100 places: Scenes from a year in Austin dining
In Austin, you can write your own ticket for price, quality, variety and value. Here's a sample of 100 restaurants I've visited in the last year that illustrate the highs, lows and in-betweens.
Just last month, the Zagat Survey released a report showing Austin as the least-expensive place to dine out in a summary of 27 selected cities, with the average meal costing $26.74.
Tokyo, by comparison, was $93; Paris, $78; New York, $41; and Houston, $29. The overall U.S. average was $34.62.
Who knew our restaurants were so cheap?
That same summary also showed Austin having the lowest average price for a meal at the 20 most expensive restaurants in town. Our city came in at $51, far below Dallas-Fort Worth at $69, New York at $153 and Tokyo at an eye-popping $271. The national average was $76.
My own experience is that there's no such thing as an 'average' when it comes to paying the check in Austin. Not when I can get tacos al pastor for less than $2 apiece at Rosita's or a righteous Black Buffalo Burger with sweet-potato fries at Black Sheep Lodge for $6.99 or a chicken and goat cheese crepe at Flip Happy for $6.75. I could eat well for less than $10 a meal every day at Austin's hard-working trailers, diners and cafes.
On the other side of that equation, I could pay $50-plus for a one-night special of hamachi with shaved truffles at Trio or $39 for a value-driven three-course dinner in that same Four Seasons restaurant.
The point is, you can write your own ticket for price, quality, variety and value. Here's a sample of 100 restaurants I've visited in the past year that illustrate the highs, lows and in-betweens of dining out in Austin.
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.
Bella Sera. Modest Italian food at best, with dozens of mid-priced family-style dishes. Good thin-crust pizza. 11905 Bee Cave Road. 263-0455. Also at 1125 U.S. 281, Marble Falls. 830-798-2661. (Reviewed October 2009: 4.8 out of 10)
Bennu Coffee. A 24-hour escape for good coffee and food from Torchy's Tacos and other quality vendors. 2001 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 487-4700, www.bennucoffee.com.
Black Sheep Lodge. Good burgers, especially the Black Buffalo Burger with sweet-potato fries, and a wide selection of beer. 2108 S. Lamar Blvd. 707-2744, www.blacksheeplodge.com. (Reviewed October 2009: 5.8 out of 10)
Blu Cafe. A bright, contemporary Euro-style coffeeshop by day and lounge by night with light food. The chicken panini is especially good. 360 Nueces St. 904-5666, www.bluaustin.com. (Reviewed March 2009: 6.5 out of 10)
Blue Dahlia. Salads, cheeses, light fish and meat dishes, plus open-face sandwiches called tartines on good bread. Fun, inexpensive wines and beers. 1115 E. 11th St. 542-9542, www.bluedahliabistro.com. (Reviewed June 2009: 7.6 out of 10)
The Boiling Pot. Old-fashioned pots of corn, potatoes, seasoning, sausage and seafood, poured on the table for a hands-on experience. Dozens of ice-cold beers. 700 E. Sixth St. 472-0985, www.theboilingpot.ypguides.net.
Borboleta Gourmet Living Cuisine. Food that's vegan, kosher, gluten-free and raw, with nothing heated to more than 115 degrees Fahrenheit. 1221 W. Sixth St., 828-7404, www.borboletagourmet.com.
Buenos Aires Café East. An emerging power-lunch haven with Argentinian specialties, including flaky empanadas, meaty sandwiches on crusty baguettes and pastries like a cornmeal version of a moon pie. Upscale dinners and wines at night. 1201 E. Sixth St. 382-1189. Sister cafe at 2414 S. First St. 441-9000, www.buenosairescafe.com. (Reviewed September 2009: 7.0 out of 10)
Cabo Bob's. Mexican-spiced beef, pork, chicken, fish and veggie burritos and wraps along the lines of Freebirds, but not quite there yet. Pure sugar Dublin Dr Pepper on tap. 500 E. Ben White Blvd. 432-1111, www.cabobobs.com.
Casa Colombia. A homey, inexpensive place serving good arroz con pollo, corn cakes called arepas, empanadas, grilled steak with fried plantains and other Latin American dishes. 1614 E. Seventh St. 495-9425, www.casa-colombia.com. (Reviewed August 2009: 7.4 out of 10)
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.
Chuy's. The original home of Elvis' favorite Tex-Mex stays steady in the face of expansion, with crisp rellenos, shrimp enchiladas with tomatillo sauce and a well-done kids' menu. And those sweet, sweet frozen margaritas. 1728 Barton Springs Road. 474-4452. More locations at www.chuys.com.
Chon Som. Separate menus of Thai specialties and sushi. And they toss a mean plate of luscious, spicy pad Thai. 2013 Wells Branch Parkway, No. 109. 989-5559, www.chonsom.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 spicing. 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 January 2009: 6.8 out of 10)
Cuatro's. Watermelon aguas frescas and seared ahi tuna tacos at a sports bar? Yes. But that doesn't change the sports-bar vibe, which is great on a Longhorns game day or when the European soccer games are on the big-screen. Bring your dog. 1004 W. 24th St. 243-6361, www.cuatrosaustin.com.
The Daily Grill. Comforting American dishes like chicken pot pie with a chef's hat of puff pastry and big chunks of tender chicken. Happy hour is a treat here, with food options for just a few dollars. 11506 Century Oaks Terrace, Suite 100, the Domain. 836-4200, www.dailygrill.com.
Daily Juice. Go, go, goji berries! Raw-food specialists and dealers in mad smoothie concoctions such as the Goji Quik with organic coconut oil and Himalayan salt and the Chocolate Prana with raw almond butter. 4500 Duval St. 380-9046. Barton Springs Road and Lake Austin Boulevard locations at www.dailyjuice.org.
Doc's Motorworks. Agreeable beer-and-burger patio and sports bar with a great view of the weekend parade along South Congress. Good selection of Texas beers on tap. 1123 S. Congress Ave. 448-9181. More locations at www.eatdrinkdocs.com.
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. The piano player might have a kazoo. The waitress might be dressed like Amelia Earhart. 1100 E. Sixth St. 467-4280, eastsideshowroom.com. (Reviewed October 2009: 7.2 out of 10)
El Chilito. Simple tacos, done well for the right price. Favorites include savory cochinita pibil with pickled onions and tortilla-crusted fish with slaw and jalapeño aïoli. Good coffees and aguas frescas.1025 Barton Springs Road. 609-8923. Also at 2219 Manor Road. 382-3797, www.elchilito.com.
El Tacorrido. A perfect corrugated metal cube planted in a strip-mall parking lot. A sticky plastic jug 'chile chutney' dresses up carne guisada tacos with potatoes and bell peppers. Pickled pink onions made the shredded pork carnitas taco special. 9320 N. Lamar Blvd. 873-8602. Also at 811 Berkman Drive. 628-1034.
Elroy Sausage Co. In the mood for a kangaroo burger? Here's your place for barbecue on the exotic side: elk, antelope, buffalo, wild boar. Surprisingly good beef and sausage, too. Small-town friendly. 13912 FM 812, Elroy. 512-243-1333, www.elroysausageco.com.
Fadó Irish Pub & Restaurant. An 'authentic Irish pub' that feels all wrong until the fish and chips arrive with battered, crunchy potato wedges, two big pieces of cod and a side of surprisingly showy cole slaw spiked with red and green bell pepper. 214 W. Fourth St. 457-0172, www.fadoirishpub.com.
Fion Wine Pub. Sandwiches, snacks and creative cheese flights (with more cafe-style choices at the Steiner Ranch location). But a better reason to go is a crowded tap wall with some 40 beer choices, available in four-glass flights. 11715 RM 2244, Suite 100, Bee Cave. 263-7988. Also in Steiner Ranch at 2900 N. Quinlan Park Road, Suite A150. 266-3466, www.fionwinepub.com.
Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries. A celebrated franchise (just ask them) of great big bland burgers with unexpected free add-ons like A-1 steak sauce, green peppers and grilled mushrooms. Boisterously friendly and fast. 3208-B Guadalupe St. 452-4300, www.fiveguys.com. (Reviewed February 2009: 6.2 out of 10)
Flip Happy Crepes. The cool aunt of all mobile Austin crêpe operations isn't afraid to blast your fillings out with flavor, like with the garlicky kick of a crêpe stuffed with moist roasted chicken, goat cheese and sweet caramelized onions. Be prepared to wait. 401 Jessie St. 552-9034, www.fliphappycrepes.com. (Reviewed January 2009: 7.9 out of 10)
Fortune Chinese Seafood.The front part is a restrained Chinese bistro with a teapot display and red upholstery; the back part is a bright banquet facility the size of a soccer pitch. The menu offers several hundred dishes, from real Chinese and pan-Asian to Americanized styles and dim sum. 10901 N. Lamar Blvd. 490-1426, www.fortuneaustin.com.
Frank. For a restaurant that serves rabbit-and-antelope hot dogs and bacon-infused bourbon, Frank is more laid-back than you'd expect. The Beanie-Weenie cup is a good value, and the Chicago dog does its best to emulate the real thing, down to the sport peppers and iridescent relish. 407 Colorado St. 494-6916, www.hotdogscoldbeer.com.
Fricano's Deli. A neighborhood shop near the UT campus with a lived-in feel and a spicy Reuben sandwich on smooth panini-pressed rye bread with housemade Rocket sauce that draws from mustard, mayo and Tabasco. Homemade cupcakes, too. 104 E. 31st St. 482-9980, www.fricanosdeli.com.
The Frisco Shop.The last diner in the storied Night Hawk chain has kept its Old Austin soul after its move to a new location last year. Solid burgers, cole slaw, Tex-Mex, chopped steaks and most important, pies. 6801 Burnet Road. 459-6279, www.frisconighthawk.com.
The Good Knight. Medieval-grade food in a dark, thick-wood environment to match. Chicken pot pie, shepherd's pie, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, pâté. Vintage cocktails with fresh fruit and herbs. 1300 E. Sixth St. 628-1250, www.myspace.com/thegoodknightaustin. (Reviewed June 2009: 7.1 out of 10)
Good Seed Organic. A trailer specializing in breakfast tacos, sandwiches and smoothies that use fresh hemp milk, sprouted grains, raw organic cheeses, agave, farm eggs and fresh produce, with vegan, raw-food and gluten-free options. 1402 W. Oltorf St. 444-7333, www.goodseedorganic.com.
Green Pastures. Elegant food. Elegant setting. Elegant service. A Victorian manor with peacocks roaming the grounds and dishes like tempura lobster tail, flat-iron steak with beurre blanc and New Orleans bread pudding. 811 W. Live Oak St. 444-4747, www.greenpasturesrestaurant.com.
The Grove. More than a wine bar with smart bottles and flights, this shaded spot just west of West Lake Hills does above-average crab cakes and pizza. Our wine steward knew his business. 6317 Bee Cave Road. 327-8822, www.grovewinebar.com.
Habana SoCo. On Saturdays and Sundays, this is the place to be for a Cuban-style brunch with pork chops, fried plantains, tropical fruit and custom-brewed beer. 2728 S. Congress Ave. 443-4253, www.habana.com. (Reviewed February 2009: 7.8 out of 10)
Hat Creek Burger Co. Fresh-beef cheeseburgers, fries and hand-dipped Blue Bell shakes. Simple, righteous trailer food, now with a brick-and-mortar shop, too. 2209 Rio Grande St. 732-2025. Also at 5400 Burnet Road. www.hatcreekburgers.com.
Hecho en Mexico. Oaxacan-style mole dishes such as Mancha Manteles with pork and a deep red sauce rich with the harvest perfume of cinnamon, sweet potato, pineapple and plantains. 6001 W. William Cannon Drive, No. 301. 301-0058, www.hechoenmexico-restaurant.com. (Reviewed July 2009: 6.1 out of 10)
Hill-Bert's Burgers. Thirty-five years of burgers, hand-dipped onion rings and good chicken sandwiches on dense whole-wheat buns. Hilbert Maldonado's empire is spread among three old mission-style Taco Bell shops, with character to match. 7211 Burnet Road, 452-2317. Also at 1503 W. 35th St., 452-3287; and 5340 Cameron Road, 371-3717. www.hill-bertsburgers.com. (Reviewed May 2009: 6.8 out of 10)
The Hub. A straightforward combination of malt shop, sports bar and family-friendly, burger-salad-and-sandwich spot, specializing in a half-pound 'Fatty' burger with house-fried chips. 3815 Dry Creek Drive. 432-5390, www.thehubaustin.com.
Hudson's on the Bend. A rambling, celebrated warren of Southwestern cooking on a grand scale: wild boar, duck with fig and jalapeño, snapper in a pecan crust with corn bread pudding. 3509 RM 620 N. 266-1369, www.hudsonsonthebend.com.
Iron Works BBQ. In this red corrugated-metal smokehouse, the sampler plate says it all: a big beef rib, moist brisket with a nice black char and Iron Works' own sausage. 100 Red River St. 478-4855, www.ironworksbbq.com.
J. Black's Feel Good Lounge. Part nightclub, part restaurant. Mostly nightclub. Loud and crowded. But the hummus, Kobe sliders, lamb chops and the Omnivore pizza are solid. 710 W. Sixth St. 433-6954, www.jblacks.com. (Reviewed February 2009: 6.0 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.
Jeffrey's. Chef Deegan McClung is running the kitchen at this ever-genteel West Austin institution, using avant techniques to execute short ribs, halibut cheeks, oysters and more. 1204 West Lynn St. 477-5584, www.jeffreysofaustin.com.
Joe's Bakery & Coffee Shop. More than 70 years of breakfast tacos, good coffee, better pastries and Tex-Mex standards in a family-style diner. 2305 E. Seventh St. 472-0017, www.joesbakery.com.
Judges' Hill Restaurant. Fine dining at mid-level prices — duck, sea bass, short ribs, charcuterie — with creative, value-priced wine flights in a restored West Campus mansion and boutique hotel. 1900 Rio Grande St. 495-1857, www.mansionatjudgeshill.com.
Karibu. Family-style Ethiopian food, including rich doro wot with chicken and boiled eggs and curried beef alicha wot. Coffee can be served in a ceremonial buna style, poured from an earthenware jug, accompanied by smoking, aromatic charcoal. 1209 E. Seventh St. 320-5454, www.ethiopianrestaurantaustin.com.
Le Café Crêpe. Yellow walls in this small bistro pulse with European advertising signs. Savory and sweet crêpes are made right at the counter, including 'La Fromagere' with brie cheese and pears. 200 San Jacinto Blvd. 480-0084, www.cafecrepeofaustin.com.
Lucky J's Chicken and Waffles. You haven't lived until you've folded a syrupy waffle around a glistening hunk of hot fried chicken. This red trailer with picnic tables does a decent job with both. 5703 Burnet Road, 296-9914, www.luckyjs.com. (Reviewed April 2009: 6.8 out of 10)
LuLu B's. A bustling trailer with fresh, well-executed Vietnamese sandwiches, vermicelli bowls and French coffee with sweetened condensed milk. 2101 S. Lamar Blvd. 921-4828, www.myspace.com/lulubssandwiches.
Maki. Like Subway for sushi. Pick the base of your roll (seaweed or soy paper with rice), choose your meat (grilled beef or chicken, shrimp tempura, eel, raw fish and so on), then add vegetables, sauces and toppings. 10515 N. MoPac Blvd. (Loop 1), Suite A165. 243-8298, www.maki.us.com. (Reviewed April 2009: 5.9 out of 10)
Max's Wine Dive.This noisy Houston transplant delivers well on a promise of 'upscale comfort food': fried chicken, truffled mac and cheese, nuggets of fried alligator in a sweet glaze. The wine selection is impressive. The wine service needs some work. 207 San Jacinto Blvd. 904-0105, www.maxswinedive.com. (Reviewed July 2009: 6.3 out of 10)
Milano Cafe. Solid Italian food in a congenial coffee-shop setting. Rich bolognese, crisp pizza with bubbly character, tiramisu with a big espresso kick. 4601 Southwest Parkway, Suite 109. 428-6076. (Reviewed October 2009: 8.0 out of 10)
Mizu Prime Steak and Sushi.The name says it all, with the personnel to back it up: Christopher Bauer from Finn & Porter and Uchi veteran Tatsuki. Plus an impressive wine list and sweeping views of the hills around Lake Travis. 3001 RM 620 S., Lakeway. 263-2801, www.mizuaustin.com.
Mother's Cafe & Garden. A vegetarian restaurant with a sweeping range, from Tex-Mex enchiladas with artichokes to rich Italian lasagna. 4215 Duval St. 451-3994, www.motherscafeaustin.com.
Mulberry. Who'd have thought a wine bar would have a two-handed burger with Gruyère cheese, shaved tomato, crackling pancetta and a fried egg? Believe it. Plus a well-curated wine list and a smart urban vibe. 360 Nueces St. 320-0297, www.mulberryaustin.com.
Old Pecan Street Cafe. The same crêpes, quiche, coffee and brisk cafe service you remember from years past. This is a good thing. 310 E. Sixth St. 478-2491, www.oldpecanstcafe.com.
Original Hoffbrau Steaks.You don't come here for great steaks. You go because it's a great slice of Austin history, with orange Formica, spoken menus and a screen door. The steaks, onion rings, fried potatoes and garlic dressing are fine. But its' the people who make the Hoffbrau special. 613 W. Sixth St. 472-0822, www.originalhoffbrausteaks.com. (Reviewed March 2009: 6.8 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 cigar and a skyline view. 200 Lee Barton Drive. 473-3700, www.paggihouse.com.
Péché.The giddy thrill of drinking absinthe poured the time-tested way of Poe and Hemingway, plus housemade lemoncello and throwback drinks like a gin bramble prop up a cursory French-styled menu of steak frites and coq au vin, 208 W. Fourth St. 495-9669, www.pecheaustin.com. (Reviewed February 2009: 5.8 out of 10)
Pie Slice Bakery.Two Chez Zee pastry alumni started this cake-and-pie shop in late 2008. The coconut tres leches cake and raspberry chocolate polkadot cheesecake are outstanding, as are the breakfast tacos wrapped in housemade flour tortillas. Salads, sandwiches, pizzas and pasta, too. 2024 S. Lamar Blvd. 444-6644, www.pieslicebakery.com.
Polvo's. Among the attractions — besides the salsa bar with the colors of the pepper-hot rainbow — are custom enchiladas with chicken, beef, cheese, vegetables, fish, shrimp or al pastor and sauces outside the classical Tex-Mex canon. 2004 S. First St. 441-5446, www.polvos.ypguides.net.
Porfirio's Tacos. A temple of salsa verde worship and a blue-collar favorite for simple meat, egg and bean tacos at low prices. 1512-B Holly St. 476-5030.
Rosie's Tamale House.This family-owned spot used to be in the boonies. Now it's just west of the Hill Country Galleria. The area has changed, but Rosie's hasn't. My favorite Velveeta-style Tex-Mex, fajitas and taco salads with stewed chicken. The regulars know to bring their own beer. 13436 W. Texas 71. 263-5245.
Rosita's Al Pastor. Trust your instincts and the name on the trailer. Day or night, some of the best al pastor tacos in town: pork that's aromatic, cheap, crunchy and tender at the same time. 1911 E. Riverside Drive.
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.
Silhouette Restaurant and Bar.The button-down sushi — nigiri with briny salmon eggs, silky-fleshed salmon and tuna, smoky eel and sweet octopus — plays wingman to the bar's aloha-shirted drinks, including a fruit-sweet kiwi saketini, three-way flights of sake and a flirty array of bubble teas with tapioca pearls. 718 Congress Ave. 478-8899.
Spec's. Is there anything better than a liquor-store lunch? Not when the blue-cheese bacon burger, beef-and-pâte sandwich, Frito pie and corned-beef Reuben are this good and this cheap. 4970 W. U.S. 290. 366-8260. More locations at www.specsonline.com. (Reviewed December 2008: 8.2 out of 10)
Stallion Grill. Good, fortifying food from a cafeteria-style line. A daily special (smothered pork chops, turkey, meatloaf), barbecue plates, chicken-fried steak, catfish, burgers and 10 or so steaming sides. 5201 Airport Blvd. 380-9433, www.stalliongrill.com. (Reviewed July 2009: 6.9 out of 10)
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, www.sushizushi.com.
Tam Deli & Cafe. The French influence endures in Vietnamese cuisine. And we thank them for the banh mi sandwiches on crusty baguettes, filled by turns with lemongrass beef, char-grilled pork, pâte, cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro and pickled carrots. 8222 N. Lamar Blvd., D33. 834-6458.
Taquerias Arandas No. 5. Say it with me: 'Plato combinado con fajita y al pastor.' I've ordered it in the morning, at noon and into the groggy late night, and it's always the same: smoking hot ribbons of thin beef and charry orange cubes of pork with avocado salad, rice and refried beans. 2448 S. First St. 2448 S. First St. 707-0887.
Taqueria Valle de Bravo. The free tortilla chips come with beans, not just a bowl of salsa. Go right for the quesadillas fritas, an order of five fried tacos filled with chicken, tomatoes, onions, cabbage and sour cream, dusted with tangy white cheese. 7110-C Cameron Road, 323-9578.
Taste of Ethiopia. Ethiopian immigrants Woinee Mariam and her husband, Solomon Hailu, bring the spices and hospitality of Africa to Pflugerville. Sweet cabbage and carrots (tikil gomen), peppery beef tibbs and spiced split lentils coexist in harmony on fresh injera bread. 1466 Grand Avenue Parkway, Pflugerville. 251-4053, www.tasteofethiopiaaustin.com. (Reviewed May 2009: 8.0 out of 10)
34th Street Cafe. Fresh, well-sauced bistro food in an environment that's nice without being stuffy: Caesar salad with Parmesan toast and a bright silver anchovy filet; salmon with spicy Thai green coconut curry and tomato-orange couscous. 1005 W. 34th St., 371-3400, www.34thstreetcafe.com.
Threadgill's World Headquarters.Thriving for so long they sometimes take you for granted, the staff here still turns out brag-worthy chicken-fried steak, cheesy squash casserole and dozens of other Austin home-cooking staples. 301 W. Riverside Drive, 472-9304. Also at 6416 N. Lamar Blvd. 451-5440, www.threadgills.com.
III Forks. One 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.
Tucci's Southside Subs. Tucci's feels like a neighborhood place — not the newest, not the prettiest, but one that makes a sandwich to remember: the Southside Authentic Italian Gourmet. 801 E. William Cannon Drive, No. 240. 440-1850. Also at 7101 W. Texas 71. 288-7414, www.southsidesubsaustin.com.
Uncle Billy's Brew & Que.The barbecue will fill you up, but skip the starchy sliders. The beer is the reason to be here, with a half-dozen house beers on tap, from a dry, kolsch-style blonde ale to a hoppy pale ale to a 'special malt tap' that might be a smoked porter on one visit or a coffee stout on another. 1530 Barton Springs Road. 476-0100, www.unclebillysaustin.com. (Reviewed November 2008: 5.8 out of 10)
Verde's Mexican Parrilla. Insanely popular bar and grill with friendly service and a backyard lawn like a football field for the kids. From the menu: a chipotle-grilled pork chop, a deep-fried chile relleno with chicken and a housemade appetizer sampler with stuffed jalapeños, fish tacos, fajita nachos, quesadillas and guacamole. 16018 Hamilton Pool Road. 263-0500, www.verdesmexican.com. (Reviewed April 2009: 8.0 out of 10)
Verona Ristorante Italiano.This cozy space seems ready to be a neighborhood stop for family Italian in Oak Hill, with verdant muraled walls, a bar bristling with wine bottles and a twinkle-lit wooden deck. Vegetable lasagne with mushrooms and spinach is layered beautifully. 7101 W. Texas 71, Suite E-1. 288-3800, www.veronaustin.com. (Reviewed October 2009: 6.0 out of 10)
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 aioli, venison with baby sweet potatoes or seared sweetbreads. The wine list includes more than 50 the glass. 1014 N. Lamar Blvd. 482-8868, www.winkrestaurant.com.
Zax Pints & Plates. An above-average neighborhood bar and grill that's aiming to move up one more tier with steak, seared tuna, duck and scallops to go along with its modest wine list and its not-so-modest collection of 16 draft and almost 20 bottled beers. 312 Barton Springs Road. 481-0100, www.zaxaustin.com.
This year, the American-Statesman and austin360.com started using a new ratings system for restaurant reviews. We use two systems, one for fine dining and one for casual restaurants, because their approaches to food, service, atmosphere and value are so different that to rate the best French cooking and the best french fries on the same scale would paint misleading pictures of both. There's no empirical definition of 'fine' and 'casual' dining. My experiences at each place have guided that determination.
To be as fair as possible, ratings are given only after full reviews with a wide sampling of dishes. (Those ratings are shown in parentheses in this section.) Limited visits and single-dish reviews don't carry ratings.
Fine dining: We live in a five-star world, fostered and codified by the citizen soldiers of the Internet. We are accustomed to five-star systems on Yelp.com, Amazon and our own reader ratings on austin360.com. Our star ratings will come from weighted scores in four categories: food, service, atmosphere and value, with food and service carrying the most weight. Here's what the ratings mean:
Casual dining: The 10-point casual-dining scale (10 being the highest) allows for more meaningful distinctions than simple up-or-down ratings. The system also is based on weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value — but with more weight given to food and value.
— Mike Sutter