Easy Tiger, as well as specialty sandwiches and smoothies, Alta's is serving exactly what Austinites want. Oh, and it's serving it with a killer view.
So why exactly has Alta's Cafe managed to stay under the radar while other cafe newbies like Wright Bros Brew & Brew and Radio Coffee and Beer have hit the collective buzz-o-meter?
Part of it is certainly construction on "the lattice" currently taking place next door. (The lattice is part of the Waller Creek project and will eventually connect Waller Creek to the Hike and Bike Trail.) Parking can also be an issue, but is available on Trinity Street just south of Cesar Chavez and at the Mexican American Cultural Center. Most likely it's because Alta's feels like it's off the beaten bath, despite the fact that it's literally on the hike and bike path.
Ditching the car and getting there on foot is the best way to discover Alta's anyway. Strap on your sneakers, grab your best pal and snag yourself a spot on the patio. From there, just add a cheese plate, an espresso (or a giant glass of wine) and take in the view.