After nearly a week of intensive reader voting, today we announce the winners of the 9th annual Eater Awards, celebrating the chefs and restaurants that made the largest impact on all 24 Eater cities over the past 12 months.
Here now are the establishments — from casual all-day cafes to on-point Mexican restaurants to tropical bars — that have taken the Austin food world by storm. Thank you to everyone who voted last week, and congratulations to the winners of the readers’ choice and editors’ choice awards.
Read on to learn more about this year’s best of the best. Editor’s Choice winners will receive an illustrious tomato can trophy via FedEx, along with a full feature on Eater in the coming year.
Restaurant of the Year
In a year where many Austin restaurants and chefs turned to the oh-so-casual, all-day dining craze, it is West 5th Street cafe and bar Better Half that best exemplifies how the trend is done well. It makes sense, since co-owners Matt Wright, Matthew Bolick, and Grady Wright already run the very good East Austin cafe and beer bar Wright Bros Brew & Brew — they know what they’re doing when it comes to creating a warm, inviting, and, most importantly, accessible restaurant.
The result is a space that is, well, just perfectly Austin. There’s the easygoing yet still refined menu from chef Rich Reimbolt (of course there are tater tots made out of cauliflowers and a solid cheeseburger), a killer coffee program, effortless cocktails, a perfectly curated wine and beer list, a very dog-friendly back patio, and — as a sigh of relief to Austinites — plentiful parking.
Better Half is a place that fulfills every potential need. It works for co-working (yes, there is Wi-Fi and outlets), grabbing quick and excellent coffee and meals to-go, lingering drinks with friends, catch-up meals with family, a place to get out of the house to read in the sun, etc., etc. It’s a place that begs people to come and stay awhile, if they want to.
Even better: the Wrights and Bolick are turning Better Half’s next-door space into a brewery, which will complete the entire experience. — Nadia Chaudhury
Reader’s Choice Winner: Suerte
Chef of the Year
Fermín Núñez, Suerte
Newcomer Mexican restaurant Suerte is certainly one of Austin’s hottest new dining establishments of the year, and behind it is chef Fermín Núñez. The East 6th Street space serves essentially as a playground for the chef’s masa obsession, the real star of the menu.
To embark on the restaurant, Núñez, who is from Mexico himself, traveled back to the country often with restaurant owner Sam Hellman-Mass (yes, one of the founding partners of Odd Duck and Barley Swine). The chef (who had worked at La Condesa, Uchiko, and Launderette) revisited and dreamt up of different and familiar ways to work with the corn flour dough, weaving Texan and Mexican influences together through his food.
The outcome is a menu full of tasty, thoughtful wonders. There are the not-to-be-missed suadero tacos filled with confit brisket doused in a special oil made with sesame and smoked morita chiles, tamales filled with squash and egg yolk puree, and dessert blondie made with yellow corn masa, and, yes, tortillas galore. Eater’s former national critic Bill Addison even lovingly described the scent of Suerte’s tortillas as “if the Texas sun had a fragrance.” Indeed, that smell of masa is special, and Núñez certainly knows how to harness it. — NC
Reader’s Choice Winner: Fermín Núñez, Suerte
Most Beautiful Restaurant of the Year
She’s Not Here
It’s clear Pacific Asian restaurant She’s Not Here is a stunner before setting foot inside. Street artist Mez Data’s eye-catching exterior mural of bright tropical flowers against a stark white backdrop allows the restaurant to stand out, even in the crowded downtown space on West 2nd Street.
Once inside, the restaurant’s Art Deco-inspired, 1920s-tropical-hotel aesthetic shines vibrantly. Wood, neutral, and beachy colors are accented by pops of teal, and plants are present both in the physical space and as a pattern within the wallpaper. There are a variety of seating options, from tables to lounge chairs to the ample bar, which serves tropical-inspired drinks. Another Mez Data mural serves as the interior centerpiece of the dining room, this one a portrait of a woman with a flower in her hair fronting mountain peaks and palm fronds.
The gorgeous restaurant is from Ben Cachila and Christian Romero (both formerly of Uchi), who worked with design and fabrication firm Litmus Industries. It has made it on Eater Austin’s heatmap and cocktail heatmap since opening in August. While the chefs of the restaurant were never really named, it doesn’t matter since it has received solid reviews from patrons so far, with the crab butter roll, fresh sashimi, and inventive cocktails emerging as early favorite dishes. — Erin Russell
Reader’s Choice Winner: Hank’s
Bar of the Year
East Austin bar Last Straw faced an uphill battle when opening. When JR Mocanu, formerly of everybody’s favorite bar Nickel City, announced plans in July to take over the East Sixth location that had felled both upscale plant-focused restaurant Gardner and more casual Chicon, he was bringing a vacation-themed bar to a city hankering for tiki. However, Last Straw doesn’t take itself too seriously, and because of that motto, it has become the kind of place, it turns out, Austin is seeking more of.
The whimsical drink menu, with names like Poor Life Decisions and a frozen treat called C.R.E.A.M., offers options from easy sippers to booze-heavy cocktails, which are often served with (reusable) color-changing straws. The sharable drink bowls are a fun way to spend the evening. Plus, the Texan-Asian influenced menu from chef Johnny Romo is unpretentious, with drinking foods like seasoned fries, dumplings, and completely perfect nachos.
Last Straw’s vacation-themed decor adds to its charm. The bright, tropical colors and kitsch (like a framed photo of E.T wearing a Hawaiian shirt) elevate the fun, while the greenery-adorned outdoor patio extends the chill seating options.
One of Mocanu’s partners (who also designed the bar), Cody Haltom, described the space as a “weird fantasyland” full of “sun and happiness.” It’s difficult to think of a theme more appropriate for Austin. — ER
Reader’s Choice Winner: Due to suspected voting irregularities, a Reader’s Choice winner will not be awarded in this category.
Fast-Casual Restaurant of the Year
Bird Bird Biscuit
Much like the all-day restaurant craze, the fast-casual trend hit Austin hard this year as well. Of those places, though, Bird Bird Biscuit executed the idea the best. The Cherrywood restaurant’s menu is simple: biscuit sandwiches. Co-owner and chef Brian Batch was consumed over creating the perfect biscuit for the shop. The outcome was a fluffy biscuit that magically still held its form when slathered with smears or layered with sandwich ingredients.
Then there are those crucial sandwich components, which are of the expected variety with fun twists, going beyond those tired, generic fast-food breakfast menus. Bird Bird’s bacon-egg-cheese iteration comes with bacon-infused chipotle mayonnaise for that extra kick and indulgence. The fried chicken sandwich is made with spiced and breaded chicken thighs plus cayenne black pepper honey.
Lifewise, co-owner Ryan McElroy employs a very abbreviated beverage menu: coffee (he is the person behind Thunderbird Coffee, after all), and orange juice, because what else does a person need with hearty daytime sandwiches?
Bird Bird was so popular when it opened in over the summer that it often and quickly sold out of the biscuit sandwiches, so much to the point that it had to temporarily shutter to reconfigure its carb production. It’s that good. — NC
Reader’s Choice Winner: Sour Duck Market