the spot: Diner Bar 500 San Jacinto Blvd, Austin, TX 78701
the eats: Martini and Burger Happy Hour specials
the bucks: $10 for martini, same for burger
the full nelson: Happy Hour from a James Beard winning chef
You can find Diner Bar at the Thompson hotel in Downtown Austin, which might give you a clue that this Diner is pretty swank. Unlike the diners I grew up going to in the Midwest circa the 1980s, you won’t find Slingers or Corned Beef Hash on the menu but rather a thoughtful menu of Southern fare connected to the African continent. Oh and a solid burger too. All from Chef Mashama Bailey who won chef of the year 2022 at the James Beard Awards.
I can’t resist deviled eggs on a menu but I’m also over two things: bacon topped deviled eggs and deviled eggs that are served too cold. Both pitfalls are eliminated here. Most notable is the substitute for bacon: smoked trout roe. If Smoked Salmon can be the bacon of the sea, Smoked Trout Roe can be the bacon bits of . . . . the lake?
This alone was worth the visit. A big pour plus a sidecar of martini(I did Gin) that practically lasted me the whole meal. Or it would have if I didn’t get distracted with plates like these:
Ugali is a common starch in African cooking. Here Chef Mashama Bailey fries the cornmeal and the result is similar to a super crisp hush puppy with a very soft and tender interior. The salsa macha sets it off with pure heat similar to Szechuan chili oil on steamed dumplings.
Nothing says fancy quite like buttered baguette. Well maybe Rabbit Mortadella buttered baguette. I love plain old pork mortadella; it’s a forced meat charcuterie that shows you what happens when someone gives a damn about bologna. But rabbit? I’m all for it. Game meats always take me back to eating fancy French food with my parents growing up. Yes, I went to private school.
Turns out when you go out to eat you can learn something. “Middlins” is a term that refers to “broken rice” which happens when rice is harvested. Perhaps not surprisingly, historically these scraps fell into the hands of African American slaves who turned it into something delicious, as is the case with so many great soul food dishes.
This shrimp and rice dish is the dish you will come back to Diner Bar again and again, I promise. The rice was just tender enough, the acidity was perfect and those shrimp were juicy. Shrimp gets overcooked easily. Getting to a desirable texture in a sauce is risotto level tough. This dish was the kitchen flexing their skills and ordering it makes for a smart choice, fellow diners.
I’m a sucker for pink sauce on a burger. I love to make it and it has been an anchor for my burger tastes for most of my life. Diner Bar’s pink sauce(listed at comeback sauce), grilled onions, pickle and most important: housemade bun hits all the marks. Even at the Happy Hour price of $10 I could have used a second patty, so I can’t say this burger change your life. But if they sold these buns I’d gladly pay whatever they charged.
I don’t have the world’s biggest sweet tooth. But I have also been on a few baking shows and know when the baked goods are worth the calories. Like the bun on the burger, the pie is made at Diner Bar and they aren’t messing around with the dough. I would certainly get this again.
Diner Bar is a happy hour that can lure you into the cooking of an acclaimed chef. And while the bill might escalate, you’re not breaking your wallet on overpriced chicken wings. The Happy Hour martini and a burger is a great way to spend $20. It’s the more accomplished efforts in the kitchen like Shrimp and Middlin’s that will cause you bill to soar. Just remember that you aren’t eating at at overpriced hotel restaurant but at a restaurant from a two time James Beard winning chef. So get the damn shrimp.