Austin has many one-of-a-kind establishments that serve regional cooking, international cuisine, or their own style of cooking, many of which are concentrated in and around downtown and the area immediately south of Lady Bird Lake. In other parts of the city, they tend to set up along the major commercial corridors, but in some old neighborhoods the most interesting of local restaurants are tucked away on quiet streets.
In the Hyde Park neighborhood (north of the university campus), one such cluster is at Duval Street and 43rd, where you'll find Asti, Hyde Park Bar & Grill, and Mother's Café & Garden; in the Clarksville neighborhood (west of downtown) is another cluster at West Lynn and 12th Street (Jeffrey's, Cipollina, and Zocalo); and in central East Austin, on the boundary between French Place and Blackland neighborhoods, is yet another cluster on Manor Road (Eastside Cafe, Hoover's, and Vivo). As neighborhood restaurants, these places are comfortable and welcoming, and reflect the tastes of the local community.
Also, a concentration of restaurants is located on Guadalupe Street, by the university campus. These cater to students and don't have to be good; they just have to be cheap. I would avoid them.
Wherever you eat, think casual. There isn't a restaurant in Austin that requires men to put on a tie and jacket, and many upscale dining rooms are far better turned out than their rich tech-industry clientele.
In the past couple of years, it has become very popular to dine a la "cart" at one of the ever-increasing number of food carts parked around town. These offer a variety of foods, usually at lower than normal prices. When driving around Austin, you'll see them everywhere -- downtown, along South Congress and South Lamar, and in a lot of unexpected places. I've included my three favorites (El Naranjo, East Side King, and Franklin Barbecue), but if you really want to explore this phenomenon more, go to www.austinfoodcarts.com.
Dining out can be a competitive sport in Austin. Make reservations wherever you can or dine at off hours. If you turn up at some of the most popular spots at around 7:30pm, you might wait an hour or more. Austin restaurants tend to be noisier than those of other cities. The locals seem to be okay with this, but, in my opinion, it's yet another reason to dine at off hours.
Finally, Austin has a large population of vegetarians and vegans, so local restaurants offer lots of vegetarian options, and there are a number of purely vegetarian restaurants.
Curra's, Güero's, Hoover's, and Threadgill's all have special menus for ages 12 and under, not to mention casual, kid-friendly atmospheres and food inexpensive enough to feed everyone without taking out a second mortgage. Chuy's is great for teens and aspiring teens, who love the cool T-shirts, Elvis kitsch, and green iguanas crawling up the walls. At the County Line on the Hill, all-you-can-eat platters of meat (beef ribs, brisket, and sausage), and generous bowls of potato salad, cole slaw, and beans are just $5.95 for children 11 and under.
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