For anyone looking to understand how Austin has become such a popular city for tourists and transplants alike, the following restaurants and bars help to clear up the mystery. Most of them aren't particularly fancy, but they have distinctive personalities and other one-of-a-kind qualities.
The Continental Club started out as a swanky dinner club in the 1950s, and it went through a series of ups and downs before emerging as South Congress' premier live music venue. When Steve Wertheimer bought the bar in 1987, the area around the bar was run-down and frequented by prostitutes. As the club developed a loyal following, with acts ranging from roots rock to country, other businesses, including antique shops, restaurants and clothing boutiques, popped up around it. The front area, where the band plays, is long and narrow, with only a smattering of tables and chairs; arrive early if you want a seat. Sitting at the small bar will give you an excellent sampling of Austin culture; bikers, techies, and lawyers drink together and bond over music. In a business where bartenders come and go daily, a few of the Continental Club's friendly, if a little edgy, servers have worked here for 20 years. Some of the popular acts include James McMurtry (son of novelist Larry McMurtry), Jon Dee Graham and Toni Price, whose Tuesday night happy hour show draws legions of slightly obsessive fans.
The vibe at the Saxon Pub changes according to the clock. If you arrive early for happy hour, you’ll be greeted by grumpy but lovable regulars in their 60s. With live music seven nights a week, the crowd that shows up later depends largely on who’s playing. In general, though, the crowd seems to grow progressively younger as the night goes by. Regular acts include singer/songwriter Bob Schneider, who has a longstanding Monday night gig, bluesman W.C. Clark and soul singer Malford Milligan. Genres vary from country to rock, with a mix of up-and-coming acts and longtime local favorites. The layout of the mid-size bar offers plenty of lounging options. Serious music fans normally sit at the tables close to the stage, people who are only half-listening hold court at the U-shaped bar in the middle of the space, and those who aren’t really there for the music play pool in the back room. If you don’t want to hear the music at all, there’s a small (but smoky) outdoor patio.
Locally owned and wildly popular, P. Terry's offers hamburgers made with all-natural black angus beef from hormone- and antibiotic-free cows raised on a vegetarian diet. Chicken burgers come from poultry that's raised locally in an environment free of hormones, steroids, and pesticides. The tomatoes are organic and grown locally. All those big scientific words may not sound very appetizing, but the long line at P. Terry's is a testament to the food's excellent flavor. It's primarily a drive-through restaurant, but there are a few outdoor picnic tables. Even vegetarians flock to this burger joint; their veggie burgers are made of brown rice, cremini mushrooms, black beans, oatmeal, onions, cheese and fresh parsley. Hand-spun shakes and thick fries make P. Terry's an addictive favorite for adults and kids alike. Although they're persnickety about food ingredients and local sourcing, they still do a few things the old-fashioned way. The buns are Mrs. Baird's, and the ketchup is from Heinz.
El Chilito, a small Tex-Mex stand on the east side of IH-35, offers an array of breakfast tacos and burritos, including the migas burrito filled with scrambled eggs, tortilla strips, tomato, onion, serrano and tons of cheese. Traditional meat tacos, puffy tacos, and massive burritos are also available an time; the menu is the same all day. If you're feeling adventurous, try the cochinita pibil taco, with shredded pork and a hint of orange flavor. They also carry Mexican-style fruit drinks, Paletas de Fruta, in flavors ranging from guava to pickle. El Chilito only offers outdoor seating, so grab your food and a table, or take your Tex-Mex to go.
A small, brightly decorated restaurant, Curra's serves both interior Mexican dishes and Tex-Mex fare. If you want to be a little adventurous at breakfast, try the Huevos Motulenos. A layer of refried black beans is topped with two eggs, hot sauce, and a peeled banana. It may sound odd, but it's a seriously tasty combo. When the sweet taste of the banana blends with the savory, spicy flavors of the eggs and beans, your taste buds will be confused and ecstatic at the same time. For an evening feast, it's hard to beat the carnitas, a traditional dish of Michoacan. The pork is marinated in Coca-Cola, milk and orange juice, then deep-fried -- it's tender, slightly tangy and indescribably good. Since avocado makes everything better, why not try an avocado margarita? The frozen concoction is slightly less sweet than a typical margarita and just a little creamy.
A small shop on West Sixth Street among bars and dance clubs, The Onion serves up slices of fresh, piping-hot pizza pie to often-intoxicated customers. Choose from one of The Onion's staples, like pepperoni or supreme, or be more daring and opt for their wings or cheese sticks. In addition to standard toppings, they offer dried sweet basil, minced garlic, and Caribbean jerk sauce. With only counter service available, The Onion's small space can get crowded, particularly on weekend nights, so just be patient. The warm, New York-style pizza is well worth the wait. They also have calzones, pizza rolls, and Greek salads.
Southern comfort food is the focus at Threadgill's World Headquarters. The meal starts with fresh rolls and jalapeno cornbread. From that point on, unless you choose the vegetable plate, you will most likely consume a typical day's worth of calories. Save the diet for another day and dig into chicken-fried steak, chicken, and dumplings, meatloaf, fried catfish or pecan-crusted chicken with cream sauce. The sides are equally delicious, and some of them are even healthy. Plus, they offer free seconds on the side dishes, which include buttered carrots, collard greens, red beans and rice, and Texas black-eyed pea caviar. If you don't have any room for dessert, get the pecan or strawberry rhubarb pie to go. Proprietor Eddie Wilson is an Austin history buff, and the walls are lined with memorabilia. The name of the restaurant is a play on the name of an iconic Austin club, the Armadillo World Headquarters, which Wilson also owned. An outdoor music stage features local and regional acts, ranging from country to rock.
This Clarksville bakery serves up fresh, made-to-order breakfast plates as well as pastries like chocolate croissants, cinnamon rolls, and mini quiches. Sweetish Hill Bakery's cakes (including wedding cakes), cookies, and fresh breads have attracted droves of regular customers since 1975. Gourmet sandwich options change frequently (check the chalkboard), but some of their regular creations include Turkey and Avocado on Serrano Baguette and Italian Sausage with Mushrooms, Provolone & Marinara on Sub Roll.
Housed in a massive former feed store, Guero's never feels crowded, even when every seat is full. While they do crank out a ton of Tex-Mex every day, the food still tastes like it's made with care. The tacos al pastor, filled with spicy pork, pineapple and cilantro, are always excellent. The caldo de pollo, or chicken soup, also has legions of loyal fans. A centralized salsa bar allows you to sample a number of different variations, from the standard red and green salsa to black bean, pico de gallo and more exotic concoctions. The lively bar at the front of the restaurant can get boisterous at times, but in a good way. Free-flowing margaritas may have something to do with the boisterousness. There's also a lovely, oak-shaded outdoor patio next door that features free music on weekends.
This local Tex-Mex chain has a cult-like following. They sell a t-shirt that reads, "I don't need no stinkin' menu!" After your second or third visit, you probably won't need one either. Their dishes are addictive, and many people stick with their favorite dish every time they visit. To be clear, this is not interior Mexican food; this is Tex-Mex, and cheese is the star of the show. The Hernandez plate is two enchiladas smothered in melted cheese (queso) and chili (really, it's mostly queso with just little bits of chili meat). The Tio Chon special is basically the Hernandez plate with lettuce, tomato and ranchero sauce on top. Margaritas, frozen or on the rocks, are made of fresh-squeezed lime juice, and people will look at you askance if you don't order one. There's a margarita on just about every table. On Sundays in summer, this is a popular post-lake destination. The expansive outdoor patio is a good place for lounging and sunset watching.
The giant palapa over the outdoor patio reflects the easygoing, day-at-the-beach atmosphere at Trudy's South Star. Under the palapa, you'll find a lively bar scene. Inside, there's another huge, U-shaped bar in the middle of the restaurant. The powerful Mexican martini is the drink of choice. The food ranges from burgers and salads to Tex-Mex to one-of-a-kind creations such as the stuffed avocado. The fried, breaded avocado often arrives at the table in an unrecognizable state, but it's delicious nonetheless. It's packed with spicy chicken and smothered in hot sauce. For early risers, Trudy's migas are an Austin breakfast staple. Eggs are scrambled with serrano peppers, corn tortilla slices and a secret blend of cheeses. Try the Guatemalan coffee for a stiff jolt of morning caffeine.
Not only is Chuy's popular with current Austin residents, it's often the first place that visiting University of Texas alums want to go to when they're in town. So it's crowded, almost always. Grab a swirl margarita (with a dollop of cherry flavor) and a seat in the large bar area, and enjoy top-notch people watching while you wait. There's also a free chips and salsa bar to tide you over until mealtime. The margaritas plus the outlandish decor -- shiny hubcaps, cartoon fish, an Elvis shrine -- can make you a little dizzy, so drink it all in slowly. The Classic Tex-Mex Enchiladas are a favorite of many Chuy's regulars. For serious appetites, the "big as yo' face" steak burrito with green chiles (very spicy) may cause you to channel Elvis (in his chubby years).
Many of the salad ingredients are grown in a garden behind the Eastside Cafe -- you can't get much fresher than that. The Thai Chicken Salad with Asian Vinaigrette is a substantial -- and delicious -- entree. Romaine and green leaf lettuce are tossed with cherry tomatoes, carrots, red cabbage and marinated grilled chicken and topped with toasted peanuts and dressing. Seasonal home-grown vegetables also show up in the Garden Vegetable Enchiladas. As an appetizer or a light meal, the Baked Brie with Apple Chutney is a standout -- sweet and cheesy with a hint of savory oomph. Extensive vegan and gluten-free menus are also available.