Though our civic apparatus and the greater convention center-industrial complex would have you believe the ever-expanding Austin Convention Center is a critical economic booster for the city, the jury’s still out for plenty of Austinites on where the sprawling center, which currently occupies six city blocks, falls on the continuum between “necessary” and “evil.”
The urban convention center, at least as it is traditionally designed, creates a frustrating paradox for cities. It must be built within a thriving downtown area to generate any interest for booking conventions, but its hulking, horizontal presence ensures that outside of those conventions, not much interesting will happen in the area it occupies. The hotels that spring up around convention centers are designed to cater mostly to their crowds, in Austin’s case explicitly siloing pedestrians away from the street with direct skybridge connections — creating a sort of closed system convention visitors may never leave outside of the Uber ride to and from the airport.
There’s a greater conversation to be had about designing around these shortcomings, and they definitely don’t seem insurmountable — but more importantly, let’s talk about the bad food. The immediate area around the Austin Convention Center hosts a Disneyland-esque strip of uninspired, valet-parked restaurants, seemingly only coasting along thanks to the infinitely-renewable naiveté of visiting conventioneers.
Among the district’s strangely clubby offerings is a P.F. Chang’s, and the hilariously-named Penny Lane Street Bar, apparently some kind of mangled Beatles tribute. The ground zero of this phenomenon is Micheladas Cafe Y Cantina, which, due to its location directly across Trinity Street from the convention center, might be the first Tex-Mex dining experience for many Austin visitors — and thus not only does an incredible disservice to the city, but to the great state of Texas itself.
There’s a reason you see so many folks wearing badges trekking across Cesar Chavez Street towards the Rainey Street District after their convention breaks for the evening — the immediate area around the center is, for the most part, the worst. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 casual spots for eating and drinking that suck a little less in the convention center-adjacent southeastern quadrant of downtown. They’re not all perfect, but if you’re visiting Austin for the first time to attend a convention, they’ll at least give you a slightly better impression of what our city has to offer. Hit it: