photo credit: Richard Casteel
Pecan Square Cafe
Pecan Square Cafe in West Austin feels like a dreamy wood-clad California lake house that we could probably never afford. Stylistically, it’s exactly what you’d expect from the restaurant group behind a bazillion other Austin spots, like Sammie’s, Perla’s, Swedish Hill, Lamberts, and Clark’s Oyster Bar (it’s actually right behind Clark’s, just up the hill). It’s casual and sophisticated at the same time, with white tablecloths, very nice glassware, and warm mid-century lighting.
In the same way that their bakery Swedish Hill is “inspired” by California spots like Gjusta (in that it shamelessly rips it off), Pecan Square is “inspired” by classic San Francisco restaurants like Chez Panisse Cafe and Zuni Cafe. So, can you apply the aesthetic that is “MCM-California-Central-Coast-wood-fired-seasonal-fancy-but-rustic dining” to Texas, without it feeling like some sort of animatronic cowboy Alice Waters cosplay? Yes, at Pecan Square, it works, and it’s a delight.
Naturally, Pecan Square’s menu is seasonal and local, with food that toes the line between laid-back and unfussy, but modern. So you’ll find dishes like a smoked tarama dip with trout roe and crudités, or a super simple salad of local lettuces and herbs that’s so good you’d need to be very good friends with a very skilled farmer to recreate it. Where the restaurant really shines, though, are the outstanding handmade pastas and wood-fired pizzas, which makes Pecan Square Cafe, in a lot of ways, quietly one of the best Italian restaurants in town. There’s even a whole roasted chicken—somewhat similar to Zuni Cafe’s iconic version cooked in a wood-fired brick oven—that costs a controversial $72. Sadly it’s a total bust: On two occasions it’s been overcooked, dry, salty, and sadly nothing at all like Zuni’s, and one of the few misfires at Pecan Square.
You should get a reservation at Pecan Square right around sunset, so you can watch the dining room transform from day to night, when it takes on a warm glow. The vaulted dining room with colorful Texan artwork faces the open kitchen with a wood-burning grill, but the best place to eat is probably at the magically glowing bar (or maybe the tables right next to the bar that are reserved for walk-ins). And just like this restaurant group’s other spots, the service is breezy and informal, yet professional and driven.
Pecan Square is casual for sure, but it’s less of a “I’m meeting friends at Swedish Hill for some avocado toast after yoga” kind of casual, and more of a person with a "Save Muny” sign on their front lawn stopping in for a $17 martini and a $38 steak kind on a Tuesday evening sort of casual. You know, Rich Person Casual™. That said, we are big fans of the restaurant, even though it’s most certainly on the expensive side. The (admittedly very good) NA cocktails are a hefty $14. The whole chicken you should not order is a staggering $72. The restaurant is not cheap, but then again, have you seen the price of gas and real estate in California? We’ll probably never be able to afford that dreamy wood-clad California lake house, but if we were lucky enough to live by Pecan Square, this would be a pretty perfect place to bring a date and pop in for a salad, some pasta, and a $17 glass of wine.
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A super simple salad of local lettuces and “soft” herbs with a sherry vinaigrette, this is better than any salad you could make at home, unless you knew the secret handshake with the farmer that supplies their greens.
You’d think that the zucchini fritto would be a simple appetizer that’s chunky and fried, more along the lines of the panisse at Birdie’s, but you’d be wrong. Instead they’re cut matchstick-style, and if anything they’re more like the contentious shoestring fries at Clark’s. Visually fun, but not something you really want to eat that much of, if only because it’s just so much work. Here the zucchini fritto comes in an absurdly enormous mound, and if you look around the dining room, a lot of people order it, but no one comes even close to finishing it.
There are usually two or three pastas on the menu, and they’re handmade, cooked al dente, and seasonally driven. You should order them all. Past iterations have included tender goat milk ricotta agnolotti, or a tangle of tagliatelle with a bright pesto and chili crunch.
More California than Texas, the wood-fired pizzas are a sort of rustic and lightly charred cross between focaccia and a New York-style pie. There is no pizza quite like it in Austin. Definitely make it part of your order.
The chicken-shaped elephant in the room is the $72 whole chicken—which is hilariously and also maybe intentionally priced exactly the same as Zuni Cafe’s legendary and iconic roast chicken—but it’s not nearly as good, coming out disheartenedly overcooked and oversalted on multiple occasions. You should skip it. But If you’re in the mood for other Zuni hits, Rosie’s Wine Bar just across the street has a near total facsimile of their classic anchovy dish with black olives, ricotta salata, and celery.