The Austin dining scene continued to make the jump to hyperspace in 2015. Restaurants opened faster than you could say “these aren’t the Brussels sprouts you’re looking for.”
Restaurants championed the seasonal and local ethos, as comfort food and Italian options predominated the landscape.
The national media also maintained its healthy fascination with our burgeoning scene, as everyone from Southern Living to Zagat placed Austin restaurants on Best Of lists.
Jesse Griffiths’ quintessential Austin restaurant, Dai Due, landed a spot on Bon Appetit’s 10 Best New Restaurants in the country, and an article in Travel + Leisure celebrated Austin as “America’s next great food town.”
Even the suburbs got some national love, with website NerdWallet.com declaring Cedar Park and Round Rock as two of the best cities in which to open a restaurant.
Headlining the local celebrants was barbecue wizard Aaron Franklin, who became the first barbecue cook to ever win a regional Best Chef award from the esteemed James Beard Foundation. He was joined on the finalists list by fellow Austinite Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine and Odd Duck, who may finally get his deserved Beard award in 2016.
The bespectacled and modest Franklin, who instantly sold out pop-up dinners in San Francisco and Chicago, also premiered his television show, “BBQ with Franklin,” on PBS stations across the country, and his book, “Franklin Barbecue,” debuted on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Franklin’s year was so eventful he even had a car run into his building, putting a hole in the wall. And despite all the long days and nights at the restaurant and a packed promotional schedule, Franklin found time to form a new food festival that he and his partners will debut in Austin in the spring.
National praise also showered on Olamaie co-owners and executive chefs Grae Nonas and Michael Fojtasek, who were named chefs of the year by Food & Wine magazine. Their imaginative takes on Southern classics also led them to the top of my yearly dining guide.
The dining guide included many favorites from years past (Uchi, Barley Swine, Wink) but also featured a host of newcomers. Spicewood fine dining restaurant Apis Restaurant and Apiary was one of the year’s big new standouts, along with tasting menu restaurant Counter 357 and chef Rene Ortiz’s playful take on a nouveau diner, Launderette. Those restaurants were some of the best to open in 2015, a year that also saw the arrival of Austrian chef Florian Prelog’s eponymous restaurant, Fort Worth celebrity chef Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Shawn Cirkiel’s tapas restaurant Bullfight, upmarket Chinese restaurant Wu Chow, the artisan-focused Emmer & Rye and East Austin izakaya Fukumoto.
The quick march of Italian and pizza-centric restaurants included elegant East Austin restaurant Juniper, Unit-D Pizzeria, Italic from the group behind Arro and Easy Tiger, Al Fico from the owners of Vino Vino and the beautiful but underperforming Juliet on Barton Springs Road.
Popular Austin brands experienced growth, as Kerbey Lane Café opened in Round Rock, P. Terry’s and JuiceLand opened multiple locations across the city, Ramen Tatsu-ya opened on South Lamar and East Side King introduced a brick-and-mortar space on East Sixth Street and launched another of its Thai Kun trailers on West Sixth Street. East Side King co-founder Paul Qui, who will open the tiny kaiseki Otoko at the South Congress Hotel in January, planted his flag in Miami, with Pao at the Faena Hotel.
Speaking of popular trailers, Detroit pizza specialists Via 313, Vietnamese operation Lulu B’s, Spartan Pizza, Chi’lantro and Garbo’s all converted their trailer and truck successes into brick-and-mortar restaurants across town.
Those relative newcomers broadened their horizons, while Austin stalwarts Thundercloud Subs, Jeffrey’s, Fonda San Miguel and the County Line all celebrated their 40th anniversaries.
In addition to the stand-alone restaurants that opened around town, Austin’s propulsive growth meant a slew of new hotels and their respective dining options. The JW Marriott (Corner, Osteria Pronto), Hotel Van Zandt (Geraldine’s), Westin (San Jac), Hotel Ganduca (Visconti Ristorante) and South Congress Hotel (Café No Se, Central Standard) all debuted on the scene this year.
In addition to all the new talent coming to town to helm new and existing restaurants, the year saw its usual amount of movement by established talent. Despite being named a sommelier of the year by Food & Wine magazine, Vilma Mazaite of LaV left her position of wine director and is now focused on a food and wine event for the restaurant. The French-inspired East Austin restaurant also said goodbye to opening executive chef Allison Jenkins, whom they have yet to permanently replace.
Alexis Chong left Thai restaurant Sway in the spring and joined Foreign & Domestic as the North Loop restaurant’s chef de cuisine in the fall. McGuire Moorman veteran Alexandra Manley (Josephine House) took the reins as executive chef at Bufalina and its forthcoming second restaurant on Burnet Road.
Chavez at the Radisson Hotel & Suites parted ways with its name (it’s now called Dine) as well as opening chef Shawn Cirkiel. He was replaced by Josh Watkins, who departed shortly afterward, making way for longtime Austin chef David Garrido (Jeffrey’s, Garrido’s).
Lawrence Kocurek left Counter 357, the restaurant he opened with Eric Earthman. Taking his place was the restaurant’s original chef de cuisine, Damien Brockway, a veteran of Uchiko and Qui. Chef Mat Clouser decamped from Counter 357’s upstairs neighbor, Swift’s Attic, where he was replaced by the restaurant’s opening chef de cuisine, Zack Northcutt.
Former Uchi Restaurant Group director of culinary operations Philip Speer left his position at the company. The restaurant group’s St. Philip Pizza Parlor and Bakeshop in Sunset Valley closed a few months after Speer’s departure. It was one of the biggest closings in a year that saw the shuttering of both critically acclaimed and fledgling restaurants.
The biggest closure was executive chef David Bull’s fine dining beacon restaurant Congress, which served its final dinner on New Year’s Eve. Bull will now focus on the expansion of Second Bar + Kitchen, which will grow into the former Congress space and open locations at the Domain and airport.
Fellow fine dining restaurant Jezebel also closed its doors after a brief run on West Sixth Street. Just down the street, Sandra Bullock pulled the plug on her Bess Bistro. Four veteran Austin restaurants, La Fuente’s and Freddie’s Place in South Austin, Corazon at Castle Hill near downtown and Mann’s Smokehouse in North Austin, also closed. Even the beloved taco was not safe in a year that saw the closing of Fork & Taco on Burnet Road and Wahoo’s Fish Tacos on South Congress Avenue.
Longtime Austin restaurateurs Emmett and Lisa Fox ended their 10-year run with Mediterranean restaurant Fino in April but took some of that restaurant’s inspiration and opened Cantine at Lamar Union this summer.
I was sad to see chef Mark Schmidt’s British-accented Texas bistro Blackbird & Henry close near the end of the year, and was even more crestfallen when the pastrami masters at Melvin’s Deli Comfort decided to cease operations at their North Loop trailer.
Not all closings meant the end of the line for some restaurants. The iconic Omelettry packed its bags on Burnet Road and headed over to Airport Boulevard, and Bryce Gilmore’s farm-to-table game-changer Barley Swine will close Jan. 2. It won’t be gone long, as Gilmore will reopen soon on Burnet Road, his move from south to north acting as something of a bridge between the Austin restaurant scene’s present and its future.
Visit dining.blog.austin360.com to watch a video capturing the year in Austin dining.