Every year, around the second week of March, the floodgates of South By Southwest open, and every musician/tech nerd/media mogul/film geek in the country suddenly descends upon our city (some of them even dare to ask to crash on your couch).
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 real food and alcohol, the kind you actually have to pay for. And you need a place where “networking” is considered a bad word. Here are the best restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and mini-road trips we’d recommend for escaping SXSW.
When you want to not only escape the festival, but also trick yourself into thinking 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 cocktails and some homemade charcuterie, along with the burger or 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.
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 “fat” sandwiches (their word, not ours), Gourmands feels like it’s worlds away from South By. They also serve breakfast, so in case you had a few too many Lone Stars last night, this place has you covered before noon, too.
You go to Curra’s because it has the kind of laid-back feeling that you might need after being dragged to that secret Kanye West show in an abandoned power plant the night before. You also go to this local institution because you can get an avocado margarita alongside Tex-Mex/Mexican food like chilaquiles, mole enchiladas, queso, and ceviche.
If your goal is to avoid the SXSW masses, 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 great, and so is the string-light lit patio. Also, it’s BYOB, so pick up a six-pack or bottle of wine on the way. Or just grab some beers at Arlan’s, the grocery store across the parking lot.
You go to El Chile when you want a margarita bigger than your head and some Mexican food or Tex-Mex to go with it. There’s a big patio, and all of the food - from the tacos to the chicken mole - is consistently good.
This South Side coffee shop is a great alternative to nearby Radio, which is usually crowded and barely 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 & Lewis, a barbecue truck serving things you won’t find everywhere else, like smoked beef cheeks and cauliflower burnt ends. 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.
Very few SXSW attendees (let alone locals) know about Alta’s Cafe, a semi-hidden spot that’s literally a block from the Convention Center in the Waller Creek Boathouse. With an incredible view of Town Lake, the dog-friendly patio is a fantastic place to be - it even has plenty of outlets if you need to get some work done. The food menu is broad: breakfast tacos, avocado toast, cheese boards, salads, and sandwiches. To drink, there are smoothies, beer (and beer flights), wine, and very good coffee.
Easy Tiger, the bake shop and beer garden downtown, is likely going to be slammed (or bought out) during SXSW. But if you’re looking for a chill beer garden with pretzels and good pastrami sandwiches, head north to the Easy Tiger location at the Linc in the Highland neighborhood - where hopefully the only brand activations going on will be between you and an IPA from Austin Beerworks.
This is how this East 6th dive bar feels about SXSW: They play Apocalypse Now on repeat the entire time. They’ve seen the horrors, and they know not to get out of the boat. The Grackle has cheap drinks, one of Austin’s best whiskey selections, and a big covered patio out front - so it’s a good place to take a break from the SXSW frenzy. Just maybe tuck your badge in your shirt or something.
This brewery south of 71 is basically on a different planet than SXSW, and it brews some of the best beer in the city. Their big backyard is home to Soursop, a food truck serving a mix of Thai and Vietnamese dishes.
Lala’s Little Nugget might just be the most festive dive bar in town, as it’s been continually decorated for Christmas since the 1970s. It’s a little out of the way in a stripmall in Crestview, but the odds of bumping into people from SXSW are slim to none, so you can revel in the Christmas cheer all on your own.
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.
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 (or decide you want a tiki drink), check out Pool Burger around back.
If you’ve had enough of day-old tacos that you can get at any and all SXSW events, and really need a cheeseburger, head to Billy’s on Burnet. There will be no badges or wristbands at this sports bar, just The Cobra burger (our favorite) with cheddar cheese, bacon, grilled jalapeños, and chipotle mayo - which is 100 percent worth going out of your way for.
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 recently they opened their own food truck serving chicken wings, burgers, and fish and chips. Check their website ahead of time because they offer discounts on select beers (and even free food) during certain days of the week.
Casino Southside Lounge is a dive bar on an access road off Highway 290 where you’ll never run into out-of-towners telling you how much better SXSW used to be. It’s a very laid-back spot with nice bartenders, a few pool tables, and cheap cocktails.
Spend a chill Sunday afternoon hanging out on the picnic tables in The Little Darlin’s huge patio out back. There’s a stage for live music, but be warned that sometimes there are SXSW shows on the weekend, so check online first before heading out. As far as food goes, stick with the basics, like the burger or the cast-iron mac and cheese (add carnitas).
go for a drive
These spots are a little out of the way - so you’ll need a car - but they’re worth the drive.
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 people who travel for beer. Their Hill Country ranch-meets-brewery 30 minutes outside of town is extremely relaxing, and if/when you get hungry, you can get very good pizza from their restaurant.
It’s a solid 20 minute drive south on I-35 from downtown Austin, but you should find the time to head out to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ. Not only do they make the best breakfast tacos in town, they also make some of the best barbecue. The flour tortillas alone are worth the drive (and they sell them by the dozen).
All the barbecue spots in central and downtown Austin are slammed during SXSW, so instead of waiting in yet another line, get in your car and head to Interstellar BBQ in far northwest Austin. This place hasn’t been around as long as some of the more famous barbecue spots, but it has all the classic Texas barbecue staples like brisket and pork ribs, as well as rotating specials like jalapeño popper sausages and pastrami beef ribs. Do not miss the smoked scalloped potatoes.