Every year, around the second week of March, the floodgates of South By Southwest open, and every single music person/media person/tech person/PR person/hustler in the country suddenly descends upon our city.
You either fall into the camp of the descenders or the descended upon. But it doesn’t matter. If you’re a human being in Austin during SXSW, you’re going to feel the need to get the f*ck out at some point or another. And not just to the same place that every other attendee is using as an escape valve. You need actual distance. You need food and alcohol. And you need a place where “networking” is considered a bad word. Here are the best restaurants and bars in Austin to escape SXSW.
This East Side pub has proudly been a shelter from SXSW events for as long as we can remember. It’s not far from downtown or the craziness of East Sixth, but with a big backyard, ping pong, skee ball, and huge “fat” sandwiches (their word, not ours), Gourmands feels like it’s worlds away from South By. They also serve breakfast now, so in case you indulged in a few too many Lone Stars last night, this place has you covered before noon, too.
When you want to not only escape the festival, but also feel like you’ve left the city limits behind (even though you haven’t), head to Contigo in Mueller. You’ll feel like you got invited to someone’s really nice ranch, but with the convenience of only being a few miles from downtown. Order a few cocktails and some homemade charcuterie, along with the rabbit and dumplings if you’re really hungry, and start planning where you want to go on a trip during next year’s SXSW.
Tacos might be Austin’s defining achievement - you can find excellent ones everywhere, and even the bad ones are still good. But if you’re looking for great tacos in a place where you’re unlikely to run into any festival-goers between panels, take a trip to Tyson’s. This 24-hour taco spot on Airport Blvd serves a wide range of breakfast tacos, but it’s their lunch and dinner tacos, like the burnt ends and duck confit, that set them apart. Definitely go for the three taco plate and, of course, some queso.
Ramen Tatsu-ya’s South Lamar location is always packed, even when it’s not SXSW, but their original spot up north off 183 is untouched by festival attendees. They serve the exact same ramen as the other shop, but without the guaranteed waits. If and when you hit a taco and barbecue wall during SXSW, make a trip to Ramen Tatsu-ya for a reset.
While it’s easy to end up at one of Austin’s many overpriced, contemporary Mexican spots that specialize in dishes like “deconstructed ceviche” and vegetarian carnitas, Curra’s keeps things simple and classic, which is why it’s one of our favorites. This local institution serves avocado margaritas along with old school Mexican food, and has the kind of laid-back feel that you might need after being dragged to that Doritos-sponsored Lady Gaga party the night before.
There is nothing slick or cool about Quality Seafood, which is exactly why we like it. This fish market/bar hybrid serves the freshest seafood in the city, and is located far enough north of downtown that you don’t have to worry about any kind of brand activation taking over the place and preventing you from enjoying excellent fish tacos, oysters, and crab cakes. Sure, it looks like it was teleported from a Florida beach town, but along with its location in a random strip mall up north, that’s what gives it its charm.
Austin will never be as weird as it was five years ago (or five before that, and so on). Thankfully, there are places like Paco’s Tacos keeping the weirdness alive, and doing so while still remaining mostly a secret. Come here for breakfast tacos (try their brisket), a Bloody Mary, and a big patio where you can hide from the drone delivery futurist you already regret giving your business card to.
By the time peak South By hits, lunch becomes an excuse to head north and get away from the festival madness for an hour or two. And in this case, eat some amazing sandwiches. Unlike some of our favorite downtown spots, Noble Sandwich Company doesn’t get overrun by people delivering their under-rehearsed elevator pitches, and while it’s impossible to go wrong with anything on the menu, the Noble Pig, Cuban, and Thai chicken sandwiches are three of our favorites.
If your friends are in town for South By from someplace where it’s still winter, there are three things they probably want: margaritas, guacamole, and a place to enjoy the 70+ degree weather outside. Head to El Alma, the centrally-located and semi-upscale (by Austin standards) Mexican spot that you can usually get a table at during SXSW. Their food and drinks are great, but what’s even better is their multi-level back patio, which your friends will definitely want to camp out on and never leave by the end of the festival’s first day.
Austin used to be a pizza desert, but thankfully, that’s no longer the case. If your goal is to avoid the SXSW masses, however, stay far away from the obvious pizza picks like Homeslice or Bufalina. Instead, check out Little Deli, a family-owned shop in a residential part of North Austin. The pies are excellent, and so is the string-light and picnic table covered patio on which you’ll eat them. Also, it’s BYOB, so make sure to pick up a six-pack or bottle of wine on the way.
This South Side coffee shop is a great alternative to nearby Radio, which is always too crowded and no longer has any parking. Cosmic Coffee also has a large porch and backyard complete with nighttime fire pits. Besides the space, we’re big fans of the food trucks parked outside, including Pueblo Viejo (for tacos) and LeRoy and Lewis, a barbecue truck serving things you won’t find everywhere else, like macaroni and cheese stuffed quail. Between their beer, coffee, wine, and cocktail selection, you can basically drink here for the entire day, and as if this place couldn’t get any more utopian, dogs are allowed both inside and outside.
When all you want is a quiet place to go read a book and drink some coffee in peace, go to Mozart’s. It’s right on Lake Austin, so you’ll feel slightly more refreshed and recharged while in actuality only being about seven minutes west of the heart of South By. Besides the coffee, they also serve great pastries and Amy’s Ice Cream, in case you need something sweet.
This brewery south of 71 is basically on a different planet from SXSW, and also has some of the best beer in the city. In addition to the brews, this place has a big backyard and is home to Soursop, a food truck serving a mix of Thai and Vietnamese dishes. There’s no wrong day to go to St. Elmo, but if you need a good pre-weekend Happy Hour spot, head there for $6 chicken sandwiches and $2 Kölsch on Fridays.
The Wheel has a wide selection of cocktails and local beers, along with some of the friendliest bartenders in the city, each of whom will be happy to tell you their SXSW horror stories from years and bars past. This is a great spot to avoid the madness of downtown - or at least escape it for a nightcap. Either way, they have a comfortable patio, and you can order a sandwich from Austin Daily Press next door to celebrate South By being one day closer to over.
When you’re in charge of shepherding your visiting coworkers around town and want to prove to them that Austin is more than just Sixth Street and Rainey, head to ABGB down south. This huge indoor/outdoor beer garden with an equally large patio is well-equipped for large groups of people, and besides serving lots of beers in huge mugs, it also has surprisingly good pizza.
This Christmas light-covered dive just west of downtown looks like a set straight out of Friday Night Lights, but with more old hippies and fewer Tim Riggins sightings. Grab a pitcher of Lone Star or really whatever cheap beer you prefer, and play some pool while enjoying the sounds of Willie Nelson on repeat. When you get hungry, check out Pool Burger, their new “tiki burger speakeasy” around back.
Hidden away on a residential street north of UT’s campus, Draught House is one of our favorite beer gardens in town. They’ve always had one of the city’s best rotating tap selections - even before most people started caring about beer - and they now host different food trucks throughout the week, in case you get hungry after a pint or two. Check their website ahead of time, because they offer substantial discounts on certain types of beer (and even free food) on certain days of the week.
Just off East 12th St., you’ll find Rio Rita, a coffee shop that doubles as a cocktail lounge. Depending on when you go, you can get a cup of coffee and read in one of their vintage chairs, or get a cocktail and maybe not read, but still enjoy the furniture. Or just go for the Dublin Pickup, an espresso-infused whiskey cocktail, and get the best of both worlds.
Casino South Side Lounge is a dive bar on an access road off Highway 290 where you’ll never run into out of towners telling you all about how much better SXSW used to be. It’s a very laid-back spot with very nice bartenders, a few pool tables, and cheap cocktails.
When you’ve truly had enough of everything that comes with South By and just need to get out of town, Jester King Brewery is where to go. Their creative farmhouse ales and sours have helped them develop a serious following among beer nerds, but even if you only kind of like beer, it’s hard to deny how relaxing their Hill Country ranch-meets-brewery 30 minutes outside of town is. If and when you get hungry, order something from Stanley’s, their on-site pizzeria.