Downtown Dining & Bites of Austin

The face of Austin's Downtown dining scene has changed somewhat in the past year. There are several new restaurant options within walking distance of the convention center and nearby hotels serving Interactive guests during the Conference. Here's a scouting report on the newest eateries and watering holes, as well as a list of neighborhood markets in the central city that offer a true taste of some of Austin's finest artisanal foods.

New Downtown

Blue Ribbon Barbecue (120 E. Fourth, 369-3119, www.brbbq.com) So how do you get genuine Central Texas barbecue on the ground floor of a high rise office building with no smoke stack? Third-generation pit master Bobby Cavo prepares smoked meats and side dishes at his family's commercial kitchen in nearby Taylor and trucks the goods in fresh every morning; that's how. They're open early and late on the weekends. Don't miss it.

Backspace Pizza (507 San Antonio St., 474-9899, www.thebackspace-austin.com) This place is parkside chef/owner Shawn Cirkiel's newest venture, where he's dishing up authentic Neopolitan-style thin crust pizza from an imported wood-burning oven. There's also a small selection of salads, sides, desserts, and Italian wines and beer. Both parkside and the backspace will be open for lunch beginning at 1pm daily from March 11 to 19 for South by Southwest.

Vince Young Steakhouse (301 San Jacinto, 457-8325, www.vinceyoungsteakhouse.com) Former Longhorn quarterback Vince Young and a couple of his friends have created this clubby spot as an homage to his glory days on the UT gridiron. Enjoy the VY Longhorn memorabilia and upscale steak house fare or relax in the dark, comfortable bar with custom cocktails.

BarChi Sushi Lounge (208 Colorado, 382-5777) is the newest entry in the local sushi sweepstakes, offering two daily happy hours (3-7pm and 10pm-2am) so the twentysomething bar crowd will have plenty of bargain noshing and drinking opportunities.

The Austonian (200 Congress) The ground floor of Austin's newest high rise development offers three serious attractions with nationally known chef David Bull overseeing the action. Second Bar + Kitchen is the more casual dining spot; Bar Congress features some of Austin's best mixologists preparing eclectic cocktails in a cozy atmosphere; and Congress is Bull's top-of-the-line dining spot, pricey and sophisticated.

Trace at the W (200 Lavaca, 542-3660, www.traceaustin.com) presents locally sourced, seasonal fare in an elegant setting in the lovely new W Hotel, also home to the fabulous new ACL Live venue, the Moody Theater. Don't miss the daily Social Interactive Playtime happy hour, 4-6:30pm, with $5 cocktails and tasty bar dishes.

Bar Lamar (525 N. Lamar, inside Whole Foods Market) This comfortable, bistro-style wine and beer bar inside the flagship Whole Foods store offers an eclectic selection of small-batch wines and craft beers on tap as well as by the glass and the bottle. Ask about wine flights and wine and cheese pairings. – Virginia B. Wood

Bites of Austin

But what about when you don't have the time or the inclination to sit in a restaurant? Fortunately, there are markets large and small in Central Austin where you can quickly grab a decent, locally made, fresh meal, snack, or beverage.

The largest Downtown market of course, is Whole Foods Market (Fifth & Lamar, 476-1206), the Mothership! It is the flagship Whole Foods Market for the entire nation, but it also doubles as an enormous cafeteria for the worker bees of Whole Foods Corporate, ensuring that they never have to leave the hive for lunch. Consequently, the prepared food options are dazzling: authentic deli sandwiches, pizza by the slice, calzones, some of the best quality Texas barbecue in town (both plates and sandwiches), soups, seafood chowders, sushi, Japanese noodle plates, made-to-order tacos, a vast array of bakery items, a cappuccino bar, the hugest and most comprehensive salad bar in Austin (and possibly the world), enormous prepared food deli cases, and even a raw food restaurant/island. Many prepared food items throughout the store are surprisingly cheap, especially for the quality – a function, I suppose, of cutting out the middleman. Locally prepared foods made by companies smaller than Whole Foods are also available for sale along the north wall near the pizzeria, as are numerous locally made beverages. Need I say it? Extremely vegetarian friendly.

Royal Blue Grocery has three outlets Downtown (247 W. Third, 499-3993; 360 Nueces Street, 476-5700; 609 Congress, 469-5888; www.royalbluegrocery.com), all designed to service the young, hip, Downtown-livin' high-rise residents. All three stores make their own fresh sandwiches, salads, and fruit salads on site, and they carry Tom's Tabooley products, Green Cart wraps, Mediterranean Chef hummus, falafel and dolmas, and Mmmpanadas brand fresh empanadas. Local beverages for sale include Sweet Leaf Tea, Texas Tea, Chameleon Cold Brew Coffee, Buddha's Brew Kombucha, and Richard's Rainwater.

Whip In (1950 S. I-35, 442-5337, www.whipin.com) is an extremely hip, awesome little market located on the southbound I-35 access road (exit Woodland). The ethnic flavor of the store is Indian, and they make their own gourmet "panaani" sandwiches to order. They usually offer one vegetarian and one with meat, always served on fresh house-made naan. The emphasis at Whip In is on local and organic, and the quality is stellar. They carry Air Wrap brand wraps and Ararat vegetarian items, as well as local beverages Buddha's Brew Kombucha, Richard's Rainwater, Honest Tea, Guayaki Organic Yerba Mate, and fresh-brewed Nile Valley Hibiscus/Mint Tea. Whip In also boasts one of the most comprehensive beer and wine selections in town. Enjoy them with some live music in the newly refurbished biergarten.

Thom's Market (1418 Barton Springs Rd., 479-9800, www.thomsmarket.com) is another little gem of a grocery. In addition to carrying Green Cart sandwiches and wraps, Mediterranean Chef platters, Mmmpanadas brand empanadas, and a whole line of Ararat Greek products, Thom's also serves Taco Deli breakfast tacos every morning and fresh brewed Anderson's coffee. Local beverages include Buddha's Brew Kombucha, Chameleon Cold Brew Coffee, and Arrr Squeeze Carbonated Juice Creations, a variety of local sodas with awesome flavors like grapefruit/lavender, strawberry/lime, and orange/habanero.

Farm to Market Grocery (1718 S. Congress, 462-7220, www.fm1718.com) is located right in the middle of all the South Congress hipster action. By the week of SXSW, they plan to have an in-house deli fully operational, but in any event they carry all the local favorites, such as Green Cart and Mediterranean Chef sandwiches, Tom's Tabooley plates, hummus, wraps, noodles and falafel bowls, and Kayla's Kuisine samosas and Indian wraps. Local beverages include Maine Root sodas, Sweet Leaf Tea, Honest Tea, Buddha's Brew Kombucha, Water Oak Farms Goat Milk, and Richard's Rainwater. Also look for locally made desserts and treats include Baraka Vegan Bars, Innocent Chocolate, and Water Oak Farms goat milk ice cream and yogurt.

Downtown Farmers' Market (Fourth & Guadalupe, www.sfcfarmersmarket.org; Saturday mornings 9am-1pm) features several popular vendors serving up some of the finest chow around. Nationally renowned chef Jesse Griffiths is usually cooking up heavenly artisanal sausage, biscuits and gravy, and other incredible breakfast fare at the Dai Due tent. Taco Deli is always representing with their award-winning breakfast tacos, and Texas Coffee Traders is pouring the hot stuff. Cake & Spoon and Texas French Bread offer breakfast pastries galore, and Thai Fresh serves up eggrolls, curries, and rice soup. Kala Uprety of Kala's Kuisine is usually there in person selling her authentic Nepalese samosas. A new addition is Bola's pizza, making outstanding pizza fresh to order from farmers' market ingredients in a portable, wood-fired oven.

HOPE Market (www.hopefarmersmarket.org; Sundays, 11am-3pm) in East Austin also has vendors selling top-of-the-line local food. For the week of SXSW only, the usual location has been rented out to a skateboarding company, and the market will be held instead at East Sixth & Waller. Hot food vendors include Mortadella Dogs and Sausages, Gardener's Feast organic tamales, Full English Foods, Pie Fixes Everything, and Salt & Time traditional Italian salumi. – Kate Thornberry

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