9 neighborhood restaurants that Austinites love

Locals know that the New American menu at Emmer & Rye in Downtown Austin changes daily. | Credit: Emmer & Rye

Austin’s population has nearly doubled since 2000, fueling a thriving restaurant scene. Plus, tens of millions of hungry visitors descend here annually, eager to sample the city’s iconic breakfast tacos and popular barbeque. Yet locals know dining in Bat City is more than tacos and brisket, and they return to favorite area restaurants for reasons beyond just good food.

A James Beard Award-winning chef showcases Oaxcana hits at a South Lamar gem. In Clarksville, an Asian fusion favorite offers one of the city’s best dog-friendly patios. Local art is always on display at an old-school Parisian bistro in Northwest Austin.

These Austin restaurants deliver high-quality food and consistently good vibes, all while being extensions of their eclectic hometown. Read on to make a reservation at nine neighborhood favorites now.

Hank’s (East Austin)

Housemade desserts and pastries are part of Hank’s appeal. | Credit: Hank’s

With its well-lit white interiors, wicker drop chandeliers, and lush plants, Hank’s minimalist beauty draws many regulars. The menu is just as simple, consisting of fresh American fare such as wood-grilled salmon with turmeric yogurt and Southern dishes including brined fried chicken and Gulf shrimp and grits. Returning diners know that burgers are half-off on Mondays. And they never miss the housemade desserts, including the super tender Chantilly cake, adorned with fresh berries and pomegranate seeds.

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Licha’s Cantina (East Austin)

There’s no shortage of Tex-Mex in the great state of Texas. But unless you’re on the border, traditional Mexican food can be hard to come by. Enter Licha’s Cantina, set in a small white house with charming turquoise trim. There’s not a hard-shell taco in sight on the menu at this family-run spot, which has been open since 2014. Instead, in-the-know Austinites come to Licha’s for sopes, gorditas, and cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan dish made with pork marinated in citrus with achiote (the seed that lends the dish its signature burnt orange hue). Fittingly, the restaurant is named after the owners’ Mexico City-born matriarch.

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ASTI Trattoria (Midtown)

A Hyde Park favorite since 2000, Asti is beloved for simple, farm-to-table Italian fare including housemade pasta, seasonal produce, and sustainable meats and fish. The dinner-only menu includes favorites such as fried artichokes with lemon aioli, thin-crust pizzas, and saffron seafood risotto, plus tempting nightly specials. The comfortable dining room has a modern yet casual ambiance, perfect for sharing plates and a glass of Italian vino over happy hour.

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Chez Zee (Northwest Austin)

Since opening in 1989, this casual bistro, decked with year-round Christmas lights, has offered Austinites Southern comfort food plus solid pub grub. Locals come for chicken-fried steak, jalapeño cornbread stuffing, burgers, and pork chops. But they also love grabbing a patio table to sip a coffee and lemon cake, made with rosemary from the restaurant’s onsite garden. Chez Zee’s charm lies in its old-school vibe and owner Sharon Watkins’ passion for art, which surfaces through the local creations that decorate the space.

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Emmer & Rye (Downtown)

Austinites can’t get enough of this carbon-neutral, farm-to-table restaurant, where the New American menu changes daily. Co-partners and chefs Kevin Fink and Tavel Bristol-Joseph are committed to serving the best local and seasonal food, which means onsite butchering and brining, along with housemade bread and pasta. The décor is as fresh as the food, and a beautiful open kitchen lets diners watch the chefs in action. To all that, add innovative drinks such as the Blank Space cocktail, made with mezcal, cinnamon, and nixtamalized corn liqueur, and the result is a winning formula that keeps locals returning.

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Bar Peached (Downtown)

There are many reasons Austinites love this Clarksville gem: inventive Asian fusion fare, a bright, dog-friendly patio, and superb happy hour deals on appetizers, wine, and cocktails. The menu centers around snacky shareables such as Korean chicken wings with gochujang and soy sauce, and charred Brussels sprouts with a Sichuan peppercorn peach glaze. Frequent diners know that Tuesdays mean steak frites, while Wednesdays are all about Korean barbecue specials.

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Ranch 616 (Downtown)

This popular Downtown spot, inspired by the ice houses of South Texas, is a longstanding local favorite for its fresh lime margaritas and riffs on Lone Star State classics such as blackened frog legs and grilled boneless quail. The Ranch (as it’s affectionately known by fans) is also the original home of Ranch Water, a tequila, lime, and sparkling water concoction created by the restaurant’s late owner, chef Kevin Williamson. The lively atmosphere is enhanced by work from local artists, including a 16-foot photo mural by the local icon, Bob “Daddy-O” Wade.

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El Naranjo – South Lamar (South Austin)

The El Naranjo martini, spiked with chile liqueur. | Credit: El Naranjo – South Lamar

At this South Lamar gem, James Beard Award-winning chef Iliana de la Vega serves a spectacular menu of modern and traditional Mexican dishes with an emphasis on Oaxacan delicacies. Her fans flock here for fresh ceviches and made-from-scratch moles, accompanied by tortillas made from Oaxacan corn ground onsite. The large, horseshoe-shaped bar is a popular spot to share snacks and cocktails for happy hour or to catch up with friends over Sunday brunch.

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Saffron – South (West Austin/Westlake)

Saffron, with a menu that features food from various parts of South Asia, is the first Austin restaurant with a dedicated Nepalese menu. It’s popular among the city’s vegetarians (though there are plenty of options for all diets). Expect plant-friendly plates such as fried okra with cumin and mango powder and mushrooms in coconut curry sauce, best paired with one of Saffron’s many specialty naans. Although the space is sparsely decorated, the restaurant more than makes up for its austere digs, earning local star status for flavorful dishes and an ultra-attentive staff.

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Claudia Alarcón is a Mexico City-born writer based in Austin, Texas covering dining, drinking, and travel since 1999.

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