As former residents, Austin will always have a very special place in our heart. Over time we have watched the city undergo many changes, but no transition is more clear that the current development in East Austin. Like many other American cities, the East side has been considered the rough part of town. And while city sprawl has taken over North, South and West, the East side has battled a negative stigma that left it with a lot of undeveloped land and very few out-of-town-visitors. While not traditionally known as a tourist destination, that reputation is shifting as affordable property opens the door for new restaurants, bars and businesses that capture the charm and eclectic spirit that the city is known for. In East Austin, hipsters, Hispanics and outdoor enthusiasts converge into one unique area that is well worth crossing I-35.
This rapid development should come as no surprise, considering the proximity to central attractions such as 6th Street, the Capitol building, and the University of Texas, as well as the overall growth and increased popularity of the city. For decades the East side has been home to the city’s Hispanic population, going back to the late 1920s when the city cordoned off these neighborhoods to segment the Hispanic and black population. While much of the city of Austin has grown and prospered, the East side has been historically neglected and marred by crime. So while Austin has a reputation as being a safe city, it tends to be more tourist-friendly west of Interstate 35. But these days the East side is experiencing rapid revitalization. With the high price of real estate in the fast growing center of town, many businesses are looking to the East Side to start new developments.
While this brings tourism and money to the area, these developers have come under fire for running out the communities and businesses that historically lived in this area, not to mention add to the culture of the city — gentrification in textbook form. It is important that city officials, as well as their constituents, support responsible growth into these areas to keep up the character of East Austin, including the mom and pop taco shops and unique hippie businesses. However, for a city like Austin where physical barriers still separate much of the white community from non-white neighborhoods, this expansion could also be an opportunity to achieve diversity and improved race relations (see my previous Austin article). Ideally along with improvements to infrastructure and economic conditions, the area will still maintain some of the old barrio and hippie flavor while also welcoming new local businesses that add to the charisma of the hood. Oh, and please don’t add parking meters or valets.
For a tourist who is less likely to notice or care about civic issues or politics, East Austin now has a lively mix of modern architecture and culture that includes BBQ joints, speakeasy bars, experimental theaters, gritty dives, food trucks and comfort food hot spots. Here, you’ll see lovingly restored small homes, larger new construction ventures, condo communities, and lofts with ground floor retail in various parts of the 78702. And though there are mainly roadside hotel options, aside from the very cool boutique Heywood Hotel, there are affordable vacation rentals in the area if you want to plant yourself in this community for your stay.
While chain restaurants and overpriced tourist traps may reign supreme in Downtown, East Austin is home to innovative businesses from local entrepreneurs with creative concepts that would not be possible with high rent and overhead expenses in the center of town. It is these businesses that I love to support, and encourage visitors to enjoy as well. Get out of the usual hot spots and get to know the emerging East Austin hood.
A word of warning though, there are still some areas that are not safe to walk through after dark. However, none of the popular bars and restaurants are really near this area. As with any big city, use common sense and stay on well-lit, well-traveled streets.
Here are some key areas and top picks from Postcard Plans:
ALONG MANOR ROAD
Most likely, the most well-trodden of the East Austin neighborhoods the businesses along Manor Road benefit from the closest proximity to the university and have several long-standing local restaurants and bars.
East Side Cafe – They have their own garden for goodness sake! This is the perfect place for a date night or to take relatives who are visiting. And the food is fresh and delicious too.
Vivo – Sexy Tex Mex with a California flare, this restaurant has a really nice outdoor patio. And while it can get packed and the bar can be loud, the green chicken chili enchiladas and the puffy tacos are worth the patience. But limit your margarita intake, because these are strong!
Butterfly Bar – This unique bar was likely conceived as a theater bar for productions in their sister business, the Vortex Repertory Company. But we have never seen a show. Instead we stop in for a quiet drink in a fun place where you can watch the costumed actors run from the dressing room to the stage, and theater staff prep props and backdrops for the next production. If Central Austin is hectic with tourists, we can almost always find a quiet table in the unique Austin ambiance here.
El Chilito – Austin has surprise taco dives around every corner, just use your Yelp app and search for tacos and usually the best places are in a strip mall without much design or style. El Chilito may come with some style, but don’t let that fool you. It is good.
La Fruta Feliz – Unlike El Chilito, this strip mall location is a total dive taco place where you might have to integrate a little Spanish into your order and you are not going for the ambiance. But it is delicioso. And get fresh juice too — like the perfect hangover cure.
ON 11TH STREET
My husband worked here in one of the first office developments in the area, and he actually used to bring home some of this delicious cuisine before it hit the big time… yes, even the BBQ.
Blue Dahila Bistro – So Dave used to get the seasonal jalapeno soup when he was not feeling well, but today this small café has turned into a great date spot with fresh food options that are sure to make you feel good no matter the season.
Franklin BBQ – Yes, yes, most likely you have heard of it. Can’t deny that it is good. Very good. But we do not wait in the ridiculous line now that it has hit the big time. But it can be an experience if you make the best of it. And it really is that good.
NEAR EAST 6TH STREET
Tamale House East – Breakfast tacos. Need I say more? Try to sample as many as possible.
East Side Show Room – I adore the speakeasy vibe, especially when it does not come with a hipster pretentiousness. For our visit, East Side Show Room got it right. Really great cocktails in a funky environment. But we did go during happy hour and not prime time.
Uncorked – OK so technically this is 7th Street, but it is very close to not only East 6th but also Downtown and we have a secret about this place. Please do not tell anyone but it is a great place to view the July 4th fireworks while dining fine and drinking well.
Counter Culture – Oh how I wish there were more good vegetarian options in Texas. This is one, and they get it right. Non-vegetarians will be able to find something here too.
@ RIVERSIDE DRIVE
Cow Bells – Like many great food experiences in Austin, Cow Bells is a food truck. Specifically it is focused on burgers, damn fine burgers. And it is located right by Paddle Zen making this a lovely pairing.
Paddle Zen – Sure you see a ton of kayaks and boards near Zilker Park in the heart of Lady Bird Lake, but for a quieter ride and experience we highly recommend that you head to the East side where there are islands to board around and coves to paddle through. Not to mention they offer yoga paddleboarding too.
East Side King – A Very popular food truck at a bar
Casa Colombia – It has been on my list for much too long, but I keeping hoping that my Colombian co-worker will be my meal guide on a SXSW visit. It hasn’t happened – yet.
Gourmands – Pub grub with a gourmet flare. Yes I need you.
Justine’s Brasserie – I just visit the website and I know it is right for me.