Austin Food Lovers’ Guide to Entertaining Clients
Sometimes I feel like setting up a dinner for clients is a giant trap. You want to create a great experience with food and service that you can rely on. If only it were that easy. The food preferences of everyone involved always come into play, as does your budget and your client’s expectations. If you spend too much the client will think they are over-paying you, not enough and they’ll think you don’t value them. And then of course there’s finding a restaurant that you know will deliver on every aspect of the dinner from the food to the service and the ambiance. And while I can’t help with the “how much should I spend” issue, I can at least help you find some good restaurants that will deliver on food and service.
One of the benefits of being in a client-oriented business and being a food blogger is that I’ve seen a lot in this town when it comes to special dining. There’s plenty of good and unfortunately some bad. To help make things easier for anyone trying to entertain clients in Austin, I’ve put together this guide with my recommendations for the best places to take clients for fine dining, casual meals, and even a foodie adventure or two. I’ve also included links to the restaurants in town that I know deliver the best on private group events thanks to their interesting private room setups and their willingness to work with clients.
Because so much client entertainment happens in the downtown area, I’ve kept my focus on places that are within walking distance or a quick cab ride from downtown. The Take a Drive section highlights a few places I think are worth the effort to go the extra mile for.
If you’ve had a great experience entertaining clients at a spot not listed here, please let me know in the comments. The more options the merrier.
Fine Dining at Its Best
When the occasion calls for the best food and service, Austin has a collection of restaurants that will deliver each and every time.
- The Carillon – Chef Josh Watkins is putting together some of the best food in town and your guests won’t soon forget their dinner at his restaurant. This is a great choice if your group appreciates interesting food experiences and well-designed presentations. Every aspect of the restaurant oozes attention to detail. Prix fix menus make ordering easy and the beautifully appointed restaurant in the AT&T Conference center is well-configured for intimate dinners of 2-4 as well as larger groups of 6-10. The Carillon is just outside of walking distance from downtown but well within a reasonable cab ride.
- Congress – If you want to host an intimate and refined dinner for your client, put Chef David Bull’s Congress at the top of your list. The three course menu program is updated nightly to reflect the availability of local ingredients and an extensive wine program completes the package. The service is among the best you’ll find in Austin and the smaller size of the restaurant means your guests won’t feel as if they are part of the client dinner cattle call. The adjacent Bar Congress is the perfect meeting spot for a pre-dinner cocktail and possibly some last minute business discussions.
- Eddie V’s – When you need flawless service and food for a group with mixed experiences and palettes, Eddie V’s will never let you down. While they have all the hallmarks of a traditional steak and fish establishment, they stand well above the other options in town for consistency. Everyone in your party will be able to find a dish they will enjoy and the wine program is varied enough to accommodate an array of budgets and preferences.
- Trace – Situated in the newly built W Hotel in the 2nd Street District, Trace blends the W experience well with all that is the Austin. From dishes made with ingredients procured by a local forager (that’s really her title) to a sophisticated ambiance with quality service, the W will deliver a unique experience clients won’t get anywhere else in the country. Be sure to plan time before or after dinner to enjoy one of the three unique bar areas at the W.
- TRIO – Dining at a Four Seasons restaurant is always a great experience, but we like to think that TRIO, is just a little bit better than every other Four Seasons restaurant. I suppose we’re biased, but Chef Todd Depluchan works some serious magic in the kitchen while the staff attend to each diner’s every need. Situated on the banks of Lake Austin, the view is beautiful, and for most of the year you can begin your evening with stroll along the lake with a cocktail or glass of wine in hand.
- Truluck’s – More seafood-focused than steak focused, Truluck’s is another option for taking a group with varied dining preferences. Their rich interior immediately adds depth to your dinner conversations. Located conveniently in the warehouse district Truluck’s can be a good jumping off point for clients who are interested in seeing a bit of the city’s nightlife.
Note: There are a host of other classic steakhouses around downtown that I don’t mention in this list: III Forks, Perry’s, Finn and Porter, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, and McCormick & Schmick’s. Each of these will deliver a very predictable experience and are good fallbacks if the spots on my list aren’t available. I’ve highlighted the above restaurants because they are a little different than your average high-end restaurant and I believe they are at the top of their game for the price point.
More Casual Fare
Often neither you nor your clients are up for a suit-and-tie sort of evening. When that’s the case, there are several spots around town that will deliver on great food and service in a much more relaxed atmosphere.
- Bess Bistro – Sandra Bullock’s restaurant is tucked away underneath a building which makes for a cozy and intimate atmosphere from the second you walk down the steps and enter the restaurant. With a menu of new American fare inspired by French and Southern traditions, everyone in your party will be able to find something they enjoy. Be sure not to miss the baked goods and pastries as they are a family specialty.
– This Austin take on a tavern come gastropub features a rustic menu combined with strong cocktail, beer, and wine programs. Built like a tavern with several dining spaces, you can easily bring a party of 6-10 to the restaurant and expect a bit of privacy.
- La Condesa – If you’re thinking TexMex but really don’t want run of the mill TexMex, La Condesa may be right up your alley. Inspired by the cuisines of the interior of Mexico, the menu includes dishes like guacamole with pomegranate seeds, quinoa stuffed chile rellenos, and Negro Modelo braised short ribs. The bar area is sophisticated and a great stop for a flight of tequila or a pre-dinner cocktail.
- Lambert’s – What would a list of Austin restaurants be without at least one nod (and there are two really) to BBQ? Lambert’s is a self-described “Fancy BBQ” restaurant so expect goodies like wild boar ribs and anchiote seared chickpeas on the appetizer menu. Once you get into the meat of things (pun intended), you’ll find pulled pork, lamb chops, and fresh market fish on the list. Desserts include fried pies and who doesn’t like a fried pie?
- Maria Maria – The brainchild of Carlos Santana and Chef Roberto Santibanez, this restaurant offers a sophisticated and open environment where goodies like duck tacos and chicken mole tortilla casserole are served alongside live music (most nights). Perfect for a drink and small plates to be shared or a full sit-down dinner, Maria Maria is another way to enjoy the flavors of Mexico in a client-appropriate setting.
- Moonshine – Focused on comfort food in a homey setting, Moonshine is a great way to introduce your clients to Texas and Southern traditions like chicken fried steak, catfish, and red velvet cake. Their large patio is great on spring and fall nights and they are nicely positioned within a couple of blocks of the convention center.
- Parkside – While I’d usual recommend staying as far away from 6th street as possible with clients, the single exception to that rule is Parkside. Featuring an extensive raw bar as well as refined dishes made with local ingredients, the food at Parkside is some of the best you’ll find in a casual environment. Start with oysters and champagne in the bar and then move into the main dining room for fresh fish, house made gnocchi, and more.
- Roaring Fork – Located on Congress in the heart of downtown, Roaring Fork is one of my go-to places for client meals. Their menu is a little bit Texan and a little bit Southwestern, but anyone can find a dish they will enjoy. And the ambiance is exactly what you’d expect from a restaurant just down the street from the capital: leather, horns, and lots of stars.
- Second Bar + Kitchen – From the brilliant mind of David Bull, the chef behind Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen is a casual and fun spot for entertaining smaller client groups and creating a dining experience they won’t soon forget. Chicken fried olives, black truffle pomme frite, buratta with oxtail marmalade, and beef short rib pizza are just a few of the delectable items on the menu. If you are entertaining foodie clients, this is absolutely the place to go. Second Bar + Kitchen also features a beautiful balcony with a lush Astroturf flooring (it’s really cool – trust me) for enjoying a drink and people watching when the weather is particularly glorious.
Take a Drive
If you happen to have access to a car and want to expand your horizons a bit beyond the downtown area, these spots are worth the trip.
- FINO – Inspired by the flavors of the Mediterranean, FINO offers tapas, small plates, and a nice collection of main courses that utilize the best of in-season ingredients. They also have a very strong cocktail program if your clients are interested in the revival of mixology. FINO is great for smaller groups of 4-6, but they also offer a large communal table for larger groups of 10-12. If you’re truly comfortable with your client and want to create a more communal dinner experience, FINO’s menu and shared plate philosophy are just perfect.
- Foreign and Domestic – Tucked away in one of Austin’s fun neighborhoods, Foreign and Domestic is a small restaurant delivering big on some of the most interesting food in town. From chicken leg confit to lacquered Texas quail and parsnip ravioli, this is the perfect destination if you want to take your client on a true foodie adventure. I wouldn’t recommend trying to take a large group there, but a party of four would do just fine.
- Salt Lick – This is one of those “Austin experiences” that everyone wants to have at least once. The Salt Lick is a two-building destination in Driftwood Texas, about 30 minutes outside of downtown Austin. They don’t take reservations so you just show up and wait, but they are also in a dry county so you can bring your own alcoholic beverages of choice. You eat lots of Texas BBQ (chicken, brisket, sausage, and more) while seated on rough benches. And while true Texas BBQ experts will tell you Salt Lick is just okay BBQ, you’re really headed out there for the experience. Be prepared to arrange for transportation and alcohol, to bring cash to pay, and to have some good client bonding time while you wait.
- Uchiko – Helmed by nationally recognized Tyson Cole, Uchiko is one of Austin’s top restaurants. With a focus on Japanese farmhouse dinning, this is cuisine may be unlike any experience you and your guests have had. While fish (both raw and cooked) is plentiful, the preparations are unexpected and quite amazing. The menu changes daily based on the availability of fish and local ingredients. Be sure that your entire group is willing to be somewhat adventuresome and open minded as they review the menu. Located outside of downtown, but not unreasonably so, Uchiko is easily accessible by cab and has plenty of parking if you choose to drive there yourself.
Private Group Dining
If you want to host a more private dinner in reserved space, each of these restaurants has a place just right for the occasion. All of them will help you establish the right menu and manage to your budget. What’s great about this list is the restaurants are different enough that you can create any one of a variety of experiences for your clients without offering them the same ol’, same ol’ dinner.
- Congress – To take one of the best dining experiences in town to the next level you can reserve the private dining room with a view of the wine cellar.
- Fleming’s – If you need to host a large dinner with the ambiance and quality food you’d find at a steakhouse, Fleming’s is one of the best options in downtown. They can partition a significant portion of the restaurant to accommodate your crowd.
- La Condesa – Host your group dinner in the historic cellar underneath La Condesa’s main restaurant for a truly private experience.
- Lambert’s – Take your event upstairs to the private room and bar. This space is great if you want to arrange a mix-and-mingle dinner with a buffet or just accommodate a larger crowd at a seated event.
- Sullivan’s Steakhouse – With the feeling of a secret room in a restaurant in Chicago or New York, you can create an intimate affair even if the guest list is 40 or more.
- Truluck’s – Host your dinner in the private room downstairs at Truluck’s. Reminiscent of a private club, their dining space is great for business meetings followed by dinner.