The Most Fun Dinner Spots In Austin Right Now guide image


The Most Fun Dinner Spots In Austin Right Now

A night out at one of these places‚ whether it’s for a catch-up with a friend or an impressive date night—feels overwhelmingly of the moment.

This guide is reserved for anyone who’s wondering, “Where’s the place to be?” and might be looking for an excuse to wear that new outfit you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Chairs aren’t just for sitting in some of these restaurants and, while food is important, a good time takes priority. They range from old-school classics that gave your grandparents a complimentary shot back in the day, to buzzy new spots with a waitlist longer than Austin’s interminable summers. They’re the “it” dinner places in Austin. And if you happen to be looking for our favorite new spots, or some fun bars, we have guides to those, too.

And, as always, we wouldn’t be recommending any of these restaurants simply for having a memorable scene. We’ve been to each and every spot and loved the food they serve—so you can plan your dinner confidently.



Usually when we head to a vegan restaurant, we expect to eat a bunch of dishes that look kind of like a steak but taste more like a brown watermelon or a giant mushroom. But not at Fabrik. This is a plant-based fine dining experience on East MLK that uses ingredients like miso butter, caramelized yeast, and tamari caramel to impart rich and savory elements into dishes, instead of relying on mock meats. Mushroom yakitori outperforms its poultry counterpart, and salt-baked beet tartlets arrive topped with seaweed “caviar” that makes us wonder why expensive, tiny fish eggs ever became so popular. Just know that you’re signing up for a five or seven-course experience (with an optional beverage pairing) so buckle up and enjoy the plant-based ride. 

At El Raval, classic tapas, wine, and sherry flights are just the tip of the fabled Texas-iceberg. Named after a vibrant, multicultural neighborhood in Barcelona, this Spanish restaurant on South Lamar is a mini version of its namesake, where global influences—like Peruvian leche de tigre and Punjabi makhani sauces—appear sparingly across the  menu. Or where ingredients like pandan and Sichuan peppercorn are introduced to a wildly inventive cocktail menu, that all feels less like fusion, and more of a nod to Barcelona’s cultural diversity. It’s lively and buzzy inside, in a way that makes you feel just as jazzed up about just being there as you already do about the plate of Iberican ham in front of you that’s been curing since before Fast & Furious 9 came out (we’re on 10 now, in case you lost track).

Upscale Mediterranean food is nothing new to Austin, but up until now it’s largely followed a formula involving some kind of fancy hummus—probably with short rib on it—a Greek salad, and a few kebabs. Then Ezov entered the picture and ushered in a new era of Mediterranean food in town, with a seasonal menu of dishes inspired by the Galilee region of northern Israel. Suddenly, marinated olives felt boring next to deep-fried sigarim—AKA Moroccan cigars—packed full of savory, spiced sweetbreads and chicken hearts in a crispy shell. A DIY tabletop chicken shawarma station helped us realize how interactive and complex a dish made up of so many sauces and toppings could be. The dining room is every bit as buzzy as you’d expect out of a tall, modern building in East Austin with floor-to-ceiling windows, cozy booths, and enough Tel Aviv-inspired graffiti to paint more than just mental imagery.  

After successful runs in Mexico City and Northern California, the people behind La Popular opened a new location in southwest Austin, in Oak Hill right near Ling Wu. There’s a dimly lit dining room that opens up via garage doors to a small, but cute patio, and in the middle of everything is a giant bar with floating plants and scientific equipment that looks like it was pulled out of Dexter’s Laboratory. It’s all reason enough to dress up a bit and make a date night out of one of the few higher-end spots in the area. But it’s the housemade corn tortillas, the live fire al pastor, the fiery salsa sampler, and the showy cocktails that all sweeten the deal, just a little. If you like your drinks just a little bit interactive, try the Oaxacan Jellyfish—it comes served in a glass jellyfish and topped with a smoke bubble you can pop to reveal the bright blue drink inside. 

When we hear the words “live fire kitchen” our eyes immediately light up. That’s because we, too, have watched the Francis Malmann episode of Chef’s Table and know just how much the added elements of fire, smoke, and char can contribute to a dish. Throw in a beautiful multi-story dining room and bold Latin flavors, and you get Ember Kitchen in the Seaholm District downtown. Almost all of the menu touches fire at some point, from crudos with charcoal oil to a “seafood tower” that is not, in fact, a tower, but rather a giant paella pan the size of a small table and filled with an unreasonable amount of seafood and Veracruz sauce. Start the night with an excellent cocktail at Subterra—an underground agave bar from the same team—then see if you can get a table on the second story loft where you can look out over the buzzy dining room in a slightly more intimate space. 

Bufalina, Austin's cool kid pizza-and-natural-wine spot in East Austin, is back and better than ever. Back in 2021 it closed to make way for a condo development, but now Bufalina has reopened not far from the original on Cesar Chavez with the same homey lo-fi bootstrapped vibes. The pizzas are classically Neapolitan (with the slightly yeasty dough), the wine list is as phenomenal as always, and there’s an expanded pasta menu (from the chef behind the recently closed Italian pop-up Le Cowboy). The biggest challenge is figuring out how many different kinds of pasta and pizza you’re going to order, and how many leftovers you’re going to take home.

The Mexican coastal-inspired seafood restaurant Este is from the team behind Suerte, one of our favorite spots on the East Side. Much like its sister restaurant, Este is a well-oiled machine, balancing friendly service and a lively atmosphere with one of the prettiest spaces on Manor Road. Este is especially great when fish meets the charcoal-fired grill, including the smoky and spicy large format pescado zarandeado, marinated in annatto red chile. And make sure to get an order of clam preparados topped with a fiery habanero pico and the bright snapper ceviche. There’s also a pretty extensive mezcal selection and some fantastic (and sometimes spicy) cocktails. If you thought reservations at Suerte were difficult to get, wait until you check out Este’s availability. Unless you want to dine at 9:30pm (which is probably still worth it), you’ll want to set a reminder for 20 days out when reservations open. Then your date can thank you three weeks from now.

The large back patio at Bulevar has a pretty epic view, overlooking the hills of northwest Austin. You want to be here for the sunset, with a frozen hielo mezcal margarita in hand. Bulevar is from the folks responsible for the always busy downtown spots ATX Cocina and Red Ash, and it’s a blend of both concepts, combining bold Mexican flavors with wood-fired steaks. There’s a ton of smoke and fire and spice on the menu—from trompo-cooked pork belly sopes, to coal-blistered shishitos with a tangy charred serrano aioli. Dry-aged steaks get priced by the ounce—if, like us, you’re not a cattle mathematician, just tell the staff what you like and how much of it you want. It won’t be long before you’re staring at a perfectly cooked, two-pound bone-in filet that you’ll want to polish clean at the end.

Toshokan is a small, eight-seat omakase spot behind a bookshelf in the back of a hostel in East Austin. First, take a second to unpack that sentence. Second, set your timer for the first of the month, because that’s when tickets to these dinners go live, and to say they go fast is an understatement. Dinner is about 14 courses, varying from nigiri topped with bruleed brown sugar tangerine, to a toasted marshmallow ice cream served with chocolate melted tableside—a s’mores version of raclette that instantly locks the eyes of all eight guests in the room. It’s an intimate atmosphere that feels a bit like you’re eating in Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs, if it had been decorated with a live edge sushi bar and cute Japanese toys on the wall, and set to a soundtrack of old school hip hop.

In the movies, downtown steakhouses are a classy affair, with white tablecloths, flickering candles, shrimp cocktails, and thin-stemmed wine glasses. Where the sound of clinking martini glasses and plates hitting the table lay the soundtrack for an evening of good conversation and bad jokes (maybe that’s just us). In some ways, Dean’s is formulaic, because it’s all of those things. But most importantly, it’s a place with very good food—where you can escape the downtown heat for a few hours, thumb through a massive textbook of wines, and order as much Japanese A5 wagyu steak as your wallet will allow. Then, finish the night off with a round of espresso martinis made with house-made Kahlua and salted caramel. It’s a decadent experience, from start to finish, but it’s one you won’t stop talking about anytime soon. 

Just down the road from Nixta Taqueria, Birdie’s is a newish natural wine bar and restaurant on East 12th Street. There are a few tables inside the bright and colorful space, or you can sit at the bar overlooking the bustling kitchen, but where the restaurant truly shines is their backyard. Birdie’s is 90% patio, and most of it is covered, and lit by string lights. The menu is simple and perfectly executed, especially the excellent housemade pastas. They don’t take reservations. which means there are sometimes long lines, but they’ll bring you out a glass of wine (or two) to keep you company while you wait. But every once in a while, the stars align, there’s no line, and you can stroll right in.

Pecan Square Cafe feels like a dreamy wood-clad California lake house that we could probably never afford. Attention to detail and design is high, which is to be expected of the  latest spot from the restaurant group behind spots like Sammie’s, Perla’s, Lamberts, Pool Burger, and Clark’s Oyster Bar (it’s actually right behind Clark’s in Clarksville, up the hill). Try to get a reservation right before the sun sets, so you’ll experience the airy and light-filled dining room transform into a warm and glowing space at night. The food is all very California-inspired—it’s simple and casual and seasonally driven—but what keeps us coming back are the terrific handmade pastas and the rustic, charred wood-fired pizzas.

A dinner at Midnight In The Garden is one of the closest things Austin has to a true speakeasy dinner. There’s no set menu—it’s more like a pop-up—chefs are brought in from all around Austin (and occasionally, out of state) to cook a special multi-course dinner for a few select seatings on the weekends. The location is kept secret until you’ve secured your seats, but what we can tell you is that the setting feels more like a dream than some of our actual dreams. Expect lots of twinkling lights, plants, art displays, and vintage tableware as backdrops to an exciting meal—all of it thoughtfully paired with a series of cocktails and natural wines. Bookings, upcoming dinners, and details all take place through their Instagram.

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photo credit: Richard Casteel

The Most Fun Dinner Spots In Austin Right Now guide image