July 11, 2016
Somehow it's already July, and the first half of the year has been filled with excitement, disappointment and an array of surprises for the Austin food world. Below, find the top 11 hits and misses of the year so far.
Hit: Italian cuisine done authentically and creatively
Just when we thought another Italian restaurant was the last thing we needed, L'oca D'oro popped up in the growing Mueller development, proving that it's not just "another Italian restaurant." Chef/co-owner Fiore Tedesco's cuisine was inspired by his youth cooking with his Italian immigrant grandparents. Another sign of authenticity? The restaurant ages its own cheese, crafts all the salumi, bakes all the bread, makes all the pasta fresh and creates its own vermouth and Amari.
Miss: Downfall of a Top Chef
Not long after the arrest of Top Chef winner Paul Qui, who released a statement saying he'd be checking himself into a treatment facility, the news spread that his chef de cuisine at Qui, Jorge Hernandez, had departed (along with a good chunk of the staff). Soon afterward, Qui's East Side King group shuttered the Four Horsemen trailer and Thai-Kun at Steampunk Saloon (where it never seemed to belong anyway!) Next, an à la carte menu replaced the ticketed tasting room experience and the dining room tasting menu. Qui took to social media a little over a month after the incident, saying it was "time to make amends" with a new menu, resulting in some honest responses that his food wasnever the problem and new dishes are no way to make amends. What's to come for the chef who was once Austin's golden boy? Only time will tell...
Hit: Brunch expands 10-fold
With all the openings of 2016 (plus the launch of some new menus at restaurants that have been around a bit longer), Austin has more brunch options than ever before: all the pancakes and Benedicts possible at Snooze, classy jazz-infused affair at Geraldine’s, brunch with a tropical twist at Isla, the epic pastry program during weekend morning meals at Emmer & Rye (pictured), daily egg sammies and bowls at Paperboy, dim sum at Wu Chow, brand-new items at Sway's weekend brunch, an elegant Italian-style interpretation at Juniper, a farm-fresh Saturday brunch at Eden East on Springdale farm — and more!
Miss: The death of fine dining
We've seen a slew of sad and surprising closures this year already, starting with laV, which announced its New Year's Eve party would actually be a closing party and Congress, which also served its last meals on the last days of the year. Soon afterward, Mettle closed its doors (reopening very quickly as a new concept called Ophelia, only to shutter once again); Gardner closed for a brief two weeks (also to transition to a new concept called Chicon); and Fork & Vine most recently announced a shuttering. Considering these were all more upscale concepts, we couldn't help but wonder: Could this really be the death of fine dining in Austin?
Hit: Expansions into underserved areas
With Austin growing at a rapid rate, we were happy to see places opening in some of the more underserved areas of town. Royal Jelly joined Black Star Co-op off North Lamar, just south of 183, while Lox Box & Barrel opened just east of Pieous in Southwest Austin. A bar named Little Darlin' just recently surfaced in Southeast Austin as well. As folks are constantly getting priced out of more central neighborhoods, we hope to see more solid openings all over town.
Miss: Ophelia's very short-lived existence
Just two short months after chef Lynzy Moran spoke with us excitedly about developing the menu for her dream restaurant Ophelia, Bridget Dunlap's team announced its shuttering. The website very bluntly states, "The Dunlap team wishes Moran the best, noting that sometimes things just do not work out." Luckily, Moran's well-loved Cajun cuisine can still be obtained at her two food trucks, Baton Creole (which returned to its original location after also getting booted from Dunlap's Lustre Pearl on Rainey) and Lady Luck at the Hard Luck Lounge. We look forward to seeing what's to come for the talented chef in the future.
Hit: Lounges all over town
Though plenty of Austin restaurants have been popping up in the past few years, our city hasn't seen nearly as many bar and lounge launches — until now. In 2016 alone, we've already gained awesome space for drinks with friends: the plant-adorned, spacious patio of Irene’s, the airy rooftop patio of Backbeat,Milonga Room's subterranean Argentine speakeasy, Kitty Cohen’s patio (which even has a wading pool!), and the observatory deck of Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, which looks out onto the Greenbelt. Guess this means we have a lot more drinking to do.
Miss: Farewell to a cocktail classic
Soon after East Side Showroom announced plans to shutter this month via social media, they came back letting us know they'd actually be closing to relaunch as (wait for it) a brand-new concept called Ah Sing Den. Is nothing sacred?? ESSR was one of the very first bars to kickstart Austin's craft cocktail scene seven years ago, which you'd think would be enough to keep it afloat without having to transform it into a Victoria-era opium den based on a Charles Dickens novel (which is also a mouthful to explain).
Hit: Bar food steps up
About five years ago, food trucks were all the rage, both in their own designated lots and behind bars all over town. While we still have a good amount (and many of them are still housed at bars, since most of the big lots have been shut down to build hotels and high-rises), more and more bars are taking a different approach: using even the smallest kitchen spaces to create high-end bar food. So far this year, Austin gained awesome food at The Townsend(pictured), Garage, BaseCamp and Backbeat, among others.
Miss: The deli drought continues
Seeing as this city is already short on delis, it was a huge disappointment to hear Romanouskas was closing (and not long after Melvin's Deli Comfort shuttered earlier this year). Why are decent deli sandwiches so few and far between in our city? The glimmer of hope: Micklethwait Craft Meats hinted at closing the deli trailer to focus on opening a brick-and-mortar for the barbecue concept. We can only hope an impending physical location means the return of the brand's handcrafted sandwiches too.
Hit: Finally, some health-focused dishes
In this land where smoked meats rule, it's easy to forget that Whole Foods actually began here too. Finally, Austin is getting back to its healthier roots, with the opening of True Food Kitchen, Vinaigrette, MAD Greens and more Soup Peddler and Juiceland locations. Downtown salad stop Leaf moved into a bigger space and hot spots like Launderette and Café No Sé offer healthy, California-inspired cuisine.