As the year ends, many in Austin will celebrate the season with a special occasion dinner. While some perennials like Uchi and Congress are still wise picks for these flashy nights out, it is also worth venturing beyond the standards to try some of our city’s newer offerings.
The rather stiff competition in the Austin restaurant market means that your choices for a celebratory dinner are more robust and rewarding than ever. Please note that while the picks here for Austin's best date night destinations can be pricey, they are given in the spirit that celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or accomplishment is worth going overboard for on occasion.
Apis Restaurant & Apiary
Best for the explorer
For years, a classic special occasion date for many Austinites entailed a scenic drive out to Hudson’s on the Bend. The journey was part of the magic, as it allowed you extra time for conversation and to unwind from the work day. The 2015 version of this experience can be found at Apis, a small gem in Spicewood that meshes a scenic location, subtle but smart design, and outstanding food into a seamless experience.
The layout encourages an initial stop at the bar, where cocktails run from expected margaritas and gin-and-grapefruit crowd-pleasers to more whimsical seasonal fare like the Wayward Craft (Calvados, spiced rum, baked apple, lemon, and cinnamon). While a standard menu is available, the tasting menu ($105/person) is worth spending a memorable night on as the kitchen’s point of view and range shine here. On a recent visit, highlights included a rich egg toast with wagyu beef tartare, a crispy fluke fin engawa with wasabi and ramps, and an aged Rohan duck with rutabaga hash and black caraway. Arrive on the early side in winter before darkness engulfs the beautiful outdoor patio.
Emmer & Rye
Best for the visual diner and menu dabbler
Don’t let Emmer & Rye’s Rainey Street location fool you — there is serious kitchen wizardry happening here. The unique format is worth explaining: Diners are greeted with a menu of small plates, pastas, and large mains, but are encouraged to order light. Why? A daily selection of American “dim sum” (usually around 10 dishes) is carted around the restaurant and offered to tables for immediate consumption.
On our last visit, the server suggested our two-top choose one-to-two small plates and a single pasta, then watch for interesting dim sum picks. This proved to be the right approach, allowing room to sample most of the night’s plates as they circled the space. Our favorites included the al dente buckwheat mafalda with lamb shoulder, turnips in beef taro, and cauliflower with lardo. As with all dim sum and small-plate establishments, the cost of your check can rise quickly. That said, the staff at Emmer & Rye is conscious and careful about mentioning the pricing when describing the plates.
The cocktail menu is savvy and full of unconventional combinations. Our Army Navy with Austin’s Genius Gin combined notes of Asian spice with a house-made pecan orgeat and lemon, while a stiff Lili St. Byrrh married añejo rum with French aperitif Byrrh and Luxardo Maraschino with a burly scotch rinse.
Best for the adventurous eater and the vegetarian diner
While Paul Qui is perhaps the best-known chef in Austin, he and Chef de Cuisine Jorge Hernandez often traffic dishes that are unfamiliar to most. A dinner at qui is both an education and an adventure, so bringing a fussy diner here may not be ideal.
The main dining room offers seven-course tasting menus only in both standard (about $70/person) and vegetable-based (about $55/person) formats. Both are prix fixe and chosen by the kitchen. For a better idea of what's on the lineup, check the qui website for the previous night’s menu. You’ll see a great deal of influence from Qui’s Filipino heritage and his study of Japanese food at Uchi, while Spanish ingredients and techniques are also present due to Hernandez’s prior work with José Andrés. Collaboration and experimentation are the bedrock of qui’s ethos, so expect surprises and occasional oddities. Beverage pairings are a bargain at $45, though if you choose them, consider hiring a safe ride home. For $120, you can venture even further with the chef duo at a ticketed tasting room table for a larger selection of food (advanced booking is required).
Regardless of the experience you choose, this is a great place to discuss food. You and your dining companion will have much to think over.
Best for the home gardener and the elegant Southerner
Olamaie’s accolades continue to grow, and the little house full of refined “Southern garden” food continues to evolve and impress. When dining here, ask about the small but smart list of wines — there’s a great deal of light, bright, and food-friendly choices at very reasonable mark ups. With wine in hand, your table can make menu selections, but why choose? Pick three or four small plates per guest and share everything.
Olamaie’s thoughtful treatment of seemingly simple ingredients like white button mushrooms or roasted beets shows the magic of the kitchen. The dishes are both well edited and lighter than one anticipates from Southern fare. While anything with mushrooms is a must, don’t overlook the strength with seafood. The chilled Gulf crab salad with creme fraiche, tarragon, Honeycrisp apple, and kohlrabi is a delight. The kitchen treats dessert as a comfortable finish rather than an experiment: Expect pie, ice cream, and familiar classics.
Best for the fan of smart and serious Mexican cooking
Iliana de la Vega’s El Naranjo is a bit out of place on Rainey Street in 2015. On a block full of bustling revelry, her team quietly delivers perhaps the best Mexican food in Central Texas. The pace here is leisurely, perfectly suited to an anniversary or important dinner. The slow cooking techniques and layered flavors take their time, and the staff doesn’t push to turn the tables.
As one would predict, cocktails focus on tequila and mezcal bases, though there’s a bit of rum and pisco for good measure. The wine selections smartly drill down on Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina with a wide array of choices under $50/bottle. Mole dishes are one star of this show: The restaurant's Oaxacan influence is showcased with a mole negro and mole amarillo, both of which are done in-house. You can pair them with everything from Niman Ranch Berkshire pork chops to seasonal grilled veggies — we recommend asking the kitchen for favorite pairings. The seafood and chili-poblano dishes are also standouts among the main courses. The interior design is warm and welcoming, and the overall feel encourages lingering for a nightcap.
Best for the locavore
Jesse Griffiths may know more about Texas ingredient sourcing than anyone living in Austin right now. As an author, hunter, educator, supper club host, and purveyor, he has been a leading light for the Texas farm-to-table movement. This made anticipation feverish for his debut brick-and-mortar, and Griffiths and his team have delivered on every front.
A key point to visiting the restaurant is that the “supper club” highlights different foods on different evenings. Wednesday is often wild game and foraged fare, Thursday is grilled chicken night, Friday features Gulf seafood, and Saturday is a mixed grill for two. Beverages here are Texan. We tend to order beer with our meal, though good Texan wine selections are also available. Once you’ve chosen a night to dine, book ahead: The medium-sized restaurant fills up quickly.
While it is tempting to focus on Griffiths’ way with proteins as the star of the meal, that’s not the whole story. The accents are just as impressive. The team loves the concept of condiments, so when you’re given kimchi, pickled vegetables, or a black walnut whipped lard, know that the kitchen put some serious thought and real effort into these finishing touches. Dai Due works well for special occasions, but the setting isn’t particularly formal. What it does, though, is give the diner a sense of what it truly means to eat as a Texan.