Before I went to Austin I had what can only be described as a laundry list of Yankee prejudices. Texas was as remote to me as Mars and if you had asked me to picture the landscape, the only image I would have been able to provide was a desert of cacti and cliffs perhaps taken from old Roadrunner cartoons. And my other impressions were no less stereotypical—ranches and rattlesnakes, talk about remembering the Alamo and not messing with Texas, and oil millionaires who wore cowboy hats and spurs and holsters (like James Dean in Giant).
It didn’t take long for Austin to work its magic on me though, especially since everyone was so friendly. (A typical conversation opener in Austin was this: “Have y’all been here before? No? Well, welcome to Texas. We’re glad to have you.”) You may know that it’s a great hipster place to go with fantastic music and a happening bar scene. What you may not realize is that it’s a really fabulous place to go with kids, especially when you’re looking for good places to eat. Austin is chock full of great restaurants serving amazing food that truly puts any chain Tex Mex place to total shame. Here are a few of my favorites:
The Magnolia Café is kind of like a diner on steroids. The food here is just so phenomenally good you would think it would be hard to come by and yet they serve it 24 hours a day (the sign famously says “Sorry we’re open”). It was here that we discovered two items ubiquitous to menus around the city but revelations to us northerners: the breakfast burrito and migas (which is scrambled eggs cooked with pieces of tortilla, cheese, and beans). Equally delicious are the gingerbread pancakes. I can’t really tell you about their lunch and dinner food because no matter what time of day we went, we always had breakfast (see why it’s good for kids?). And there are two locations, so you can get there whether you are hanging out in the northern or southern half of the city. Just like everyplace in Austin, the vibe is friendly and laid back. The last time we were there, a girl scout was walking from table to table selling cookies.
Another great restaurant is in an unexpected place: at the supermarket. Whole Foods is what Austin is famous for (and the flagship store, which was being built when I was last there, is one of the seven wonders of the grocery shopping world). But when we lived there I was a Central Market gal. You really don’t want to get me started on what a fantastic grocery store this is. And the best part is that at the location I frequented there is a large café that serves a full menu of excellent food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The main part of the café opens up onto a deck covered with tables and chairs right next to a large playset. Every Friday and Saturday night there is free live music. When we decided to check it out, we discovered that the clientele was largely made up of families with young children. Parents encircled the playground equipment drinking from beers and glasses of wine while their children tore around. Why this was the only place I’d ever encountered that ever built a bar right next to a playground, I don’t know, but Matt and I, drinks in hand, both thought it was immensely civilized.
But our favorite restaurant by far is the Shady Grove, which, true to his name, sits in a grove of oak trees. It had a stone interior reminiscent of a 1950s ski lodge complete with a fireplace and large plate glass windows. A large silver Airstream trailer is parked next to the patio which extends off the side of the building. Here they serve huge corndogs cooked in homemade batter that Tommy would devour while Matt and I stuffed ourselves full of chicken fried steak covered with hatch green chile sauce and Monterey Jack cheese or tortilla fried queso catfish. If you had told me that I would one day swear up and down that deep-fried catfish covered in melted cheese and chili peppers was just about the best amalgam of flavors God ever created, I would have said you were crazy, but it’s very true. And the best accompaniment: a margarita the size of your head. Makes even dining with a one-year-old a stress-free experience, let me tell you.
If you’d like to read more about my family’s adventures in Austin, including descriptions of some of the fun things to do, I’ve posted the chapter about it from my book. Enjoy, and remember what Lyle Lovett said: Texas Wants You Anyway!