I'm sure many "best ofs" threads have been posted here, but that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a short list of quintessential Austin eats. I'll be in town for a few days from far away, and I want to eat good, special Austin food at unique locations. I don't want the latest and greatest, but tasty, local spots that have proven the test of time.
It's hard for local hounds to list what you might consider our quintessential restaurants when we are so excited about newer establishments that one-up some of these. But here goes...
"American / Variety"
Shady Grove (Freddie's is a newer alternative, similar in vibe, shorter in wait time, but not yet quintessential)
Threadgill's (Hill's Cafe is an alternative, though technically the current biz opened in the '90s)
Magnolia Cafe or Kerbey Lane Cafe (24 hour diners)
Maudie's or Trudy's
Guero's (recommend drinks and apps -- touristy and overrated, but great atmosphere)
(These are not necessarily the best Mexican dining options, and certainly not the most authentic, but you asked for quintessential Austin -- these fit the bill for atmosphere, longevity, quality and true Austin spirit)
The Salt Lick (in Driftwood, not Austin, but it is probably the quintessential "Austin" bbq)
(Local Austin joints -- this is a highly debated category and there has been plenty written on these boards so I will protect my reputation and not venture further here. But you can't go wrong with the Salt Lick.)
Fran's Hamburgers (you might recognize the exterior if you watch Friday Night Lights)
Dirty Martin's (the greasiest of the three)
Fonda San Miguel (Mexican)
Vespaio (Italian -- opened in the late '90s, but still one of the best and a S. Congress staple)
The "old Austin" post linked above does a good job of listing the old and in some cases "crusty" restaurants that have remarkably survived, but I'd argue my list is more in the spirit of your request. If you only have a few days in Austin, I think all of the old-timers can be skipped, with the possible exception of House Park BBQ (but again I am reluctant to discuss BBQ options when there are much better posts on that topic available for your searching pleasure).
In any case, I hope you have a great time in Austin and find good eats!
I am a native Austinite and have a totally different take than esi.
Local flavor with a great chicken fried steak. Eat lunch at the Broken Spoke. One of the last old time Texas dancehalls. Has a great museum there too. Don't miss this one.
Dans or Frans. Go the the Frans on South Congress to get the best burger in town. I know that they have the Sheila Partin Sourdough buns now. Stay and visit South Congress, a must see part of Austin. If you just want a to go burger, go to Sandy's on Barton Springs Road. Can't miss there either.
BBQ. got to take a day trip for this one. If you miss the shoulder clod at Smitty's in Lockhart, well you just missed the best BBQ in Texas. About 25 miles down 183 in Gonzales is the Gonzales Food Market. Just celebrated 50 years in business. Best beef sausage you have ever eaten. Like Lamb Ribs, it's the second best selling meat there.
Well I like the Willie's Plate at Rosie's on 71 just past 620. Willie Nelson eats there. Ask one of Rosie's family to tell you how the Willie's Plate came to be. Great story.
El Patio is also good over on Guadalupe, parking there is miserable, but worth the trip.
Home cooking, Arkie's Grill way out in east Austin. Closed on Mondays, but one of the last blue plate joints in town. Can't miss.
Ice Cream, If you miss Amy's Ice Cream you just missed Austin.
Believe it or not the Dart Bowling Alley has great enchiladas. The Frisco also has great enchiladas. They are both different, but great.
Breakfast, Cisco's on East 6th. You will go back for more. Great migas.
Chinese, Susie's Chinese Kitchen on south Lamar. Great food.
Margarita's , Serranos's also has great salsa, just don't like the food that much.
Fried Catfish, The Manchaca Fire Hall Kitchen. All you can eat on Friday nights with music, mostly bluegrass. This is an Austin institution. Be sure and shake Clarance Vogels hand, he is 82 and works 16 hours a day there. Not open on weekends.
Great place for breakfast.
Cajun food, Evangalines on Brodie. Just 4 or 5 years old but the place for cajun food.
Late night, Magnolia Cafe on South Congress.
Homemade corn tortillas, Angies in East Austin, The food ain't bad either.
Best Sub, Bella Donna's on Burleson Road, Started by a New Yorker, he has died but the food continues. Great menu and great food. New York style subs.
Most romantic, Carmelos downtown. Italian with white table cloths and the works.
Best breakfast tacos, Curras on Oltorf and get some of that special coffee that they make.
The strongest drink in town, the purple margarita's at Baby Acapulcos. They will only serve you two.
This is a good list to start with. Have fun in Austin and try to visit some of the old time Austin establishments.
RE: Tuckspop's Tex-Mex recommendations,
I have been to El Patio once about 15 years ago and was not impressed. If i remember correctly their enchiladas tasted like they were covered with Wolf Brand Chili and velveeta. If that's the kind of enchiladas you like, go to the Dart Bowl.
As far as Rosie's, also once was enough. Without going into a long review, the food was just ok, not worth driving way out there for. Also, it's BYOB, which is great if you are cheap and want to drink a lot, but if you want a drink and haven't planned for it, then you're out of luck.
Well, Rosie's has applied for a liquor license. They also take credit cards now.
The Dart Bowl is packed almost every day and the lady there said they sell hundreds of enchiladas a day. Somebody must like them. El Patio is good too.
These are Austin Institutions that have weathered the test of time. So is the one listed below. If they weren't good, they wouldn't have lasted this long.
I forgot to add to the list though
Nau's Enfield Drug. On West Lynn Street. Last soda fountain that I know of in Austin. They also have an old fashioned hamburger. Feel like you went back in time there.