I may get paid to dine out now, but I still visit restaurants for the pure love of it. I savor the camaraderie of shared experiences and the comfort and thrill you can find at bowling alley bars and sushi counters. I miss those moments. I miss my friends. And I miss supporting hardworking and creative individuals around town.
Yes, dining rooms have reopened at most restaurants across the city. So when I say I miss some of the following meals or experiences, I realize that, in theory, one could partake in some of them now, but I miss these in the way I once knew them and look forward to returning to them in a safer and less fraught not-too-distant future. (And while I name quite a few below, some other favorites of mine aren’t listed here but can be found sprinkled throughout other parts of this year’s Dining Guide.)
Trying to decide if I should order my Calabrese pizza at ABGB after my second Superliner IPA or my third.
Driving out to the edge of the Hill Country to visit Apis and remind myself that some of the best sourcing and delicate execution in the city isn’t in the city at all.
Finding a spot amid the affable folks usually seated at the bar at Aviary Wine & Kitchen, learning about wine from the bartenders and literary wine list and being surprised by the latest creative dish to come out of the small kitchen.
The special mix of casualness and sophistication that has come to define Barley Swine, which regularly features the most exciting tasting menu in town, delivered by a friendly and professional staff.
Reminding myself that vegan food, like the Buffalo cauliflower wings at Beer Plant, also can be great bar food.
Deciding if I should go to Biderman’s Deli for a Rosen’s bagel with lox at breakfast or wait till lunch so I can take down a fat pastrami sandwich.
Sitting on the patio at Bouldin Creek Cafe, reminding myself what I loved about Austin 20 years ago, and eating one of the best veggie burgers in town.
Picking a bartender or the owner’s mind while nerding out over the wine list at Bufalina and deciding whether I’ll order the meat plate or a seasonal Neapolitan pizza.
Wondering what it would be like to visit Peru while eating empanadas and taking some alfajores to go from Cafe Nena’i.
The simple perfection of a turkey club or an Old Fashioned at Carpenters Hall.
Playing line cook and trying not to finish all the banchan while I grill my own meat at Charm Korean BBQ.
Escaping to an out-of-the-way nook in Paris with a meal of steak frites and red wine at Chez Nous.
Marveling over how something as seemingly one-note as cumin lamb at China Family can taste so complex.
Migas, biscuits and a sense of history at Cisco’s.
Tricking myself into thinking I am lounging into twilight at a friend’s country ranch with charcuterie and cocktails at Contigo.
Subbing my pulled pork sandwich fix for barbecue jackfruit at Counter Culture.
Ordering cochinita pibil and an avocado margarita at Curra’s Grill and wondering why I sometimes forget that it’s so reliable.
Texas wines, fried chicken Sunday and pastrami sandwich every day at Dai Due.
Knowing that when I am craving roast duck I’m headed to Din Ho Chinese BBQ.
Dipping velvety folds of premium meats into simmering broth in the wooden wonderland that is DipDipDip Tatsu-Ya.
Sitting on the rooftop patio at El Alma with a plate of pork pastor quesadillas, a frosty piñaritaand friends as day turns to night, just close enough to downtown to see it but not hear it.
Kicking off chile en nogada season with my favorite version in town at El Naranjo.
Awaiting Emmer & Rye’s dim sum cart to pass by our table while we geek out on natural wine.
Escaping the sun and eating light with a grain bowl (or maybe heavy with a fried shrimp po’boy) on the patio at Epicerie.
Trying to persuade myself that maybe this time I shouldn’t once again order the risotto, mushroom ravioli and escargot at Fabi & Rosi, and then doing it anyway.
Feeling like a well-heeled University of Texas grad (which I’m not) while surveying the abundant Sunday spread at Fonda San Miguel.
Arriving at Franklin Barbecue at 8 a.m. with a mug of coffee and trying to get a little bit of work done while making friends with strangers from around the world as we listen to classic country and wait to eat some of the best barbecue in America.
Watching the World Cup with a plate of wood-grilled chimichurri skirt steak and too much of the city’s best queso at Fresa’s on South First Street. Yes, the World Cup only comes every four years, but this formula works well anytime.
Tricking myself that I’m in Maine even though I’m actually in North Austin at Garbo’s eating a lobster roll.
Folding spongy pieces of injera bread to scoop up lentils and greens at Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant & Bar.
Listening to chefs Kevin Fink, Tavel Bristol and their team of chefs and servers geek out over ingredients, preparations and sourcing at Hestia during a meal that spools out over three hours.
The aromatics enveloping me as I lift the lids on the lunch buffet at Himalaya Kosheli.
Stopping in for a quick slice at Home Slice North Loop in between lunch and dinner, or heading to the restaurant’s outdoor bar for an after-dinner Manhattan.
Attempting to finish an entire chicken fried steak at Hoover’s Cooking after an afternoon at Disch-Falk Field watching Longhorns Baseball.
Taking in a soccer match on the big screen at Hopfields while getting educated on beer and checking out the daily specials.
Ordering chocolates and amaro with my wife after too much pasta at Intero.
Entering Interstellar BBQ with great anticipation surrounding the day specials. Maybe Frito pie sausage?
Pulling up one of the hefty saddle stools to the bar at Jeffrey’s for a cocktail and bar steak or snacking on crab toast over a bottle of wine next to the fireplace in the lounge.
Juniper does double duty as one of my favorite places to dine alone (at the bar) and celebrate special occasions with friends and family over pasta and grilled meat.
The rich vinyl, strong cocktails, joyful abandon, cool staff and butter-soaked escargot at Justine’s on a night that unwinds into early morning.
Misjudging the strength of the creative cocktails at Kemuri Tatsu-Ya and correctly ordering all of the grilled fish and meat skewers.
The opportunity to visit the sushi bar/apartment that chef Otto Phan built at Kyoten Sushiko to see how his mentee, chef Sarah Cook, is carrying on the restaurant’s legacy.
Not taking grief from barbecue purist friends as I choose a pulled pork or chopped beef sandwich from the menu at La Barbecue.
Sharing tacos and fresh guacamole with friends while sipping on the city’s best margarita at La Condesa before hitting a show at ACL Live.
Soaking up a little bit of excess from the bar with tacos and conchas from La Mexicana.
The sense that I’m in South Texas when I wrap fatty shreds of barbacoa in fluffy homemade flour tortillas at La Posada.
Having my order already decided, from the beet hummus to the birthday cake ice cream sandwiches, by the time I sit down to order my cocktail at Launderette.
Choosing between the spicy chicken, lamb and traditional pork banh mi at chef Tebi Nguyen’s Le Bleu.
Seeing if I can save room for Mason jar cheesecake following a housemade Reuben and chicken with green chili grits with family at Leaning Pear in Wimberley after a swim at Blue Hole.
The crunch of a fried chicken sandwich, the juicy spill of an oversize burger and the crisp relief of a cold beer at Lebowski’s Grill at Highland Lanes before a night of bowling, or on a furtive solo lunch outing.
Escaping to Mexico with a few agave spirits in the rustic bungalow that houses Licha’s Cantina before moving onto a plate of huitlacoche quesadillas.
Reminiscing about trips to Southeast Asia while dining on complex curries made with fresh herbs in the back courtyard at Little Thailand in Garfield.
Making the pilgrimage with out-of-town friends to eat pork chops, sausage and beef ribs at Smitty’s, Kreuz Market and Black’s BBQ in Lockhart.
Being the only person glued to the game while sitting at the bar at Loro eating a smoked bavette bowl and drinking a local draft beer.
Knifing into a stack of pancakes late night at Magnolia Cafe when I should be finishing a story that was due hours ago.
Long courtyard hangs at happy hour at Matt’s El Rancho full of margaritas, tacos al carbon and stories.
Wondering if I am going to run into any ghosts as I make my way around the historic property at Mattie’s with a milk punch in hand.
Following up a plate of lamb and beef doner with a strong Turkish coffee and wishing that Mezze Me had a location down the street from my house.
Wishing my grandmother was around to taste the creative and rustic flavors (and frothy draft paloma) at Odd Duck, where I’ve probably spent as much of my own money as any restaurant in Austin.
Remembering how Otherside started as a scrappy trailer behind a dive bar while devouring one of the best pastrami sandwiches in the city.
Tripping on the Kubrickian design and enjoying the show and sushi at Otoko, Austin’s most exclusive dinner experience.
Steak, oysters, wine and people watching on the patio at Perla’s.
Thinking that Pieous, with its lush pastrami, bubbled Neapolitan pizzas and notalgia-inspiring desserts, is the perfect hybrid of a foodie and family-friendly restaurant.
Taking out-of-town friends to the Austin of 20 years ago over platters of guajillo fajitas and pitchers of margaritas at Polvos.
A big platter of Gulf oysters, ice cold beer and snappy bar chatter at Quality Seafood.
Reminiscing about Tokyo while eating flossy milk bread toasts topped with egg, Japanese mayo, green onion, mozzarella and nori at Sa-Ten.
Mutton with a side of laughter and community at Sam’s BBQ.
Queuing for discount burgers (and a malt) on Thursdays and Saturdays at Sandy’s and maybe getting into some awkward small talk with someone I mistook for Billy Bob Thornton in disguise.
Asking for extra limes to spritz my crab fried rice and salt-and-pepper shrimp at Sway.
Exploring the vast menu at Tan My but always making sure some chargrilled pork is part of my order.
Savoring jewels of kitfo as the aromas of berbere, cardamom and cloves waft through the air at Taste of Ethiopia with the same warmth as the bonhomie served by owner Woinee Mariam.
Sure, I dig the housemade pasta and wine and playlists at Texas French Bread, but some restaurants also hold unique charms. Here it’s the corner door.
Trying to act like I don’t need the staff to bring me an entire pitcher of water to put out the flames brought on at Thai Kun.
The most bucolic final 2 miles of a drive to dinner in Central Texas when visiting Tillie’s at Camp Lucy.
Walking across the bridge from my office to Israeli street food vendor TLV at Fareground for my favorite workday lunch.
Time traveling with a mayo-slathered fried chicken sandwich, chargrilled burger and retro aesthetics at Top Notch.
Stalking out my spot at the bar at Uchi for a glass of bubbles so I can snag one of the first seats of the night at the sushi bar, and then letting the sushi chef point me toward what looks good that night, while making sure I get my requisite shime saba, mahi cure and a foie gras nigiri finisher with a glass of Sauternes.
Feeling like I am back in Japan with the efficiency, flavors and style of Uroko.
The sense that I’ve entered a scene in “Big Night” or “The Sopranos” when my friends and I dine at Vespaio.
Snagging the last seat at the bar at Via 313 and watching a game while eating crunchy and gooey square slices of Detroit-style pizza.
Snapping up the final pork rib vindaloo and sipping vacation-inspiring cocktails at the Goan-inspired Vixen’s Wedding.
Talking to the bartenders and regulars at Wink Wine Bar while trying to decide if I’m going to stick with sliders or delve into scallops and wild game from the restaurant’s main menu.
Escaping the cold with a steaming bowl of restorative handcuffs noodles at Xian Sushi and Noodle.
MORE AUSTIN360 DINING GUIDE 2020
Ranking the best restaurants in a pandemic
The restaurants, experiences and dishes critic Matthew Odam misses
How restaurants have pivoted and persevered
Best tacos in Austin
Readers Poll: How your favorite drink spot is doing
Q&A with Austin restaurant chefs and owners: Eric Yi of Asia Market | Evan LeRoy of LeRoy & Lewis | Hoover Alexander of Hoover’s Cooking | Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo | Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due | Maritza and Reyna Vazquez of Veracruz All Natural | Raf Robinson of Slab BBQ | Sam Hellman-Mass of Suerte | Sharon Mays of Baby Greens | Sharon Watkins of Chez Zee
Complete Austin360 Dining Guide 2020