If you look back at what I will call the Golden Age of Austin Restaurant Openings (let’s say 2009-2014), you’ll find small restaurants started by hungry and talented chefs with strong points of view, ambition, often impressive résumés and, even more often, not a ton of money. Think Barley Swine, Lenoir, Foreign & Domestic, Franklin Barbecue and Dai Due.
But over the past couple of years, as rents and taxes have leaped and kitchen talent has thinned, there has been a shift to restaurants opened by people with deep pockets who don’t think like chefs. They think like businessmen and club owners. They seemingly worry about aesthetic, design, attracting a certain crowd and creating spaces that look cool but feel empty.
We’ve stumbled from chef-driven restaurants to vibe-driven restaurants. Dining out becomes less about a shared appreciation of craft, flavor and community and more a form of effervescent entertainment and stylized spectacle. These new places, some of which likely cost millions to build, feel like they were made specifically to host parties for glossy magazines and drive traffic to websites fawning over the “stunners” and unsubstantiated new “classics.” We’ve moved from Instagram-worthy food (which has its own perils) to slick selfie spots. If someone opens an Italian restaurant called Nero’s, I may cry. And there may be a wait list.
The latest in this recent catwalk parade of hot spots that leave me cold is Eberly. I don’t necessarily want to pick on the South Lamar restaurant-bar, but when you pull up a big glitzy chair that takes up the whole first row of the classroom, you’re gonna get called on.
The restaurant was opened by a group led by Eddy Patterson and John Scott, owners of Stubb’s Austin Restaurant Company and former owners of the Stubb’s barbecue sauce line that they sold a couple of years ago to McCormick & Company for about $100 million. They apparently took a chunk of that change and invested it into the old Ridgways printing building on South Lamar. Three years after the purchase, the small, old brick building was transformed into a multi-roomed 15,000-square-foot palace of food, booze and good times.
There is no denying Eberly’s beauty. Mickie Spencer (Hillside Farmacy, East Side Showroom), Michael Dickson of ICON Design + Build and Clayton & Little Architects have created a throwback dining room replete with midcentury modern touches, from the wooden walls and hexagonal tiled floors to craning hooded light fixtures, plush royal blue banquettes and a half-moon-cut wall that sits behind a gold-topped horseshoe bar. You’ll feel like Cary Grant, or at least Jon Hamm playing Cary Grant, when you sidle up for a perfect Manhattan.
The loud dining room, packed each night I’ve visited, feels like a social club or art installation as much as a restaurant. That club idea is perpetuated by the kitchen, which is helmed by executive chef Jim Tripi. He was formerly the chef at the Spanish Oaks Golf Club, and much of the surprisingly limited menu reminded me of country club fare or above-average wedding food. Just as people don’t join country clubs for the food, they likely aren’t heading to Eberly for it, either. If your friends rave about Eberly, you’ll likely hear the words “sexy,” “gorgeous,” “glamorous,” “cool,” “fun,” “cocktails” and “bar” well before they tell you about what they actually ate.
There were unctuous braised short ribs ($25) carrying wilted broccolini atop a schmear of rich whipped cauliflower, and bacon-wrapped venison and underseasoned quail ($35) dotted with huckleberries that clashed with fierce pickled cabbage.
Execution marred other entrees, like redfish ($27) and lump crab (more on that in a bit) served with a timid corn maque choux, all blanketed by a buttered herb cracker crumble with the consistency of wet cardboard, and dry coq au vin ($28) that lacked that dish’s trademark lushness.
I did enjoy a thick hunk of ruby filet with crispy fries ($45), even though the melting cap of chimichurri butter probably helped as much as hid the meat’s flavor. Such richness was also seen in two dishes from the Farm & Dairy section, a cute name for a collection that could have just as easily been called Starch & Fat. The orecchiette pasta ($9) swam in a nutty and creamy bath of taleggio, white cheddar, Parmigiano and Gruyere cheeses, and the crispy, herb-flecked potato galette ($8) delivered sumptuous steakhouse pleasures. But you’re in trouble when side dishes are some of the most memorable parts of a $225 meal.
Slightly more restraint was shown at the top of the menu with cubes of tuna tartare ($18), slicked by a salty sheen of tamari and sandwiched between dollops of creamy avocado and chili aioli. It was one of two seafood starters, and the only successful one. The other was a dense rectangle of cornbread swathed with pungent caramelized onions and topped with lumps of crabmeat that had the springy yet stubborn consistency of foam packing peanuts ($16).
The wood-roasted Oysters Angelina (half-dozen for $22), their iron brace of spinach muted by cream and suffocated by Parmesan bread crumbs, featured burned nobs of pork belly. We couldn’t make it through more than half the oysters, which tasted like burned tennis shoes pulled from a hastily extinguished campfire.
The oysters’ moniker pays tribute to Angelina Eberly, the restaurant’s namesake and logo. Eberly was an innkeeper who famously fired a cannon to protect Austin’s position as the capital of Texas, and while the restaurant’s owners use the historic figure to position themselves as the defenders of Austin’s soul, the conceit feels like a bridge too far. It would be like opening a fancy pie shop and earnestly calling it Remember the a la Mode.
That disingenuous disconnect also jumped out at me when we tried to order charcuterie. There is a gorgeous vintage-looking mirror near the dining room bar that has the restaurant’s name painted on it, along with the words “oysters” and “charcuterie.” But, when our server told us the kitchen didn’t make its own charcuterie, the mirror felt more like affectation than mission statement. Of course, our server also didn’t know the provenance of a beer we ordered or that EVOO was an acronym for “extra-virgin olive oil,” so maybe she was mistaken.
Another affectation came after winning desserts of a gentle marcona almond Basque Cake filled with creme Anglaise ($12) and a playful, elevated take on PB&J ($12) with raspberry-beet sorbet and peanut butter mousse from executive pastry chef Natalie Gazaui. The check arrived in a tattered old copy of “Decline and Fall”/“A Handful of Dust,” novels written by Evelyn Waugh, a British author referenced in the movie “Lost in Translation.” You can’t make this stuff up.
For those who would respond to such a review with “haters gonna hate,” your point is well taken. The dining room is seemingly jammed full nightly, and the row of glistening valet-parked luxury cars is a testament to the restaurant’s popularity. The owners will laugh their way to the bank, and I shuffle home crestfallen.
To continue riffing modern parlance — “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Fair enough. The owners of Eberly read the market, saw people slowly filing out of the W Hotel’s bars and filled a niche. But that didn’t keep me from wanting to stand on my table and direct groups of diners to more thoughtful restaurants with thinner margins and less crowded dining rooms.
And, it’s not just the dining room that’s crowded at Eberly. Make your way through a Victorian-style greenhouse middle room, used as a dining room at night and eventually intended as a shared workspace during the day (whatever), and you will land in the Cedar Tavern. The bar is even more handsome than the dining room, with merlot-colored ottomans, leather couches and regal bar stools.
The centerpiece of the room is the 19th-century mahogany bar from the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. The owners purchased the bar from the New York City staple, famously home to boozing abstract expressionists and beat writers, when Cedar Tavern closed a decade ago and preserved it while waiting to open their own iteration of the Cedar Tavern.
The bar’s soundtrack, apparently set to the “Make Us Look Cool” Pandora station, bounces across the last six decades, with the Shirelles (’60s), Rolling Stones (’70s), TV on the Radio (’00s) and BØRNS (now) all heard on recent visits. But you’ll be thankful for the lively tunes, as they help drown out high-wattage vocal fry and men of a certain age as they ask the female bartender, obviously from America, what country her accent is from.
While the drinks at the Cedar Tavern are fantastic, I was disappointed in a towering burger ($15) on the small bar menu. The charred patties sat between tough buns soaked in cheddar-Hollandaise sauce. In keeping with the theme, it was better to look at than eat.
As I paid my bill, a black-and-white Allen Ginsberg stared down at me from his framed spot on the wall. His eyes howled, “Take me with you.”
615 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-916-9000, eberlyaustin.com
Rating: 6 out of 10
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Starters, salads and sides, $8-$20. Entrees, $25-$45.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Eberly is a shiny and popular example of how Austin’s dining scene has shifted toward glitzy entertainment in recent years.
Notes: Complimentary valet parking. Cedar Tavern open from 5 p.m. daily.