The Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL for short) returns this week in a very different Austin than the one when it last took place in 2019 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There are new safety measures, including requiring either proof of vaccinations or negative test results with 72 hours of the first day of attendance, as well as masks in areas where social distancing is impossible. Several of the previous vendors such as Dean’s One Trick Pony and Chispas, shuttered. A few others are sitting this year out due to ongoing staffing shortages in the hospitality business. It’s no easy feat to do large-scale catering as is needed for ACL in the current health and labor environment. That said, C3 Productions, the festival organizers, have tailored the food and drink offerings to suit the event over time — and it remains a better food court than it needs to be, even in this reboot year. Naturally, Austin’s greatest hits — tacos, barbecue, beer, and burgers — feature heavily.
As guests arrive from around the country to see Billie Eilish, Duran Duran, Phoebe Bridgers, George Strait, and Miley Cyrus perform live, it’s worth thinking about how to maximize your dining and drinking enjoyment during those three full days at Zilker Park.
There are always annual tweaks and changes to ACL’s food and drink lineups; although this year, perhaps to tread familiar ground while navigating the pandemic, the setup largely resembles the 2019 fest. Festival organizers note that while the physical setup remains the same, food servers are required to wear masks, and there will be a visible increase in hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers around the food and drink areas. For similar COVID-related reasons, there are mask requirements for areas where it is impossible to social distance (see below).
Forecasters predict rain for the first weekend of ACL, so dress appropriately and remember that umbrellas are not allowed on the grounds.
Below are Eater’s tips for navigating the festival, and picks for nearby dining, as well as selections for brunch, late-night, cocktails, and more outside of the grounds. The festival takes place from Friday, October 1 through Sunday, October 3, and then again from Friday, October 8 through Sunday, October 10.
COVID Measures: In order to go to ACL, attendees will have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test dated within 72 hours of the first day of attendance. Those who have been exposed to COVID or are experiencing potential symptoms are asked to not attend. There will be vaccination stations at the festival, too.
Masks: Masks are required while on the festival shuttle buses, waiting on the entrance lines, within concert “pit” areas (aka near the stages), and in all indoor/enclosed areas.
Beer Selection: As usual, the beer garden’s selection has changed a bit. Local brews include Whitestone Long Gone Blonde and Celis Brewery at $11 per draft, Twisted X McConauhaze IPA and Pinthouse Pizza Electric Jellyfish IPA at $12 per draft, and one cider, Austin Eastciders Blood Orange at $12 per draft. A majority of the remaining offering comes from Houston-based (but and Anheuser-Busch-owned) Karbach. Outside of the beer garden, you’ll mostly find Miller, Coors, and Sol cans at stations within the park.
Wine Lounge Selection: The Washington wine label 14 Hands (an offshoot of the popular Chateau Ste. Michelle brand) dominates the wine tent this year, with cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay available at $10 per glass and both a red blend and a rosé available at $19 per can. And yes, there is a frosé bar elsewhere.
Sparkling Water: Non-alcoholic Topo Chico has been replaced at all ACL bars with ubiquitous local sparkling water brand Waterloo. Available are the black cherry and lemon-lime flavors for $3 per can.
Hard Seltzer: This is where Topo Chico does make an appearance. Hard seltzers from the Coca Cola-owned brand and Molson Coors’s brand Vizzy are available at all bar stations in the form of 16-ounce tallboy cans for $11.
ACL Festival Grounds Eats
For those new to Austin’s food scene, the choices at the food court can be daunting, especially when lines get long during peak dinner hours. To save some time, here’s where to focus your dining during those food breaks.
For lunch, try Chi’lantro / Korean Fried Chicken Sliders (two for $9): Chi’lantro is a massive Austin hit, and this sandwich will be crunchy, spicy, fried, and portable — a winning combination.
Try Mmmpanadas / Hatch Chile Chicken Empanada ($8): The empanada purveyor has plenty of options, but the hatch chile chicken is one of its best recipes. These empanadas are oversized and hearty — one makes a meal.
For dinner, try Mighty Cone / Chicken or Avocado Hot & Crunchy Cone ($12): The cone that started it all — originally a food stand from now-gone restaurant Hudson’s On The Bend — just keeps on coming back due to popular demand. This was ACL’s first viral hit, and rightfully so: It’s perfect festival food.
Austin beer garden staple Easy Tiger / Sausages: The restaurant has a knack for making great sausages, so sample the green chili sausage with sweet and spicy pickles ($12) or the Beyond sausage with kraut and mustard ($12.) Those fond of cheese will be delighted to find a “grazing box” here with selections from Antonelli’s Cheese ($20.)
During lunch, scope out Tacodeli / Chicken, Sirloin or Caulibella Fundido Tacos ($7): Tacodeli returns at ACL to fulfill the city’s endless desire of new-school tacos with its signature frontera fundido taco (essentially chicken or steak with jack cheese glaze, onions, and poblanos.) Don’t sleep on the excellent portobello and cauliflower option, either. (There are also Akaushi beef nachos here for $13.)
Wicky’s Walkup / Okay, Boomer ($14): East Austin bar the Cavalier’s spinoff brings cheekily named sandwiches, including this muffuletta with meats, cheeses, and olive tapenade, to ACL. For a vegetarian version, try the Beet It, Nerd ($12) with citrus-marinated beets. Pair these with the amusing elotes tater tots ($10), with toppings of roasted corn, queso fresco, crema, and cilantro.
At dinner time, grab Micklethwait Craft Meats / Anything ($13 to $15): Whether opting for the oak-smoked brisket sandwich, the cool-smoked chicken salad, or the vegetarian Frito pie, the barbecue truck from pitmaster Tom Micklethwait can do no wrong. Consider having more than one meal here, or sharing a pair of items with a pal. It’s perhaps the best stand in the park.
Tamale Addiction / Mix-and-Match (Two for $11): Tamales are a nice middle ground between healthy eats and junk food — it’s rich and savory, but sharing an order with a friend turns it into a nice hearty snack rather than a solo over-order. Favorites here are the spinach with caramelized onion and the bean and goat cheese, but meat lovers can also opt for the chicken mole and/or tomatillo pork.
For that midday lunch meal, head for Shawarma Point / Beef and Lamb Gyro ($13) or Falafel Wrap ($12): This Red River District trailer is a popular pre- and post-live music spot, and for good reason. Start Sunday in hangover recovery mode with a hearty gyro, or opt for lighter fare with a falafel wrap. Either should get you through the first half of the day without much need for snacking.
Taco Bronco / Pork Carnitas ($6) and the Smoky Chicken Tinga ($6) Tacos: Micklethwait’s tacos are nearly the equal of his barbecue, and luckily the barbecue truck’s sibling taco truck is also serving at the festival, making it a safe bet. Both tacos are fantastic: The carnitas is garnished with tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, and green onion, while the chicken tinga has roasted peppers and onions, cilantro, and avocado salsa.
For supper, go for Original Black’s Barbecue / Chopped Beef Brisket ($11) and Baby Back Ribs ($11): This goes especially for travelers outside of Austin looking for classic barbecue. If the name of the barbecue place puzzles you, it’s a long story. Take a friend and share the two orders, or, if you’re flying solo, grab the smoked sausage on a stick ($11).
Wing Dady / Classic Fried Chicken Wings ($12): Jason Dady loves cooking for large events and festivals. Stop by this new pop-up for an order of the wings, available in five flavors including Nashville hot, Texas barbecue, and garlic parmesan. For vegetarians, there are also Buffalo cauliflower florets ($12.)
16-ounce IPA Beers from Bell’s Brewery ($11) and Pinthouse Pizza ($12) and White from Celis Brewery ($11): The IPAs from Bell’s (Two Hearted) and Pinthouse (Electric Jellyfish) are preferred options at the beer tent, with the Celis White as a good lower-ABV option.
Lemonade ($8): The Come and Take It Stand is offering freshly-squeezed lemonade at the park with a strawberry-lemonade option, too.
Coffee from High Brew ($4): These portable coffees are ubiquitous in Austin for a reason. Fuel your rally to the finish with a can — the double espresso is the most balanced of the selections, with less sugar than flavored offerings.
Food Near Zilker Park
For those looking to escape the festival grounds for a bit, check out Eater's vetted list of food and drink options right near Zilker Park. It covers migas, barbecue, cocktail bars, ramen, and everything in between.
ACL Festival Tips
With all outdoor festivals, the best experiences result from advanced planning. Note the following food and drink-related rules:
- Only empty plastic or aluminum water bottles are permitted, as well as wearable hydration packs with at most two pockets (no glass containers!). Refill stations are available within the park.
- Outside food and drink are not permitted.
- Only clear bags or small purses and fanny packs with single pockets are permitted for security reasons.
- Picnic blankets are allowed. Coolers are not.
Outside of the ACL Festival Grounds
Other Austin Essentials
Eater’s comprehensive city guide is a cheat sheet of sorts for newbies to town. Looking for more options? Here are a few more maps and guides that may be of interest.
- Where to Eat at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
- The 38 Best Restaurants in Austin
- The Hottest Restaurants in Austin Right Now
- The Essential Barbecue Spots
- Essential Food Trucks
- Must-Eat Tacos in Austin
- Austin’s Essential Brunches
- Austin's Amazing Queso Spots
The first meal of the day is very important to get you prepared for all the standing, dancing, and drinking that is ahead of you at ACL. Fuel up.
- Vital Breakfast Spots To Know in Austin
- Essential Austin Breakfast Tacos
- Austin's Outstanding Bakeries: Where to Pick Up Baked Goods
- Excellent Coffee Shops in Austin
- Where to Find Enjoyable Breakfast Sandwiches in Austin
Hydration is important, but so is booze, and Austin has all kinds of cocktails, beer, and happy hours to keep you going.
- The Eater Austin Cocktail Heatmap
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- Happy Hours for Cheap Eats and Drinks in Austin
- Austin Craft Beer Destinations
- Austin's Iconic Dive Bars
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- Where to Drink Frozen Booze Right Now
- Excellent Margaritas in Austin
Embrace the fact that you're probably going to stay up really late (or really early, depending on how you look at it). Might as well take in some food during those waking hours.