In Austin you can throw a breakfast taco in any direction and hit a decent place to eat or drink. But if your only exposure to the city’s dining scene is when you parachute into town for South By Southwest, you should be aiming for higher than decent. Here’s our cheat sheet for nine of Austin’s notable openings, new expansions and essential institutions to get you through the week.
The Townsend is responsible for this wry, politically themed bar menu you probably saw circulating on Reddit a few weeks ago. Partner Justin Elliott and his team came up with the drinks as a joke, but their actual bar menu is just as clever. Try one of their heady cocktails like the Carriage House, made with gin, tequila, vermouth and Cynar. The Townsend doubles as a live music venue and, as a bonus, is located across the street from the Paramount Theatre, a major see-and-be-seen spot during the festival.
The most famous face in Austin dining has a new restaurant in the South Congress Hotel. Chef Paul Qui’s Otoko serves delicate sushi and multi-course Japanese meals, called kaiseki, to only 12 people at a time. The dinner is completely personalized: Diners tell the chef what they like to eat and he prepares seasonal dishes around those preferences. If you don’t already have a reservation, don’t plan on getting one. Instead, hit up one of Qui’s more casual East Side King locations such as the new one in the shopping venue Space 24 Twenty.
VALENTINA’S TEX MEX BBQ
How about those tacos in Austin, right?! So many controversial things to say. But we’re just going to say go to Valentina’s. This South Austin food trailer does tacos and BBQ right. Here the flower tortillas are fresh, the queso is white and the brisket is topped with guacamole. Valentina’s has a sister food trailer called The Violet Taco located downtown behind Star Bar.
Isla is all about that #tikilife. This Caribbean cantina and restaurant from the team behind Péché serves up all kinds of fruity libations and dishes including a kegged Zombie and goat fundito. New for 2016: brunch!
Via 313’s square slices of pie have been helping to resuscitate drunk Austinites since 2011. And for drunk food, this Detroit-style pizza is way better than it needs to be. Take The Cadillac for example: It’s topped with gorgonzola cheese, fig preserves, shaved prosciutto, shaved parmesan and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. While Via 313’s most trafficked locations may be its trailers on East 6th and Rainey streets, it also has two brick-and-mortar restaurants, including one in central Austin that opened just last week.
Chris Bostick’s casual cocktail den on Rainey Street, Half Step, offers the best of both worlds: A dark and serious bar inside and a solid patio outside for loitering around picnic tables.
INFINITE MONKEY THEOREM
To get away from the SXSW madness, head to the vast taproom of one of the city’s newest additions, Infinite Monkey Theorem. This urban winery—an import from Denver—sources many of the grapes for its local vino from Texas. The eclectic and Wi-Fi-equipped tasting room has wine on tap, wine in cans and wine in slushy form.
THE WHITE HORSE
The White Horse is the best place to drink a beer and listen to young, country musicians play Texas-style honky tonk. The bar’s crowd is surprisingly diverse (co-owner Denis O'Donnell credits that to their no-nonsense, everybody’s welcome attitude), and in true White Horse F-the-establishment form, the bar will only feature local musicians during SXSW.
Some say waiting in long lines for food tricks your brain into thinking it tastes better than it actually is. Others believe waiting three hours or more for a bite of Franklin Barbecue’s 18-hour smoked brisket is totally worth it. (See: Kanye West, who had to stand in line like everybody else when he showed up for lunch.) We recommend passing out in the Franklin queue after a long night of partying instead of going home. Doors open at 11 A.M. and close when the grub runs out.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She lives in Texas. Find her on Twitter: @amshep