8 Innovative Restaurants in Austin

By Megan Giller  |  January 6, 2014

Innovation is the older, more mature brother of “keeping it weird,” which means it has Austin’s name all over it. And though we don’t have restaurants where you have to make reservations months in advance or that boast toilet themes (thank goodness), we have our fair share of inventive, special happenings around town.

  • Lenoir

    Chef Todd Duplechan’s South First Street restaurant is the first place in town to solely offer a fixed-price, three-course menu. It's quite a steal for $38, but the innovation continues with the food itself. The chef takes note of “global connections” to create fusion food from hot-weather climates that spans Southeast Asia, the Southern U.S., France, Italy and more. That means plenty of fish cakes, sour sausage and more, all with a twist. Duplechan told us that the original concept was to offer a set menu every day, with no choices, but that his wife, co-owner and pastry chef Jessica Maher, talked him out of it. For that original experience, try the Sunday four-course set-menu dinner.

    How to Order: Pick three courses from any of the four different categories: field, sea, land and dream (aka sweets). If it's too hard to narrow down all of those delicious-sounding options, you can order extra courses for $10 each.

    1807 S. First St., 512-215-9778

  • Restaurant Jezebel

    There’s no menu at this West Sixth Street fine-dining establishment. Rather, your waiter will ask you what foods you like and don’t like, what you’re in the mood for, and whether you have any food allergies or sensitivities. After he conveys this information to the kitchen, chef and owner Parind Vora will whip up a unique meal, with each course conceptualized not from a recipe or menu but out of his whimsy, using ingredients like kangaroo, foie gras, yerba mate tea, spirulina and more. It makes for an unforgettable (if pricey) evening.

    No Jacket, No Service: Vora takes pride in the old-world experience, which includes a jacket policy for the gentlemen.

    800 W. Sixth St., 512-436-9643

  • Dinner Lab

    The basic supper club has had its moment. Enter the new era of club dining, with an added element of secrecy. The members-only Dinner Lab features top-notch, under-the-radar chefs who don’t get as much play or press as executive chefs, and it always takes place in an unusual location, from the floor of a paper mill to a motorcycle dealership. Dinner Lab sends you a secret email with the secret locale the day before the dinner, adding to the fun. Plus, the lab features about six events per month for you to choose from, and sometimes up to two per week.

    Members Only: Memberships are currently on a wait-list, but they usually open up a few slots each month, so keep an eagle eye out.

  • Credit: Nicolai McCrary


    Chef Paul Qui’s upscale, hip restaurant is innovative in so many ways, but today we’re talking cocktails. The family-style approach has taken over dining in Austin, but Qui is the first place to extend that philosophy to drinks. The new bar menu features drinks for the whole table with ingredients as varied as mescal, absinthe, red wine and Mexican cola.

    What to Drink: Qui is resurrecting traditional but highly unusual ethnic drinks like calimocho (red wine, cola and more) and tepache (fermented pineapple drink with Lone Star).

    1600 E. Sixth St., 512-436-9626

  • G’Raj Mahal

    There’s nothing better than eating under the stars, and though many of the food trailers in town offer that option, none have committed to it as fully as this Indian restaurant. The eclectic Bedouin-style setup features outdoor tables and chairs under canopies, with servers bringing you your food from the trailer kitchen. G’Raj Mahal is also one of your best bets for late-night eats, especially after partying on Rainey Street. We’re hoping that the forthcoming brick-and-mortar edition down the street maintains that same quirky feel.

    Know Before You Go: If you're drinking, be sure to bring your own beer, wine or cocktails.

    91 Red River, 512-480-2255

  • Uchiko

    How can we count chef Tyson Cole’s innovations? The team at Uchiko is always experimenting with new techniques as well as recycling ideas in new ways. They’ve long been using a dehydrator as a cooking tool to make chips, papers, glass and so on, and director of culinary operations Philip Speer told us that they’ve also been using it to “cook cake batter, change the texture of various fruits, create thin capsulelike textures” and more. For some time they’ve been experimenting with fermentation on the savory side, and now they’re bringing it to the sweet with fermented white chocolate and various fruits. But the newest innovation? Aging cuts of beef, foie gras and now even chocolate torchon in a clay mixture. In other words, the experiments will always be rolling at this Rosedale-area hot spot.

    What to Order: Though the everyday menu is spectacular, hit up the weekly specials like the cauliflower “terrarium” from earlier this year (smooth, puréed cauliflower layered with crunchy amaranth on top and sweet caramel on bottom) to get a taste of the cutting-edge.

    4200 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-916-4808

  • John Mueller Meat Co.

    This is going to sound strange, but it’s more of an anomaly these days to waltz over to a quality barbecue joint at lunchtime than to have to wait in a long line starting at 8 AM (cough, Franklin, cough, even though it’s worth it). So we’re calling out pitmaster John Mueller for refusing to let patrons wait in line. If you get there early, you’ll be shooed away until the doors open at 10:30. Of course, from then on, the bets are off. Lines can be long, but at least Mueller is there to hand out free beer.

    While You're There: The fiery pitmaster is known for his, um, attitude, so even if you find something less than satisfying, we recommend not talking smack about his smoked meats while you’re on the premises.

    2500 E. Sixth St.

  • Dai Due

    OK, this restaurant technically isn’t even open yet, but we’re pumped about the possibilities. Chef Jesse Griffiths has wowed Austin for years with his all-local charcuterie, farmer's market stand and supper clubs, and in April he will take it brick-and-mortar on the East Side, with a three-course prix fixe dinner menu that changes daily, featuring grilled meats, vegetables and lots of fermented items for “nutritional and preservation purposes.” They’re brining their own Texas olives and making their own batch of miso out of organic Texas rice and purple hull peas, which will be a year old when the restaurant opens. “It will be frontierlike,” Griffiths says, with 48 seats in the house and most of the food cooked over fire, as well as a local beer, cider, sake and wine list. We can’t wait to see the fruits of his labor.

    Get a Sneak Peek: Head to the downtown and Mueller farmer's markets to try the breakfast and lunch items that Griffiths will feature at his restaurant.