Casual Fine Dining Guide

Eating out, Austin-style

Visitors and newcomers may love it or hate it, but Austin is widely known for its decidedly casual zeitgeist. Austin's all about laid-back, "be whoever you are," wear what's comfortable -- and that's just the way we'd like it to stay. We locals recognize the famous "laid-back" Austin atmosphere nurtures artistic creativity of all kinds, be it music, theatre, film, literature, visual arts, or cooking. Where food is concerned, we tend to take pride in the Austin informality that shames snooty restaurants with dress codes into dropping them; we embrace the idea that fine dining doesn't have to be an expensive spectator sport. In honor of all that and in order to welcome all the folks who visit the River City this time of year, the Food staff (Rebecca Chastenet de Géry, MM Pack, Rachel Feit, Barbara Chisholm, Mick Vann, Wes Marshall, and I) has compiled a list of our favorite casual fine dining restaurants. These are local independent restaurants, many of them small, each of them with its own unique personality and flair. Bon appetit! - Virginia B. Wood
Castle Hill Cafe
Castle Hill Cafe (Photo By John Anderson)

Castle Hill Cafe

1101 W. Fifth, 470-0728

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm; Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 6-10pm

After 16 years, the pioneers of Southwestern-baroque are still going strong. The colorfully festooned Castle Hill Cafe seems to have captured the spirit of Austin as it reinvents itself for the new millennium. In a city where entertainment has become the dominant trope, Castle Hill is the reigning champion of spectacle dining. Chef-owner David Dailey pores over cookbooks, restaurant menus, and food publications to find inspiration for his creative culinary pairings. His menu reads like an inventory list for a gourmet foods shop. It features dishes such as crispy duck with leek and shiitake sauce, a sesame chile puree, and pickled ginger slaw ($18.95); grilled beef tenderloin with bordelaise, crème fraîche, onion relish, thyme pesto, and foie gras butter ($21.95); and pasta with thyme-scented shrimp served with a sauce of caramelized leeks, white wine, sherry cream, parmesan, and lobster, with a fennel and pickled-carrot relish and fried garlic chive pesto ($21.95). These dishes materialize as gorgeous, busy plates that are festively garnished.

On a recent lunchtime visit, I sampled the herb- and wine-marinated chicken brochettes ($9.95), served atop miniature towers of whipped potatoes, capped with smoked gouda butter. A tangy herb purée formed a pool of green at their base. A confetti of fried garlic bits decorated the tops, lending a touch of musty bitterness to the rich gouda-flavored butter. The ensemble articulated almost effortlessly, though I believe the herb sauce could have been profitably left off the plate. But here is the signature of Castle Hill's unique brand of cooking: Each plate includes a veritable bathtub of robust flavors that do not tread lightly on the tongue. The finished product can be divine, though depending on the individual palate, it can also be slightly overwhelming.

The wine list features more than 50 tastefully chosen, reasonably priced wines, most of which are available by the glass. Bottles generally fall into the $20-$30 range, while glasses are priced around $6-$7. There's hardly a list that's a better value in the entire city. It's worth noting that the staff at Castle Hill is friendly, efficient, and extremely loyal to the restaurant. Many have worked there for years. "No one ever leaves," the longtime manager of the restaurant says.

There's no denying that a meal at Castle Hill is one of the better values in the city. The combination of fun food, great wine, and attentive service, at prices well below most other fine dining establishments, makes this busy restaurant a tireless favorite in Austin. - Rachel Feit

34th Street Cafe

1005 W. 34th, 371-3400

Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11am-4pm;

limited menu, 4-6pm

Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 6-9:30pm

During the day, 34th Street Cafe is one of the most popular lunch spots in the central city medical complex area. Hospital staffers and the West Austin ladies who lunch all order at the counter and feast on hearty sandwiches, satisfying salads, and crisp-crusted Tuscan pizzas. Genial host Eddie Bernal and his friendly staff cater to the every whim of their clientele, packing takeout food, providing delivery in the immediate area, and offering full-service catering. The bright, airy cafe has had a recent interior facelift and, as always, is decorated with monthly art exhibits.

At night, the cafe becomes a completely different restaurant; with soothing background music, soft lighting, and table service, it's transformed into a chic, comfortable neighborhood bistro. The eclectic menu is one of those Southwestern/Asian/Mediterranean fusion affairs that are still all the rage hereabouts. On a recent visit, we found former chef Courtney Swenson's signature crispy shrimp ($8.95) delicious, if a little overwhelmed by the fibrous strings of ginger in the dipping sauce, and we thoroughly enjoyed several of the tasty fried oysters on fancy chips ($8.95) with chipotle aioli, even though oysters are not usually one of our favorite things.

The dinner menu offers the same thin-crust Tuscan pizzas that are available during the day plus a nice assortment of salads that make a good light dinner on their own or can be served in half orders paired with entrées. The spinach salad with bacon, onion rings, goat cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette ($7.95), made with succulent young spinach leaves, is our current favorite. Entrée and pasta choices change weekly and range in price from $10.95 to $18.95. We sampled sea bass over garlic rice ($16.95) with a sauce of avocado, lime, and jalapeño, and seared ahi tuna over a bowl of udon noodles ($14.95). The flaky sea bass was perfectly enhanced by the bright, piquant avocado sauce and both the firm tuna and its soft bed of noodles were bathed in a slightly sweet, soy-tinged concoction that married their contrasting textures well.

The 20-item wine list here is chosen to complement the menu's palette of flavors and priced to sell. There are red and white selections from California, France, Italy, Australia, and Spain, all available at $22 a bottle or $5.95 a glass, allowing every guest at a table to choose the right wine to pair with their meal. Servers will be happy to make informed suggestions. The next time you're looking for an affordably priced dinner in pleasant surroundings, venture into this neighborhood and give the cafe a try. - Virginia B. Wood

Kaya Blue

621-A E. Sixth, 478-8788

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2:00pm; Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10:00pm

Appetizers only: Thursday, 10:30pm-2am

Closed Sunday

There's no doubt about it, Kaya Blue must be one of the most romantically hip dining venues in town. Once your eyes adjust to the dim, they fall on the enormous faux-Baroque mirror that campily reigns over the burnished red mahogany tables and hand-painted walls of swirling, jewel-toned blues, plums, and deep reds. Twinkling lights and velvet drapes, along with dreamlike, Japanese-themed paintings and ambient techno music, complete the vaguely surreal setting. The bijou of a bar prepares intriguing specialty drinks like Malibu Mambo and Zeng's Firefly, evoking visions of exotic spots far from Central Texas.

This ironic, daring ambience aptly complements the fusion-personified culinary offerings -- pan-Asian, Cajun, and Caribbean cuisines, morphed into new, and compelling, combinations. Kaya Blue aims to please sophisticated palates, but is determined not to be stuffy in the process.

My favorite starter remains the barely seared tuna slices topped with fresh crab, encircling a huge juicy scallop dressed in a delectable puff of wasabi mousse, all resting amicably in a bed of black-eyed peas and hot peppers. Fondutta, a composition of melted brie and Monterey jack, is loaded with spinach, crawfish, and tasso ham, drizzled with cilantro oil and spicy sambal (Indonesian red pepper sauce), accompanied by bread and crisp veggies. Perfectly crisp coconut-crusted chicken is easily large enough for two; it's accompanied by a charming warm pineapple and sage chutney.

Both soups are exceptional -- I could cheerfully dive into the silky asparagus-and-crawfish bisque. Hot-and-sour tortilla soup is chicken broth successfully infused with Asian spices.

Among the entrées ($16-$27), a stellar offering is Kaya Paella, a platter of coconut saffron rice subtly flavored with keffir lime leaves, surrounded by an enormous selection of mussels, scallops, shrimp, clams, and lobster. I also enjoyed the succulent sambal-and-molasses-sauced pork ribs, accompanied by sweet potato purée. A real showstopper is the silky pink beef tenderloin medallions in a smoky, tomatoey, Cuban-style adobo sauce, accompanied by captivating cinnamon-flavored crispy pancakes of sweet potato and jicama.

Desserts at Kaya Blue change regularly; they include Chocolate Teardrop, an intense and creamy dark-chocolate ganache lolling in a rich pool of raspberry sauce and studded with fresh berries, as well as Voodoo Bread Pudding, moist and redolent with tropical fruit, surrounded by caramel sauce. Passionfruit cheesecake is pleasantly tart, with an unusual caramel crust.

On Thursday nights from 10:30 until 4am, Kaya Blue hosts Into Deep, a music/dance event with DJs Chris Specht and Brotha Miles. There is a modest cover, and Kaya appetizers and drinks are served until 2am. - MM Pack

Si Bon

801 S. Lamar, 326-8323

Tuesday-Saturday, 5pm-11pm

Just like a lot of other high-ticket restaurants in Austin, Si Bon has chosen to adapt to the economy. Smaller, less elaborate and less expensive meals now rule the menu. Only two items top $20, and many of the smaller dishes make a comfortable meal in and of themselves. While the restaurant retains its charming intimacy, it's now more of a place for a casual glass of wine and plate of good food than a destination-dining extravaganza. We've experienced chef/owner Peter O'Brien's magic in the kitchen several times. We decided to see whether he could do it at lower prices.

When we arrived on a recent Thursday night, we discovered that Mr. O'Brien wasn't in the kitchen. As I started to worry about how well the restaurant would fare, one of the waiters showed up to pour some water, missed the glass and doused my leg. That should prove that the Chronicle reviewers are incognito!

We started with Si Bon's Smoked Cheddar Cheese Fondue ($10). I loved the smoky, rich flavors of the fondue, but my dining companion found it watery. A crispy rosemary foccacia presented as dipping bread benefited from sitting in the fondue because it was over-crisp. Next, we tried the Yellow Tail with Tomato Fennel Confit ($8), which was a small serving of very fresh fish, raw in the middle and charred on the outside, but so cold it was apparently pulled straight from the refrigerator. The confit was delicious with just a hint of fennel flavor to enliven the tastes. A warmed spinach salad ($6.50), made with baby spinach leaves, pancetta, roasted shallots, walnuts, goat cheese, and sherry vinaigrette, was the richest dish of the night, though the bacon or pancetta fat a little over the top. I'd suggest a glass of high-acidity wine (Beauregard Ducasse Graves Blanc would be a good choice at $7 per glass) to help clear your palette.

Next we tried two items from the Grill section of the menu. Si Bon's roasted salmon ($15) was cooked perfectly, juicy inside and slightly crisped on the outside. It was accompanied by an Ola Rosa Sherry Reduction, which was lush and tasted great on the crispy pommes frites. Their Herb Chevre Stuffed Chicken ($12) was a little dry and stuffed with cold goat cheese. Hopefully the pairing of warm chicken and cold cheese was not what the chef had in mind.

Si Bon has always featured some wonderful wines; now they are cheaper and all served by the glass. Ask François, a waiter who really knows his wine, to help you choose. My favorite bargains on the list are Domaine Solitude Cotes du Rhone Red ($7/glass, $22/bottle) and Robert Pepi Pinot Grigio ($6/glass, $21/bottle).

Si Bon has reinvented itself for the new economy. It used to be a grand restaurant with prices to match, but it's now more casual with better value. Each of the dishes had great potential, some executed more expertly than others. I can't escape the feeling that the realization of the food would have been better if chef O'Brien had been there. Next time I'll check before I go. - Wes Marshall

Collin B's Bistro & Wine Room

3500 Jefferson Ste. 201, 454-0004

Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-2pm, 5-10pm; Brunch: Saturday, 10am-2pm

Collin B's is the newest arrival in Austin's casual fine dining scene, so new we haven't actually dined there yet. The restaurant is named for its chef and owner, Collin Treanor, an Austin newcomer himself, who turns out American- and Continental-style foods. Everything on the menu -- even the dinners for two -- is priced at an exceptionally reasonable $20 or less per person. Dinner offerings include Young Hen stuffed with Creamy Cheese Polenta and Crusted with Roasted Corn Meal, Espresso Crusted Filet Mignon and Vegetable Gratin with Cocoa Demi Glaze, and Roasted Colorado Lamb Racks and Tomato Provençal with Mint Marchand de Vins. Fans of fish can choose from Grilled Giant Sea Prawns and Diver Scallops in a coconut cream or the Mustard Seed Crusted Yellow Fin with its out-of-the-ordinary Dried Fruit Sauce. - Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

Chez Zee

5406 Balcones, 454-2666

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10:30pm; Friday, 11am-midnight; Saturday, 9am-midnight; Sunday, 9am-10pm

Chez Zee is an Austin institution, long loved by the Central Austin set (although it's just minutes from downtown). Power breakfasts and brunch on the weekends, an eclectic menu with pastas, sandwiches, soups, sautés, and grills at lunch and dinner (all at quite reasonable prices), and a loyal following for late-night desserts and drinks. - Mick Vann

Tree House Italian Grill

2201 College Ave., 443-4200

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2:30pm; Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-10pm

Dinner: Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm

Nothin' could be finer than to be an Austin diner in the outdoors. (Sing it!) Perhaps the loveliest of all outdoor dining options in town is at the enchanted patio of the Treehouse Grill off South Congress. Anchored by a 400-year-old live oak tree, it has a mini arched bridge, landscaping galore, and twinkling lights above. And the stuff on the plate holds up nicely too. - Barbara Chisholm

Ella's Ranch

No. 1 Jefferson Square, 458-2148

Monday-Saturday, 11am-2pm; 5:30-10pm

Sunday, 10am-2pm

Reservations welcome

Ella's recently merged concepts with its sassy sibling, Ranch 616, expanding the menu offerings with several of the younger restaurant's less expensive dishes. This way, it's possible, without breaking the bank, to make dinner out of soup, salad, or a substantial appetizer and a reasonably priced glass of wine early in the week and return later in the week for a Southwestern-flavored entrée such as a Black Angus Ribeye, Achiote Salmon, or Ancho Glazed Pork Tenderloin on poblano mashed potatoes. The ever-popular Monday wine dinner series continues here. - V.B.W.

Mars

1610 San Antonio, 472-3901

Sunday-Monday, 5:30-10pm, Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30pm, Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11pm

Serving pan-ethnic influenced peasant food, Mars offers causal fine dining to the worldly gourmet. Homemade chicken potstickers ($6.95) and curried scallops ($9.95) are longtime favorites here. Folksy, anthropological dishes such as grilled kefta with eggplant ragout over couscous ($11.95), or tea-smoked duck served with mushroom curry and saffron-basmati rice ($18.95), make the exotic seem familiar, and the familiar seem strange. - R.F.

La Traviata

314 Congress, 479-8131

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm

Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30

Reservations welcome

Grab a table or one of the seats at the long polished bar and surrender yourself to the pleasures of chef/owner Marion Gillchrist's simple, straightforward Italian trattoria cooking. We're fond of the house salad with gorgonzola and buttermilk dressing, pasta with homemade Bolognese, or hearty lamb polpettini (meatballs). The historic downtown setting, in a long, narrow room with limestone walls, a classy antique bar, and the original hardwood floors, adds character to this very pleasant dining spot. Service is friendly and attentive. - V.B.W.

Asti Trattoria

408 E. 43rd, 451-1218

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday, 5-11pm

"Best of Austin" winner Asti Trattoria offers friendly service, relaxed elegance, and great food, all at a reasonable price. Favorite dishes include the Polenta Bowl with Housemade Sausage ($8 at lunch) and, at dinner, the osso buco-style Lamb Shank with Saffron Risotto ($16). For vegetarians, there's the Asparagus Risotto with Arugula Pesto and shaved fennel ($14.50) or the Green Pizza with Spinach and Zucchini, Basil, Ricotta and Pine Nuts ($8.00). They also have a smart and well-priced wine list. - W.M.

Jean-Luc's Bistro

705 Colorado, 494-0033

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm

Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30pm

Reservations welcome

When young chef Shawn Cirkiel and his family purchased one of our favorite downtown dining spots in the late summer of 2001, we were concerned about possible changes. Not to worry. The subtle changes in both the decor and the menu are delightful, keeping the restaurant on our list of favorites. Confident chef Cirkiel applies French technique to American ingredients with some California inspiration and no fussiness. His reasonably priced bistro fare is very satisfying, but save room for pastry chef Philip Speer's innovative dessert offerings. The wine list here, especially the dessert wines and ports, is well chosen and affordable. - V.B.W.

Starlite
Starlite (Photo By John Anderson)

Starlite

624 W. 34th, 374-9012

Thursday-Saturday, 6pm-11pm; Brunch: Sunday, 11am-3pm

Behind the bamboo fence of this hidden 1930s vintage home, Chef Chris Howard serves interesting riffs on fusion food. The menu is ever-changing, but expect entrées such as Pheasant Confit Spring Rolls with Creamy Cider Dipping Sauce and Pickled Pears and the decadent Spinach Salad Starlite with its baked potato, Cambozola cheese, and smoky bacon topping. - R.C.

Mirabelle
Mirabelle (Photo By John Anderson)

Mirabelle

8127 Mesa, 346-7900

Monday-Thursday, 11am-2pm, 5:30-9:30pm; Friday, 11am-2pm, 5:30-10pm; Saturday, 5:30-10pm

Out in North Austin and worth the drive. Mirabelle is an oasis of good food and wine. We love their Coriander Crusted Duck with Madeira-Fig Jus ($17.95 for the breast or $19.95 for a half duck). Even meat eaters go for the vegetarian Portobello Baklava with Feta ($14.95). You can rely on owner and wine expert Michael Villim to guide you through one of Austin's best and most inexpensive wine lists. - W.M.

The Granite Cafe

2905 San Gabriel Ste. 200, 472-6483

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm; Lite Fare: Monday-Friday, 2:30-5:30pm; Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30pm, Sunday, 5:30-9pm; Brunch: Sunday, 11:30am-3pm

With one of the largest covered patios in town and cool neon art indoors, the Granite Cafe offers the ideal location for unwinding over chef/owner Sam Dickey's feisty, distinctively Texan cuisine. Not to be missed: the Seared Tuna with Fried Green Tomatoes on Black Bean Pasilla Sauce With Avocado Salsa.- R.C.

Wink

1014 N. Lamar, 482-8868

Monday-Saturday, 6-11pm

Reservations welcome

This spiffy little central city eatery has been jammin' since the night it opened in the summer of 2001. That's because of the hard work of chef/owners Stewart Scruggs and Mark Paul and their talented staff. The restaurant is small enough that the menu changes almost daily, featuring fresh, seasonal, and often local organic produce and stellar Harrell Ranch beef, all at an affordable price point. Pastry chef Paul's desserts are remarkable; don't miss the Lemon Meringue Cup. This very popular restaurant is often boisterous and noisy but the food never disappoints. - V.B.W.

Chez Nous

510 Neches, 473-2413

Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:45am-2pm

Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday, 6-10:30pm

How's this for casual: The wait person is likely to be outfitted in jeans. And fine? You bet, as in rack of lamb, steak au poivre, salade Lyonnaise, and other excellently turned out classic bistro fare. As for dining, it's hard to beat burgundy paisley oilcloth table covers, flowers in Ricard bottles, and lace curtains in the windows for atmosphere. Chez Nous hits a bull's-eye when you're seeking the complete casual fine dining experience. - B.C.

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