MEET THE TASTEMAKERS
Savor the 8 best Austin restaurants of 2023
If we were to roast the eight nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Restaurant of the Year, we'd start by saying they need no introduction. That's undeniably true, but it would be tricky to get to the next part. Even in jest, we truly have no shady things to say.
So, allow us to gush. Together, these eateries are what makes Austin such a dynamic food city. Their eclectic menus, inspiring interiors, and dazzling beverage programs set the bar for where restaurants should be today. It pains us to have to pick a winner.
You can congratulate us on our bravery at our annual Tastemaker Awards party. Join us in giving one more round of applause below before we unveil the winner on May 11 at Fair Market.
After the cultural comeuppance of molecular gastronomy — its coffin nailed long before The Menu made it multiplex farce — nothing seems as current as a baguette smeared with washed-rind cheese. In post-pandemic Austin, the success of Birdie's casual model helped the entire culinary scene to reset. Why fuss with establishing restaurants as fiefdoms with chefs as their plundering lords? There's nothing more aspirational than serving orecchiette dressed in Parmesan, breadcrumbs, and dandelion greens.
It may seem like ancient history, but it wasn't that long ago when Austin's palate was restricted to Tex-Mex, barbecue, and Americanized European cuisine. Thank goodness there has been a sea change. Tavel Bristol-Joseph's Caribbean cuisine fare is visionary — contemporizing the region's traditional fare without tempering its assertive use of spice. To be a truly world-class food city, we still need more diversity. We're exceedingly lucky to have Joseph as a harbinger.
We recently sang Dai Due's praises as a nominee for Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year, so now we'll offer a tip. On a muggy Central Texas day, catch up with a friend over a bottle of Cinsault. Order the cold meat plate and perhaps some grilled sourdough (we wouldn't want anyone to miss out on the pleasures of whipped lard). We all grew up on Lunchables and now cater cocktail parties with grocery store charcuterie, but this is how meat should be enjoyed.
Épicerie Café & Grocery
Every neighborhood deserves a restaurant to call its own, but Allandale must have particularly good karma. Chef and owner Sarah McIntosh has a particular knack for bringing luxury to the everyday. Some days the vehicle may be a simple ricotta toast zsuzhed with piquillo peppers and Marcona almonds. Other days, it might be a hanger steak blanketed by a velvety demi-glace. Eternally, it is her featherweight beignets — the Platonic ideal of New Orlean's most famous pastry served without the bother of a flight.
From Jennifer Coolidge's career to the reunification of Bennifer, nothing captures our attention as a good comeback story. So, it was thrilling to see this almost 15-year-old restaurant back on the radar screen in 2023. Still, locals don't need the James Beard Foundation to tell them La Condesa's place in Austin's culinary scene. When it opened in 2009, it ushered in a new golden era in the city's contemporary Mexican cuisine. Under the longtime direction of chef Rick Lopez, it still remains the standard.
Across the country, parents are doubtlessly taming finicky kids with a heap of sketty and meatballs. Finicky adults can skip the limp Skinner noodles altogether. Instead, we give full permission to feed the inner child with this Mueller mainstay's luscious polpette. Made with Waygu brisket and heritage pork, the crackling orbs hardly feel chef-y. The sweet tang of the tomato jam only gently nudges the palate forward. Whether one is an epicure or a meat-and-potatoes mope, it's a successful dish. And it proves comfort food is not mere child's play.
With all of pop culture's country bumpkins, it's easy to forget that the South is just as cosmopolitan as backwater. And that the whole of Southern cooking is not found in a roadside meat-and-three. The powerhouse team of Michael Fojtasek and Amanda Turner don't turn their noses at common fare (one can't have Gulf shrimp without Tabasco) but find the elegance in an oft-maligned culinary region. That totality is breathtaking, whether presented as gumbo z'herbes or brown butter-drenched crudo.
Austinites have yet to glut their appetite for a buzzy restaurant interior, but far too often, diners gloss over the food. We humbly ask, "Por qué no los dos?" One's Gucci loafers will certainly look fetching dangling underneath the high tops crowding this east side standard bearer's entry. The mezcal selection definitely has enough horsepower to make any guest feel like a Hollywood ingenue. But chef Fermín Núñez's menu can delight with something as uncomplicated as refried lentils. Isn't it better to have substance with style?