Editor's note, April 2016: Looking for the latest in great Austin dining? Check out Matthew Odam's 25 Best Restaurants list, Austin's Best Pizza and Top 12 Burgers in Austin. For an update on restaurants in this list that are now closed, see the note appended to the bottom of this article.
There's a thin line between `casual' and `upscale' restaurants. For some, that line has a dollar sign: If an entrée peeks its head above $20, some might say you've crossed the line from family-friendly to anniversary-only. For me, the line is also drawn in menu chalk. It's the food. If a place is layering flavors like they do at East Side Show Room - even if the clientele sits on thrift-store chairs -the food elevates the experience to `upscale,' especially after a few artisan cocktails. Not all the restaurants in this sampler fit easily into the `upscale' category. When I reviewed Buenos Aires Cafe and Annies Café & Bar, for example, I rated them using the number system we created for casual restaurants rather than the star system we created for high-end places like Jeffrey's or III Forks. They're casual by day, more cosmopolitan by night. Hybrids. They're in this `upscale' sampler because the four-color gnocchi at Buenos Aires and the pan-roasted rabbit at Annies give them more in common with Trio than with Torchy's.
In either case, it helps to explain each system.
What the star ratings mean:
* : Food, service, atmosphere and value suffer flaws on every level.
** : Serious room for improvement, with a few bright spots.
*** : A good overall experience. Clear mission, solid execution.
**** : Excellent across the board. Perfect in some areas, with only a few small distractions.
***** : An extraordinary restaurant experience from start to finish.
What the number ratings mean:
The 10-point scale for casual dining - and places that are right on the line between casual and upscale - is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, 10 being the best.
The ratings in parentheses were awarded after full reviews, usually after more than one visit. Those restaurant descriptions without ratings come from single or otherwise limited visits.
Artisan Bistro. Chef Cesidio d'Andrea's French repertoire includes first-rate pâté, beef bourguignon and duck confit, but his bread is even better. 900 S. RM 620, Suite C107, Lakeway. 263-8728, www.artisanbistroaustin.com . (Reviewed 7/10: 7.5 out of 10)
Aquarelle. The soft knock of wooden floors, the tight embrace of small rooms and impossibly delicate sauces. When people say, `that romantic little French house off West Sixth,' they mean Aquarelle. 606 Rio Grande St. 479-8117, www.aquarellerestaurant.com .
Austin Land & Cattle Company. An upscale steakhouse without the pretense. In the lounge, try the rib-eye sandwich and Mexican martini. 1205 N. Lamar Blvd. 472-181, www.austinlandandcattlecompany.com .
Bess Bistro on Pecan. Like a turn-of-the-last-century New York chophouse, done in brick and aged leather in the vault space of the Stratford Arms building. Sandra Bullock's restaurant is a mix of high and low cuisines, from a croque monsieur and shepherd's pie to Creole shrimp and seared scallops. 500 W. Sixth St. 477-2377, www.bessbistro.com . (Reviewed 2/10: **)
Bistro 88. A well-traveled neighborhood place for sushi (the Daniel roll with asparagus, Thai chiles and four kinds of fish) and dishes like sweet wok-seared sesame shrimp and crispy roasted duck. 2712 Bee Cave Road. 328-8888, www.bistro88.com .
Braise. Simple bistro-style dishes in a gentrified, airy space dotted with whimsical paintings. Bring your own wine (for a $10 corkage fee) to pair with rich osso buco-style beef cheeks, Cajun-seared sea bass with smoked tomato and corn beurre blanc and shredded jerked pork. It will remind you of owner Parind Vora's other place, Restaurant Jezebel, which burned in July. 2121 E. Sixth St. 478-8700, www.braiseaustin.com . (Reviewed 9/10: **)
Buenos Aires Cafe. An emerging power-lunch haven with Argentinian specialties, including flaky empanadas, meaty sandwiches on crusty baguettes and South American pastries. Upscale dinners and wines at night. 1201 E. Sixth St. 382-1189. Also at 13500 Galleria Circle, Suite U120, Bee Cave. 441-9000, www.buenosairescafe.com . (Reviewed 9/09: 7.0 out of 10)
The Carillon. Josh Watkins has become one of the city's best chefs by starting with solid basics - coffee-rubbed New York strip, baked chicken, sea bass, pork belly - then building complexity in a setting part part hotel echo chamber, part science lab. AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center at UT, 1900 University Ave. 404-3689, www.thecarillonrestaurant.com . (Reviewed 11/09: ****)
Chez Nous. Classic French bistro with a casual elán, just off Sixth Street. A three-course `Menu Du Jour' is a low-cost way to have trout with crabmeat, housemade pâté and a dessert course of brie with apples. 510 Neches St. 473-2413, www.cheznousaustin.com .
Cool River Cafe. Part boys' club with a cigar lounge, part pickup bar, part upscale steakhouse with an encyclopedic wine list. Plus pool tables, shuffleboard and a theater-sized TV screen. Well-cooked meats and a good Caesar salad. 4001 Parmer Lane. 835-0010, www.coolrivercafe.com .
Corazón at Castle Hill. The rebirth of Castle Hill Cafe, with more emphasis on south-of-the-border dishes. The Mexican grilled chicken salad stands out, with corn-and-black bean relish and guacamole. 1101 W. Fifth St. 476-0728, www.corazonatcastlehill.com . (Reviewed 1/09: 6.8 out of 10)
Cover 3. A luxury sports bar named for a football pass defense. Excellent burgers with Parmesan-dusted fries, chicken-fried tenderloin steak and seared scallops to distract your date while you watch the game. 2700 W. Anderson Lane, Suite 202. 374-1121, www.cover-3.com . (Reviewed 1/10: 7.2 out of 10)
The Driskill Grill. Jonathan Gelman hasn't drawn the attention his predecessors enjoyed. That's too bad. Bandera quail with mushroom risotto and a dry-aged prime filet with Brussels sprout leaves were direct and elegant. In the Driskill Hotel at 604 Brazos St. 391-7162, www.driskillgrill.com .
East Side Show Room. A tilted buzz palace for vintage cocktails and food that leans heavily on local meat and produce (charcuterie, braised short ribs) and a steampunk vibe of endearing eccentricity. 1100 E. Sixth St. 467-4280, eastsideshowroom.com . (Reviewed 10/09: 7.2 out of 10)
8212 Wine Bar & Grill. Tall ceilings, amber glass, black-and-white pictures of Old Austin. An impressive place to take out-of-towners for garlic-seared tiger shrimp with fried avocado, cowboy rib-eye steak with mustard dem-glace and a no-nonsense wine list split among Old and New World styles. 8212 Barton Club Drive at the Barton Creek Resort & Spa. 329-7959, www.bartoncreek.com .
El Arbol. A multilevel Argentinian treehouse with grilled steaks and specialities like empanadas and matambre (sirloin rolled around spinach and boiled egg). Expansive and reasonable South American wine list. 3411 Glenview Ave. 323-5177, www.elarbolrestaurant.com . (Reviewed 4/10: ***)
Fabi and Rosi. A diorama of well-cooked dishes from the European panoply: garlicky French escargot, crisp German pork schnitzel, Spanish paella. 509 Hearn St. 236-0642, www.fabiandrosi.com . (Reviewed 7/09: **)
Finn & Porter. A towering sushi, seafood and chop house. A Niman Ranch pork chop carried the hint of a honeyed crust. A Sea Dragon sushi roll combined macadamia nut (texture), chopped tuna and serrano (flavor), green apple (for zest) and tiny fish roe (because why not?). 500 E. Fourth St., in the Hilton Austin hotel. 493-4900, www.finnandporter.com/austin .
Fonda San Miguel. Austin's don of interior Mexican attracts loyalists for its Sunday brunch, its colorful hacienda-style art and its reliance on a menu decades in the making. 2330 W. North Loop Blvd. 459-4121, www.fondasanmiguel.com . (Reviewed 9/09: ***)
Green Pastures. Elegant food. Elegant setting. Elegant service. A Victorian manor with peacocks roaming the grounds and dishes like tempura lobster tail, flatiron steak and New Orleans bread pudding. 811 W. Live Oak St. 444-4747, www.greenpasturesrestaurant.com .
Hudson's on the Bend. A rambling, celebrated warren of Southwestern cooking on a grand scale, including a mixed grill of exotic game and hot and crunchy trout. 3509 N. RM 620. 266-1369, www.hudsonsonthebend.com .
Izumi Japanese Sushi & Grill. Some of the most elegantly cut fish in the city, fluidly draped over perfect rice, the flavors as clean and fresh as the presentation. Plus teriyaki, tempura and noodles. 701 S. Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360), Suite 550. 328-3333, www.sushiizumi.com . (Reviewed 12/09: 7.8 out of 10)
Jasper's. In celebrity chef Kent Rathbun's tall-ceilinged temple to high Southern cuisine, the pecan-crusted trout with Jim Beam butter sauce and the barbecued pork tenderloin were matched only by the French toast with brûléed bananas and the professional service. 11506 Century Oaks Terrace, Suite 128, at the Domain. 834-4111, www.jaspers-restaurant.com .
Judges' Hill Restaurant. Fine dining at mid-level prices - chicken-fried antelope, sea bass, short ribs, handmade pasta - in a restored West Campus mansion and boutique hotel. 1900 Rio Grande St. 495-1857, www.mansionatjudgeshill.com .
Justine's. When the steak frites, the Côtes du Rhône and the Delta blues hit just right, it's Paris on the East Side. 4710 E. Fifth St. 385-2900, www.justines1937.com . (Reviewed 11/09: 8.1 out of 10)
Kenobi Restaurant and Sushi Bar. Asian surf-and-turf fusion in a lavish Arboretum setting, with dishes like coffee-rubbed steak and a tempura-crisped sushi roll and raw tuna crudo with mandarin and shallots. 10000 Research Blvd., No. 138A. 241-0119, www.kenobiaustin.com . (Reviewed February 2009: **)
La Condesa. Mexico City street food taken as far as chef René Ortiz's imagination can stretch in an edgy space with avant cocktails. 400-A W. Second St. 499-0300, www.lacondesaaustin.com . (Reviewed 5/09: ***)
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue. A muscular retreat for Southern-style carnivores from the chefs behind Perla's, turning out coriander-crusted barbecued ribs, brown-sugar brisket, deviled eggs, Cheddar-poblano grits and grilled fish. 401 W. Second St. 494-1500, www.lambertsaustin.com .
Maggiano's Little Italy. Hospitality, bounty and red-checked tablecloths, just like in the movies. Frank Sinatra on the soundtrack, fried calamari and veal Parmesan rigatoni with sausage on the table, with a fat piece of lasagna to take home. 10910 Domain Drive, Suite 100, in the Domain. 501-7870, www.maggianos.com . (Reviewed 4/10: ***)
Maria Maria La Cantina. Carlos Santana's venture in the Warehouse District puts a pricey pop spin on Mexican food. Chicken casserole with blackberry mole, fried plantains with Cotija cheese, soft duck tacos. 415 Colorado St. 687-6800, www.mariamariarestaurants.com .
Max's Wine Dive. This noisy Houston transplant delivers well on a promise of `upscale comfort food': fried chicken, truffled mac and cheese and alligator beignets. 207 San Jacinto Blvd. 904-0105, www.maxswinedive.com . (Reviewed 7/09: 6.3 out of 10)
Mirabelle. A plain strip-mall location conceals a tastefully appointed space bathed in amber light with a menu that ranges from Asian lobster crisps to bacon-wrapped redfish with yellow curry to perfect beef tenderloin with mushroom bread pudding. The wine list will make you look smart, even if you go with the least-expensive bottle. 8127 Mesa Drive, No. A100. 346-7900, www.mirabellerestaurant.com .
Mizu Prime Steak and Sushi. A lavish place for upscale rolls like the McLovin': crab, avocado, peppered tuna, serranos and balsamic vinegar. An impressive wine list, a full grill menu and sweeping views of the hills around Lake Travis. 3001 S. RM 620, Lakeway. 263-2801, www.mizuaustin.com .
Mulberry. The wine bar that wants to be more, with good roasted fish, pork belly and a two-fisted burger. Plus a well-curated wine list and a smart urban vibe. 360 Nueces St. 320-0297, www.mulberryaustin.com . (Reviewed 8/10: 7.5 out of 10)
Paggi House. Sharp cooking and cocktails in a renovated Central Austin landmark house. Potato-crusted salmon, coffee-rubbed venison, a blood-orange margarita. Upholstered outdoor deck seating for a skyline view. 200 Lee Barton Drive. 473-3700, www.paggihouse.com .
Parkside. Shawn Cirkiel's been a busy man, working on a pizza place called Backspace, doing a video with Maxim magazine, adding a balcony to his restaurant and getting in a sidewalk turf war with the Best Wurst hot-dog cart. Meanwhile, Parkside remains downtown's most progressive hybrid of raw seafood bar and Euro-style grill. 301 E. Sixth St. 474-9898, www.parkside-austin.com .
Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar. Last year's Newcomer of the Year made it through the seafood spikes of the Gulf oil spill and a visit from Anthony Bourdain. Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman Jr.'s approach still works: Find the best fish, oysters and meat. Do just enough to make them taste their best. Serve. 1400 S. Congress Ave. 291-7300, www.perlasaustin.com . (Reviewed 6/09: ***)
Perry's Steakhouse & Grille. You might argue that this Houston-bred steakhouse has all the décor finesse of a baroque cruise liner. But to judge Perry's on its titanic wine wall and bank-vault dining room is to miss something Austin appreciates to its core: Perry's knows its meat. The Flintstonian smoked pork chop is a bronzed butcher's tour of marbled fat, loin and pull-apart ribs. 114 W. Seventh St. 474-6300, www.perryssteakhouse.com .
Roaring Fork Stonelake. It's good to know that this Quarry Lake showboat isn't just for show. A cowboy aesthetic weaves through the smoke- and chile-edged menu, extending to green chile pork stew, seared salmon, creamy grits studded with jalapeños and bacon and a mile-high burger with a beef patty the size of a rodeo buckle. 10850 Stonelake Blvd., 342-2700. Also at 701 Congress Ave., 583-0000. www.eddiev.com . (Reviewed 8/09: ***)
Siena. A taste of Tuscany off Loop 360. In a castle setting right out of `Harry Potter,' a three-course dinner might include venison rib chops, a salad of red and gold beets and a chocolate torte with grappa-soaked cherries. 6203 N. Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360), Building B. 349-7667, www.sienarestaurant.com .
Steiner Ranch Steakhouse. A country-club environment with cowboy food. A Viking war club of a bone-in rib-eye was a perfect mid-rare with decent asparagus and potatoes. `Other Thans' include mussels, cedar-plank salmon, chicken-fried elk, lamb and a double-bone pork chop. 5424 Steiner Ranch Blvd. 381-0800, www.steinersteakhouse.com . (Reviewed 6/09: ***)
Sushi Zushi. This San Antonio and Dallas export is well-designed, from the blond wood and moss-green ceilings to the cushy curving banquettes and zen-tasteful booths. The menu is what the Facebook page would look like if a sushi bar married a Japanese cafeteria. 1611 W. Fifth St. 474-7000. Also at 3221 Feathergrass Court at the Domain. 834-8100, www.sushizushi.com .
III Forks. A flawless Austin Restaurant Week dinner of onion soup, filet mignon and cheesecake spoke volumes about this decidedly expensive and well-appointed steakhouse with animal-horn chandeliers, dark leather booths and white-jacketed waiters. 111 Lavaca St. 474-1776, www.3forks.com .
Tomo Sushi. A tight space with a mixed crowd, from `you-might-be-a-yuppie-if' couples to tattooed Goths. Single-entendre, PG-13 rolls abound: Sex on the Beach, Double D, Say My Name. But the Who's Your Daddy Roll rocked, with spicy tuna and asparagus, wrapped generously with salmon and spicy sauce. 4101 W. Parmer Lane, Suite E. 821-9472 www.tomosushiaustin.com . (Reviewed 12/09: 6.2 out of 10)
Trading Post Wine Bar & Grill. A modest surf-and-turf restaurant carved from a former barbecue place with crab cakes, beef filet with shrimp scampi, plus grilled fish and shrimp and chicken pasta dishes. 12701 Texas 71 W., Bee Cave. 428-5727, www.tradingpostbeecave.com . (Reviewed 6/09: **)
Trio. One visit starred truffled hamachi, five-spice short ribs and a flight of dessert wines. Another visit belonged to a pork chop with muscat grape chutney, grilled quail and s'mores with graham cracker ice cream. An expensive place with creative happy hours and fixed-price dinners to soften the blow. 98 San Jacinto Blvd. at the Four Seasons Hotel. 685-8300, www.fourseasons.com/austin .
Vespaio. There's no denying the enduring popularity of Alan Lazarus' Italian hideaway. The `beehive' buzzes with local celebrities and foodie scene-makers. The extensive Italian wine selection and cooking back it up: spinach lasagna bolognese, a `bacon-and-egg' pizza and pumpkin zeppole. 1610 S. Congress Ave. 441-6100, www.austinvespaio.com .
Wink. The second jewel in the crown of Mark Paul and Stewart Scruggs, who also own Zoot. A flexible menu might include beef tartare with truffled aïoli, venison with baby sweet potatoes or seared sweetbreads. The wine list includes more than 50 by the glass. 1014 N. Lamar Blvd. 482-8868, www.winkrestaurant.com .
Zandunga Mexican Bistro. Deconstructed guacamole, chile de arbol spaetzle and pork with guava-quince demi-glace from the family behind the Tex-Mex taqueria Mi Madre's. But I don't think we're on the border anymore. 1000 E. 11th St. 473-4199, www.zandungamexicanbistro.com .
Zoot. The turmoil of moving from West Austin to Bee Cave has died down, and Zoot is back in the business of turning the season's best produce into progressive dishes like smoked corn soup, chile-braised short ribs and yes, that roasted chicken with kale and tarragon jus that you order every single time. 11715 Bee Cave Road, 477-6535, www.zootrestaurant.com . (Reviewed 5/09: ***)