Austin has long been a town full of lively bars with great atmosphere. A few short years ago, though, the idea of great bar food would have brought little more to mind than chips and queso or taco platters. As Austin’s food scene has evolved, so have the bars. Not only can you find a far superior beer and cocktail selection than in years past, but there’s now a curated and thoughtful selection of small plates — and large ones — for every palate and preference. While the dishes below are available during prime time, you can also make a happy-hour visit for quality dining at a significant discount. Here’s where to go right now—and when.
The grande dame of Austin expense-account restaurants, Jeffrey’s has blossomed again after a recent ownership change. Chef-owner Larry McGuire has raised an eyebrow or two with a menu that includes a $155 dry-aged Wagyu porterhouse, but savvy locals flock to the updated bar space for a taste of opulence at bargain prices. While the $5 Prairie Birra farmhouse ale and the $10 Death by Misadventure cocktail are great, the star attractions are the half-price dishes coming from the same kitchen cooking for high rollers. The generous bar menu has a Wagyu burger, a selection of toasts and multiple seafood options, including a hamachi carpaccio with green tomato, pear, almonds and roe.
The order: Pan-seared bar steak ($15); crispy fried Gulf oysters ($8); king crab and avocado toast ($4).
When to visit: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, and all evening Monday.
Thai Kun at Whisler’s
Since its 2013 opening, Whisler’s has kept East Austin’s cocktail fans happy by serving sleek, pared-down classic cocktails at reasonable prices. The management’s focus on combining quality drinks with prompt service has made the bar a staple for groups. After hosting a dumpling truck on the patio for 18 months, the bar recently took its food in a bolder direction by partnering with Thai Changthong and Paul Qui’s blistering-hot Thai Kun truck. Named a Bon Appétit 2014 Best New Restaurant, the truck is a screaming deal: Nothing on the menu exceeds $10. Happy hour here means discounted drinks; the food was affordable to begin with. Grab a beautiful, balanced Pegu Club (gin, orange liqueur, lime and Angostura) or an Agave Old Fashioned for just $6 each.
The order: Waterfall pork ($8); fish cakes ($6); black noodles ($7).
When to visit: 4 to 7 p.m. daily, and all evening Monday.
The duo behind the well-regarded Contigo surprised Austin diners in 2014 with Gardner, a sleek, upscale space miles removed from their rustic and patio-focused first venture. Where Contigo emphasized meat dishes and a lengthy beer list, Gardner charts an altogether different course. The focus here is on vegetable dishes and wines, and Andrew Wiseheart and Ben Edgerton have proved to be equally adept with this lighter approach. Dinners in the main dining room can be pricey, but the restaurant’s new patio menu offers Gardner fare with a more affordable tab. On weeknights, they improve the value equation with $2 off all patio “snacks” along with draft beer ($5 to $7 at happy hour) and wines by the glass ($7 to $12).
The order: Steak and eggs with fermented leeks ($10); whipped chicken fat with fingerling potatoes and hot sauce ($4); spring vegetable tartine ($12).
When to visit: 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Tucked up on the second floor of a century-old building, Swift’s Attic has been a massive success since opening its doors. The key word here is atmosphere: Industry vet C.K. Chin harnessed his experience and created a space with a large bar area, tables for party-sized groups and a hip-hop soundtrack well suited for celebrations with coworkers or visiting friends. The extended weekday happy hour is fantastic for days off, staycations or tourists. It gives patrons a generous four and a half hours to partake in $6 cocktails and $5 wines, plus a bargain-priced selection of small-plate portions of the dinner appetizers and entrées.
The order: Braised Windy Hill goat shoulder with ricotta gnocchi ($8); Korean BBQ flank steak ($10); hot-water cornbread ($4).
When to visit: 2 to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Texas French Bread
While Texas French Bread has existed as a bakery for 35 years, a 2014 remodeling has brought deserved attention to the space’s longstanding bistro dinner service. Once a quiet neighborhood favorite, it has now become a service-industry and insider favorite thanks to owner Murph Willcott’s extensive local sourcing, a beautiful new patio, and — crucially — one of the most exciting wine lists in Austin. Jon Bonné-style “New California” wines from labels like Arnot-Roberts and Lioco feature heavily, as do many food-friendly European selections. On Mondays, glasses are half-price, and the restaurant runs a patio special of half-price small plates during the opening hour each day. Go for great wine, leisurely conversation and thoughtful dishes.
The order: Wilted chicory with speck, balsamic and parmesan ($6); beets with arugula and farro ($5); PEI mussels with leeks ($7).
When to visit: 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
An Austin offshoot of a New York mainstay, Weather Up is a spring and fall patio staple for local cocktail fans. The bar now boasts the added benefit of a limited menu from former Mulberry chef Kristine Kittrell. The pint-sized kitchen has to be seen to be believed: It isn’t much larger than a bedroom closet. In an effort to maximize the space, the bar serves a single prix-fixe menu nightly (currently $27), supplementing with meat and cheese platters and a half-dozen small plates. The small indoor bar room fills up early, but there’s a lovely, expansive patio in back for leisurely drinking. Going early will reap rewards in the form of $7 cocktails until 7 p.m., five days a week. There’s even a rotating frozen craft cocktail for warmer evenings.
The order: Duck-fat fingerling potatoes ($9); blackened eggplant crostini ($8); ricotta gnocchi with fava beans and peas ($10).
When to visit: 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., Sunday through Thursday.
East Austin’s LaV may be the most stunning restaurant in the city — upon entry, patrons move from urban sidewalks to a multiroom structure filled with flowers, artwork and endless racks of carefully chosen wine. When dining in the main room, bringing a group and ordering most of the appetizer and small-plates menu items works like a charm. Those in search of something lighter would do well to sit at the bar for the restaurant’s Après-Midi special, where most bar plates are 25 percent off. Of these, we recommend the simple perfection of chef Allison Jenkins’s grilled octopus in a tuna sauce with potatoes — the plate sounds spare, but it’s a marvel of precision and balance. Take advantage of the outstanding wine program here; wines by the glass are primarly French but also include thoughtful American selections from the likes of Scribe and Sandhi. Cocktails are done with an expert hand.
The order: Grilled octopus ($11.25); half-dozen smoked oysters with hot sauce ($12); chicken-liver pâté and cornichons ($11.25).
When to visit: 5:00 to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 9:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Note: All food prices listed reflect their discounted happy-hour pricing.
Photos: LaV/Buff Strickland; Whisler’s/Brian Flannery.
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