Statesman | by Matthew Odam | December 23, 2016
The year started with a frenzy of concern and commentary surrounding the new open-carry law in Texas. Dozens of restaurants opted out of the law, posting signage on their doors notifying customers they were not allowed to enter with firearms.
Public interest in the subject, with many searching for safe havens and others opting to give their business to restaurants permitting guns, drove a record amount of traffic to our restaurant blog.
The concealed carry law stirred more general interest in restaurant-related news than anything else all year, though “pizzagate” did grab people’s attention late in the year when is ensnared locally owned East Side Pies. The farm-to-table pizza restaurant, which opened in 2006, received online threats and physical attacks to their property after a community of conspiracy-minded individuals tied the rock ‘n’ roll restaurant to Comet Pizza in Washington, ground zero in the fake news story that alleged members of Hillary Clinton’s circle were involved in child sex trafficking.
Beyond those two contentious issues, much of the news in the Austin dining world in 2016 centered on the openings and closings of restaurants and the expansions of existing brands.
More national chains planted their flags in Austin, several fine dining operations ended after just a few years of operation, and more casual options started popping up across town. The multitude of openings and closings exhibited what happens when a booming city has so many new developments looking for tenants while also exposing the fact that there are only so many dining dollars to go around, leaving many restaurants to struggle amid increased competition.
The first day of 2016 saw David Bull’s fine dining restaurant, Congress, and upscale East Austin Provencal restaurant LaV both shutter. Bull and his La Corsha Hospitality team rebounded with the summer opening of Boiler Nine Bar + Grill at the Seaholm Power Plant as well as a Domain Northside location of Second Bar + Kitchen. But LaV, which was owned by Houston energy executive Ralph Eads, still sits empty.
Around the corner from LaV, former “Top Chef” winner Paul Qui’s eponymous restaurant closed in September, following the chef’s March arrest on assault charges. While Qui’s ongoing case awaits a 2017 hearing, the chef and his team are preparing to reinvent and reopen the restaurant as Kuneho, a globally inspired, sushi-driven restaurant.
East Austin also said goodbye to another fine dining restaurant with chef Andrew Wiseheart and partner Ben Edgerton closing their veggie-forward restaurant Gardner in March. The duo rebounded quickly, transforming the restaurant into the more casual Chicon, which feels more akin to their restaurant Contigo, also in East Austin.
A few blocks away, nightlife mover-and-shaker Bridget Dunlap closed her restaurant Mettle and eventually transformed it into a sports bar called Trackside, and she has collaborated with a creative agency to remake her Burn pizzeria and bar into an interactive creative space. Dunlap’s activities were not confined to East Austin: She also took over the former Arro space on West Sixth Street, turning it into the bar Parlor & Yard. Arro’s closing was a rare shutter from the Elm Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Easy Tiger), which opened Irene’s American bar and restaurant downtown and has plans for another 24 Diner at the Domain Northside and an Easy Tiger location at the Linc off Interstate 35.
Italian restaurants have taken root at an alarming rate in Austin, but the field was culled a bit this year, with Al Fico (from the owners of Vino Vino) and Sagra in East Austin and Due Forni downtown closing.
Two longtime standbys in the downtown area — Cantina Laredo and Malaga — served their final meals, as did Snack Bar on South Congress Avenue, farm-to-table trailblazer Olivia on South Congress and Eleven Plates out west, while relative newcomer Prelog’s ended its brief but interesting run in the 360 Condominium.
Two Southeast Asian favorites suffered different fates: Chef Ek Timrerk closed Kin & Comfort at Hana World Market (and promised a return in a more central location) while Tam Bui sold her Tam Deli on North Lamar Boulevard to new owners.
It was a time of change for three Austin institutions in three different parts of the city. El Azteca, run by the Guerra family since the 1960s, closed after 53 years in East Austin; Foo Swasdee’s North Austin Thai restaurant Satay, which she opened in 1987, also closed; and Jeff Blank sold his lake-area restaurant, Hudson’s on the Bend, which he opened in 1984.
Blank sold his restaurant to young restaurateurs chef Billy Caruso and Chris McFall, who have updated and modernized one of the early bastions of Austin fine dining. The reboot was one of many exciting restaurant openings this year.
Bryce Gilmore relocated Barley Swine (which I ranked the No. 1 restaurant in Austin this year) to North Austin. The McGuire Moorman group reimagined the neighborhood restaurant with June’s All Day on South Congress Avenue. The South Congress Hotel unveiled modernist izakaya restaurant Otoko in March. Veterans of Uchiko and Hopdoddy served up their take on Americanized Chinese in December at Old Thousand in East Austin. The founders of Eddie V’s rolled out Italian grill Red Ash downtown. The Eberly brought nightclub glitz to South Lamar Boulevard. And even a Dallas import, the Neapolitan pizza makers at Cane Rosso, were welcomed with open arms.
Specific developments also saw huge flourishes in dining destinations, with the wine and baked goods at Bribery Bakery, the exceptional sushi restaurant Kyoten Sushiko and the from-scratch Italian cooking of L’Oca d’Oro all finding a home at the Mueller Development; while the Domain Northside welcomed Austin360 Dining Guide critic’s pick Thai Kun, General Tso’Boy and many more.
The national trends of salad-based restaurants caught hold here (Mad Greens, locally owned Baby Greens and Vinaigrette, another Dining Guide critic’s pick), and the poke wave crashed on Austin with Dining Guide critic’s pick Poke-Poke leading the way. There was so much growth (and such attractive rents outside of town) that Austin couldn’t contain it all. Round Rock got their own Hopdoddy and Veracruz All Natural, as well as a Salt Traders Coastal Cooking from the owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen; the Amy’s Ice Creams owners opened Honey’s Pizza in Smithville; and Chuy’s opened in Cedar Park and San Marcos.
There were a lot of new operators dipping into the market for the first time in 2016, but the year also saw established restaurateurs in Austin expanding their empires and introducing new concepts. Via 313 (another critic’s pick) opened on the Drag; El Chilito took to Burnet Road; Hanabi’s second location opened at Gateway; Dining Guide critic’s pick Fresa’s expanded with a larger location on South First Street; Deckhand Oyster Bar brought its Asian flare to South Lamar Boulevard; Taste of Ethiopia(another critic’s pick) moved into the Austin market from Pflugerville with a spot on South Congress Avenue; Thai Kun stretched from its trailer roots to a slick Rock Rose address; the Jacoby’s team opened Tex-Mex restaurant Grizzelda’s across the street from its first restaurant; and the Vox Table group opened El Burro at the other end of the Lamar Union complex.
Despite the fact that the annual Austin Food & Wine Festival had to be canceled in 2016 due to inclement weather, Austin still got its share of national attention. Grae Nonas (formerly of Olamaie), Launderette and Bryce Gilmore (Odd Duck and Barley Swine) all received James Beard finalist nods; Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye (No. 6 in the Austin360 Dining Guide) was named a Best New Chef in America by Food & Wine magazine; and President Barack Obama and first lady Michele Obama stopped in for meals, he at Torchy’s Tacos and she at Salty Sow.