Cure for the Common Downtown Austin Lunch
It’s lunchtime in Austin. Now what? You don’t have the luxury of time but you don’t want the same ol’, same o’l lunch you’ve eaten – but not really enjoyed – for days on end. Really, you can do better than a five dollar footlong and it doesn’t take much effort at all. If you’re willing to walk just a few short blocks you don’t even have to get into your car to find a satisfying lunch. And if you need to take co-workers, business associates, or even just a few friends along with you there are plenty of options for that too. So before you settle for your next iffy lunch, take a gander at these lunch gems in the downtown area. Just click the arrow to explore your options in each area.
Have a favorite that’s not here? Please do tell in the comments.
At the corner of 2nd and Congress, an easy walk from just about anywhere in downtown, you can enjoy upscale American food with a twist. Start with buffalo fried pickles or pommes frites with truffles because your taste buds will just plain thank you. From there you have any number of options. Make your lunch from a couple of small plates – my favorites are the green garlic gnocchi and the avocado fundido. Or have the pepperoni soup (the chef’s grandmother’s recipe) and one of their inventive salads (beets anyone). If you’re really hungry the braised beef short rib or the pappardelle with truffled ricotta will fill you up and possibly make you want to nap at your desk after lunch. Or, if you’re craving a pizza the black and bleu with truffle, pork belly, and bleu cheese can’t be beat.
Step into La Traviata to escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown to old world charm and excellent Italian food (some of the best in Austin). From daily specials like Chicken Saltimbocca and Spicy Shrimp Pasta as well as menu standards like Prosciutto de Parma with endive, steamed mussels, panini, and daily ravioli, you’ll have your choice of traditional Italian favorites. Thinking less pasta and more salad? Their robust salad selections include the expected like chopped and Caesar along side other delightful salad options: zucchini, seared wild Atlantic salmon, and hanger steak. Their space is small so go a bit early or a bit late to avoid the lunch rush.
Great for: business lunch, a quiet interlude with a friend, time to yourself
Reservations: not usually but call 512.479. 8131 to talk about planning for larger parties
Address: 314 Congress Ave, Austin, Tx, 78701 [map]
Just up a flight of stairs you’ll walk into a hip space with a menu to match. The food at Swift’s is just a little unexpected and always a taste adventure as snacks like charred edamame with chili oil and poprocks or whole sardines with pickled shallots and parsley jus attest to. At $15 the business lunch is a great deal: choose a snack, soup, or salad to go with any sandwich. And while this deal isn’t uncommon, the salads and sandwiches absolutely are. Try a red quinoa salad with roasted fennel along side the Italian Vegetarian Hero the combines Parrano cheese, Calabrian peppers, radicchio, and shaved red onion to pack a punch. Or try the shaved Granbury vintage cheese as a prelude to the house burger made from house-ground beef slathered in fontina cheese and griddled onions and just the right size for lunch. Their menu changes regularly so these goodies may not always be on the menu but the dishes that are promise to be as interesting and fun as these. Oh, and don’t skip dessert here. Try popcorn and a movie. Trust me.
On and Around 6th Street
Nestled at the back of another 6th Street restaurant (hence the name) The Backspace serves up wood-fired pizza and antipasti in an intimate space. Do yourself a favor and skip all of those pizza from a window joints and instead enjoy a pizza with fennel sausage with roasted peppers or a bianca pizza with arugula, mozzarella, ricotta, and pecorino romano (this one is like a salad on a pizza – the best of both worlds). Or if veggies are more your style, mix and match two or three antipasti for your lunch. My favorites are the brussels sprouts with fontina and and lemon, the beets with celery, and the marinated olives with herbs. Share baked ricotta with your table for some cheesy goodness.
At the East end of 6th Street, just a block before the freeway, is a bakery and beer garden that is the perfect casual lunch spot. Their huge space can play host to a crowd and their comforting menu features house-made breads and sausages in all sorts of tasty combinations. Start your lunch with pretzels and spicy house mustard and then you’re faced with a critical choice. Do you go down the Easy Boards path and enjoy sausages and cured meats or the Artisan Sandwiches path for the perfect balance of bread and meat that will fuel you for your afternoon activities. Or you can keep it simple and have house sausages like garlic sausage and Hatch chili chicken on a pretzel bun. My advice is take friends and share everything. Add a few veggies to the mix with a couple of sides. I recommend the collard greens and the grilled broccoli. And if your are so inclined add a beer from their extensive select of draft and bottled offerings.
Reservations: no but they have plenty of room
Address: 709 E. 6th Street, Austin, Texas 78701 [map]
Friend chicken and champagne – why the hell not? And while you might not choose to have bubbles with your lunch, this pretty much sums up the Max’s Wine Dive culinary point of view. They take American classics and twist them around just enough to keep things interesting. At lunch try some green chili in your hummus or bison and venison in your chili. Or go brunch style with a fried egg sandwich with black truffle oil. And if it’s a burger you crave, Max’s signature burger is served on a melt-in-your mouth brioche bun with all the fixin’s including house-made pickles. Max’s loves to support local producers so you get a great taste of the best of Austin’s purveyors with your lunch.
2nd Street & Warehouse District
Their tag line is “Hot Dogs, Cold Beer”, but let me tell you their hot dogs aren’t your everyday hot dogs. They take nicely sized beef franks and top them with things like caramelized onions and crispy pork belly, pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes, or traditional toppings like chili and cheese. Sub the bun for a cornmeal flap jacket for a bit of corny dog goodness. Frank also offers a collection of house-made sausages like the Jackalope (antelope, rabbit, and pork) and the Notorious PIG (pork, bacon, jalapeno, and sage). You can also bring your vegetarian and gluten free friends along for a vegan dog or portobello cheesesteak, frito pie, or corn cup. And if you leave without trying the waffle fries you’ll be cheating yourself. Add cheese, bacon, sour cream, and chives for a fun take on a loaded baked potato.
Reservations: no but their space is good size
Address: 407 Colorado Street, Austin, Tx 78701 [map]
Lamberts is upscale BBQ and while they stay true to their southern roots, they like to have some fun with their menu. I’ll be the first to admit that Lamberts isn’t hard-core traditional Texas BBQ, but that doesn’t mean their food isn’t good and you won’t truly enjoy your meal there. My favorite dish is the crispy wild boar ribs in a spicy sweet sauce. If you haven’t had boar don’t be afraid – it’s tender and not at all gamey. At lunch the offer a collection of salads and soups that are BBQ inspired. Try the Smoked Brisket Salpicon for a bit of a Mexican twist or the cobb salad with smoked chicken. Their sandwiches showcase their house-smoked meats. I particularly like the Pulled Smoked Cuban and the Carne Asada Bolillo. You can also go whole hog (or cow or fish) and get a lunch plate with one, two, or three BBQed meats. Don’t skip the sides; their baked beans, collards, and mac and cheese are my favorites.
If you’re ready for a different perspective on Mexican food, La Condesa fits the bill. They offer “Modern Mexican” food that is inspired by regional cooking from around Mexico. I think what I like most about La Condesa is their food isn’t overly heavy. You’ll find small plates, fish, and a lot of fresh vegetables on the menu. Because the La Condesa menu prominently features small plates it’s a great place to share a lunch so you get a taste of many different things. As crazy at it sounds, try their guacamole with pomegranate – the sweet and tart pomegranate seeds and molasses make it unexpected and very interesting. If you like fish the ceviches are a must. To get the full experience order a pair of tacos – I like the Conchinita Pibil – and a torta – try the Gorditas de Picadillo or the Aguacate with avocados, black beans, and poblanos. If you’re not in the mood to share or are flying solo, try the Carne Asada. Oh, and if you’re so inclined, or it’s been that kind of day, ask about their tequila flights. Because sometimes you need a little tequila at lunch.
Are you a salad lover? Or do you just think you should eat more salad but are bored with typical restaurant salads? Take yourself to Leaf post-haste to build the biggest most interesting salad you never though possible. Sort of like Subway for salad – but a million times better – Leaf is a make your own salad spot that is devoted entirely to salads. You can have one of their many combos (try the Strawberry Fields with spinach, strawberries and goat cheese or the El Jefe with grilled steak, roasted corn and black beans) or make your own from their seemingly endless combination of fixin’s. As a plus they are hyper-sustainable so all of their plates, cutlery, and cups are compostable or otherwise recyclable. When you’re really craving a lunch full of fresh, green, goodness this is the place to go.
Reservations: No but their space is nice sized; get your salad to go and walk across to the river to enjoy a picnic
Address: 419 W. 2nd Street, Austin, Texas 78701 [map]
Nestled in the W Hotel, TRACE is one of my favorite spots for business lunches and as a special treat for myself when I need a little pick-me-up. Thanks to the talents of their local forager, Valerie Broussard, TRACE’s menu always features fresh, local ingredients that their chefs prepare specifically to let the ingredients shine through. I’m a sucker for their beet salad and the Dirty Rice Stuffed Texas Quail. Their Lunch on the Fly menu is designed to come out quickly if you’re pressed for time and includes the just perfect combination of soup, salad, and sandwich. You can also treat yourself and your lunch companions to a plate of house-made charcuterie. Because the restaurant is at the W the service is always impeccable so you can trust this as a go-to spot for entertaining clients and important business associates. When the weather is good be sure to ask for a table outside. If you’ve been really good, or need a little extra something, be sure to get the warm doughnuts to go. It will be your little secret.
Insider tip: If you don’t have to hustle right back to the office, bring your laptop along and spend a couple of quiet hours working in The Library, a bar that doesn’t remotely feel like a bar. The walls are lined with a library of records and the lights are dimmed which encourages a little peace and quiet. You can hide away and no one will think to look for you there. You’ll be amazed at your productivity.
Downtown Austin Lunch Treasure Map
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This post is part of the annual Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide. No matter what kind of food you’re looking for in Austin, from high end dining to cheap eats, Mexican food to Korean food, and everything in between, you’ll find the best and most up to date information about Austin in the guide.