Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 2013
On a sweltering July day, a film crew from the Cooking Channel rolled while my daughters ate lobster rolls at a South Austin Airstream. A 13-year-old talking about “coastal flavors” apparently makes better video than my one-liner about the Barton Springs spiny lobster. You can’t turn on the Food Network or Bravo or the Travel Channel or open Bon Appetit without getting an eyeful of Austin. Bourdain, Zimmern, Colicchio, Knowlton — they’ve all been here in the past year. Whether that’s a testament to our ascension as a restaurant city or the inclusive sprawl of an overfed media segment, there’s one thing I’m sure of: They don’t live here. They don’t really eat here. They cut in line at Franklin Barbecue, skip past the waiting list at Barley Swine and pat themselves on the back for “getting it.”
We live here. We eat here. And for us, I built the Fed Man 55, a list of Austin’s best restaurants drawn from more than a thousand visits to cafes, bistros, diners, coffeehouses, taverns and trailers in the past four years with FedManWalking.com and the American-Statesman.
In the past year, I’ve been to all 55 of these at least once, some of them three or four times. In the last six months, I made more than 60 new trips and spent more than $6,000 to shuffle the playlist, hear the songs again and knock a few off the list altogether. I paid for my own food, booked under fake names, and it's my policy to skip media previews. Disagree with my choices, but never doubt where they came from.
The list wasn't dictated by how popular, expensive or pretty a place is. It incorporates well-financed chef showcases, but they share space with strip-mall shops, New Tavern destinations, a burger place, barbecue, pizza, Mexican, Asian, even a few trailers. The newest place on the list has been open less than four months, the oldest for more than 30 years. I left out the chains, because I wasn't looking for an experience you can re-create in West Palm or Scottsdale or Fresno. Neither will you find those Austin icons cherished as much for their sentimental value as their food. My apologies to fans of the Frisco, Cisco’s, Hut’s, El Patio, Matt’s El Rancho and the rest. I eat there, too. They’ll be around no matter who’s making a list this week.
This list will have to be rewritten a year from now as new projects open their doors: Parind Vora’s Jezebel on West Sixth, Paul Qui’s restaurants on South Lamar and East Sixth, Rene Ortiz’s Thai restaurant Sway on South First, the French project Arro on Burnet Road from the 24 Diner-Easy Tiger group, the re-opening of Jeffrey’s under Larry McGuire, the Russian House on East Fifth and others.
Thanks for staying with me during the five-month countdown. What started as a plan to write a paragraph and run a picture for each place turned into 55 new, full-length reviews. These are restaurants I’d recommend if we were friends having coffee across the table, from No. 55 all the way to the Top 5.
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55:
Austin’s Best Restaurants