Austin welcomed a smattering of great new restaurants to an already thriving dining scene in 2013. From French-, Italian- and Spanish-inspired locales to an influx of Asian-influenced establishments (with a clear ramen trend), to reinstated American fine dining, it’s been a good year in Austin food. And while we certainly enjoyed more than our fair share of newcomers, there were a few in particular that stood out the most.
Arro — I'm a fan of anything French, especially when it's delivered well. And la vie est trés belle at Arro. The third concept from dynamic culinary duo Andrew and Mary Catherine Curren, this vibrant brasserie is my favorite. Serving everything from goat cheese vegetable tart and mussels and fries in sherry wine broth, to steak frites and croque monsieur, Arro does it all— and with friendly service. The exclusively French wine list is also a highlight with a range of unique-yet-approachable wines you won't normally find anywhere else. The $25 three-course menu is a steal, as is their "Cinq a Sept" weekday happy hour which runs from 5-7 p.m. Among the offerings is a Swiss classic raclette and an assortment of cheese, charcuterie and other small plate options for $5 or $7. (Late night loungers will love the salted chocolate-chip-cookie ice-cream-sandwich.)
Bufalina — If there’s an unexpected success story of the year, it’s Bufalina. Owner Stephen Dilley left his career in finance, relocated from New York City and opened up a humble little pizzeria in East Austin. Little did he know he had the makings of a new neighborhood sensation. The Neapolitan-style pizza is good, to be sure. Really good. And though there are only a handful of pizza selections to choose from, the daily antipasti list (made with whatever fell off the local farm turnip truck) is not to be missed. And the wine list is unexpected, uniquely selected — and perhaps one of the best kept secrets in town.
Jeffrey’s and Josephine House —It’s tough putting these two together in the same entry, but considering they share the same lot in Clarksville, it will just have to do. Old school Jeffrey’s fans who feared new ownership and a remodel would ruin the classic fine dining locale were happily proved wrong. While some scoffed at the elevated prices and showy service, there’s little to complain about once you’re seated in one of the snazzy new dining rooms. Table-side cocktail cart, wonderfully prepared steaks and accoutrement, and kid glove service. It’s an indulgence, indeed, but as they say, “you only live once.”
Kid sister Josephine House manages to hold her own as the sunny afternoon happy hour neighborhood hot spot and the quintessential gathering place for ladies that lunch—gentlemen welcome, too. Seasonal menu items are varied and delicious, but a selection from the marble counter artfully displaying salads and appetizers is where I always find a home run. (A choice from the fresh cookies and pastry selection is a must.)
La Mancha — You may not expect much from yet another Tex-Mex joint in a north Austin neighborhood, but a stop into La Mancha is worth a shot. You’ll find your standard velvety bowl of queso and a down-and-dirty plate of “truck stop” beef enchiladas smothered in ranchero sauce and queso. The fajita selection includes beef and chicken as well as shrimp, Gulf snapper and portobello mushroom. (And a handful of other appealing vegetarian items scatter the menu.) In short, the food is good and the vibe is even better. If you’re looking for a good neighborhood joint to share a margarita among friends, La Mancha fits the bill.
Qui — It was only one of the most talked about new openings of 2013 — before, during, and long after it finally opened its doors following a series of delays. While some were determined to marvel at the grandeur of Paul Qui’s very own venture before it even opened, others were quick to poke holes at every little flaw the second they walked into the sleek East Austin joint. Me, I’m just happy he got the doors open and appears to be having the time of his life. The menu impresses with a few shining stars, particularly the indulgent wagyu côte de boeuf and the visually stunning ode to Michel Bras vegetables with chilled turnip broth. Daily specials are where you see Qui and his creative kitchen really come to life. For some, it’s hit or miss. For others, it’s love before first bite. If you can manage to lay aside a preconceived expectation, you’ll no doubt have a really good time.
Ramen Tatsu-ya & Michi Ramen — It seems 2013 was the year of Ramen. Not only did Ramen Tatsu-ya and Michi Ramen make an entry onto the scene, but two new East Side King locations opened at Hole in the Wall and on South Lamar Boulevard serving their own version of ramen. And the trend isn't over yet. In 2014, Whole Foods Market will dabble in the Japanese curly noodle soup at its new location at the Domain. If you ask me, the more ramen, the merrier!
Winebelly — This new South Austin wine and tapas bar was a pleasant find from the same family who owns Vietnamese restaurants, Hai Ky. I originally happened in with a friend to check out the wine list, but was pleasantly surprised by the food menu as well. In addition to tapas such as roasted cauliflower with raisins and anchovy-soaked bread crumbs to tasty grilled lamb ribs with herbed yogurt and vegetables, you’ll find an assortment of cheese, charcuterie and savory bar snacks including shishito peppers with fresh ricotta and piquant French fries with pimenton and chili pepper. The wine list if wonderfully diverse and value driven, with a fair selection of wines by the glass.
And just in case you need a few more to cross off your list, here are a few other great spots we welcomed in 2013:
East Side Kings South Lamar
Goodall’s, in the Hotel Ella
Odd Duck (Not open in time to review.)
Salt & Time
Say La V
Schmidt's Family BBQ