Just so you know what I’m looking for when I’m looking for eateries, here’s a general description and some examples from Austin.

The main thing I look for is excellence in execution.  A simple idea done really well impresses me much more than a high concept sloppily performed.

Having said that, creativity is important.

Lastly, while not always desirable, a sense of the chef’s personality, or a sense of a realtionship between the diner and the food, the cook or establishment always makes a restaurant more memorable and appealing to me.

Some concrete examples of truly great Austin restaurants are:

Green Pastures – this place is my all-time favorite fine dining establishment.  Remember how I said that great execution was better than high concept?  Well this place has both.  Excellent ideas, both novel and classic, cooked really, really well.  Which isn’t to say that some times the cooking staff has off nights, but when they’re on, they’re fantastic.  Try whatever the special is, and always, ALWAYS save room for desert.  Ignore the dessert that’s been on the menu for 60+ years, people were easier to impress back then.  The classic creme brulee is fantastic (as opposed to the chocolate pepper variety, which is starchy) and both the semi-freddo and frozen hot chocolate are what chocolate desserts should be.  One warning.  A meal here takes about three hours, and leaves you incpacitated for four more.

Tender Land – This trailer makes exactly three things:  French fries,  burgers, and monstrously large tenderloin sandwiches.  All are absolutely top-notch.  They make their own buns and mayo.  I really hope the Iowa-born brother and sister proprietors survive their first Austin summer.

Counter Cafe – this is a place that really shows off the importance of relationships.  It’s a tiny place, where you will get to know the cooks and servers on a first-name basis.  The managment allows the cooks to make up their own specials — if one of those is on the board, GET IT! You’ll quickly learn which cook is the go-to guy if you want the blueberry pancakes, and you’ll be extra happy if a certain waitress is on coffee-making duty for the day you arrive.  Get a side order of sausage gravy for your fries.  Seriously.  The stuff is amazing.  The rest of the food is well thought out variants of classic diner fare, like the Counter Benedict, wherein pastrami is substituted for the ham.  Pastrami and Hollandaise sauce is quite wonderful, whoever came up with that really knew what they were doing.  The spinach variation also works well.  Hell, everything here works well.

Home Slice – Austin has some really great pizza.  This place is the best.

Salvation Pizza – Some days I’d rather have pizza from here though. It also has sumo wrestlers stenciled onto the table, and it’s not nearly as crowded.  More (obviously) self-consciously artsy in their pies than Home Slice (who is just as self-consciously artsy, but more subtle about it).  And just a couple doors down from…

Foodheads – If Thomas Keller decided to retire to Austin and dedicate his life to the study of the sandwich, they would probably bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones here. 

Uchiko – The eastern end of the spectrum of Austin’s fine dining,  Uchiko’s food is simply exquisite.  I haven’t been to the original Uchi, but I’ve heard the food is the same, just with different decor.

Odd Duck – If you don’t mind the whiplash, now I’ll mention the hautest of haute cuisine trailers that Austin has (or at least had when I left in May 2011) to offer.  This place is the perfect example of how you can get a sense of cuisine as a unified concept rather than a collection of recipes that happen to come from the same place.  Order a handful of small plates (I can’t recommend specifics, since the menu changes weekly) and you get a wonderful sense of how the chef is thinking about his ingredients, and more generally about the realtionship between cooking and agriculture.  This place is just impressive.  I haven’t had a chance to try his sit-down-and-enjoy-the-air-conditioning venue Barley Swine, but I want to next time I’m in town. 

Great Restaurants

These are restaurants that I really love, but for some reason or another can’t honestly claim are among the greatest in Austin.

Emerald Restaurant – Charming, elegant, delicious, old-fashioned to the point of being an historical re-enactment, expensive as hell.  I keep going back.

 Mi Madres – great breakfasts

Zandunga – Mi Madre’s urban Mexican incarnation. 

Red House – if it wasn’t for the time I got a clangingly awful underfermented crust here, I’d put it right up there with Salvation and Home Slice.  Even so, they have my favorite Margherita and meatball pies. 

Jeffrey’s – Best salads in town.  Excellent entrees and desserts, but just lacking something in comparison with Uchiko and Green Pastures.

El Meson – the one on Burleson, not the one by the Horseshoe.

Burger Tex – the one on Guadelupe.  Truly excellent burgers.  Somehow much better than the one on airport.  Quality control people!  If you’re going to try for chainhood, got to keep up the quality!  Of course, I think that the lesser one was there first.  Oh well.

Torchy’s Tacos – Mmmm.  Tacos. 

Taco Deli –  Did I mention mmmm tacos?  These two places show how to expand to multiple locations without getting too watered down.

Classic Austin Restaurants That Didn’t Make it Into The Above Lists

Magnolia Bar and Grill

La Dolce Vita

Hyde Park Bar and Grill

Kerby Lane

Austin Java

El Chile

El Chilito

Kim Phungs

Pho Saigon

Sam Bett’s

Hoover’s

I’m sure I’ll add to the list as I go.  Anyway, those are places that have the qualities I”m looking for in an eatery.  Surely there’s somehere like that around here.  I’ve just got to find them.

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