I used to do this cynical bit where I’d joke that I was going to open a cooking school called Brunch, where I’d teach people to make bacon, eggs, pancakes and hollandaise sauce. Sure, I was going to charge $500 per person, but I’d save each person the $25,000 he or she might spend over a lifetime of dining out for brunch. I’d also offer instruction on pouring mimosas.
If Holy Roller heard that joke, it might snicker, sneer, give me the middle finger and then turn back around to fixing brunchy dishes that were never in my wheelhouse or on my imaginary curriculum. And it might bring my food to me with some questions:
“Oh, you can’t make glowing biscuits that shine, crumble and melt? And you can’t complement those with sides of unbelievably creamy pimento cheese and a farm-meets-candy-store bacon jam worthy of spreading on anything that will sit still? And, wait, you never thought of making pancakes using yellow cake mix that gives the fluffed, honeycombed rounds a mellow sweetness and browned, caramelized bottoms? (Hold on, almost finished with my sick burn). And then adding a dish of cold-brew-kicked chai soft-serve ice cream and scattering of brilliant blackberries to accompany those pancakes? Then, maybe stick to the jokes, pal, and leave the cooking to us.”
Fair enough, fake diner persona I created in my head.
Holy Roller (which fittingly happens to share a name with an Austin roller derby team) pulls no punches in its aggressive approach to all-day, everyday brunch. The restaurant from chef-owner Callie Speer takes its cooking seriously — you can see that in everything from a strong baked goods program to little touches like the scratch-made ketchup used in the meatloaf — but doesn’t appear to get hung up on taking itself too seriously.
Speer, a longtime veteran of the Austin restaurant world, recruited her former Geraldine’s co-workers Jen Keyser (general manager) and Britt Castro (pastry chef) and eventually created an all-female management team. That crew gave life to a restaurant brimming with boss-lady swagger and a bit of subversiveness, and one that defies the stylistic mold prevalent in recent Austin openings. A row of portraits hanging near the kitchen and bar includes the visages of Stevie Nicks, Elvira, the Bride of Frankenstein, Joan Jett and Debbie Harry and speaks to the thread of empowerment, fearlessness and originality that ties Holy Roller together.
With the news of sexual harassment and toxic work cultures at restaurants (and everywhere else) and the longstanding lack of leadership roles for women in kitchens, it’s exciting to see the community supporting a team of creative women making unapologetic food and all the decisions. And, for those who might lazily objectify or marginalize women whether in or out of a restaurant, the neon Girls, Girls, Girls sign glowing in the lounge at Holy Roller cheekily subverts a sleazy and condescending paradigm, trading infantilization for empowerment.
Near the portraits of the female patron saints (a lone male, Iggy Pop, is at the back of the restaurant), a bronze punch bowl that looks like it could belong to somebody’s grandma — primed for spiking with illicit booze — nods and winks to the past. Speer took her own grandmother’s meatloaf recipe, the ubiquitous post-war amalgamation of white bread, ground beef, brown sugar and ketchup, and updated it into a modern masterpiece packed with onions, garlic and herbs sealed tightly behind a crunchy flat-top sear. The Wonder Bread of the past is replaced by homemade milk bread for a meatloaf sandwich oozing with mozzarella and zipped with horseradish sauce ($14). Finishing this whole thing should come with a reward, and a warning label.
The aforementioned yellow cake pancakes ($10 for a stack of three) speak to Speer’s history as an accomplished pastry chef at Swift’s Attic and Parkside, among others, and their accoutrements ($4 for the blackberry and dirty chai soft serve or $5 for fried chicken with Sriracha butter) are an example of the restaurant’s cleverness and unbridled zest for more.
The pancakes and the selection of “7 deadly sins” offered only at a Sunday brunch that plays off the restaurant’s kitschy religious leitmotif (aim for the $5 doughnut topped with maple glaze and candied bacon) are among just a few of the dishes that strictly read brunch, meaning you won’t get beat over the head with a dozen different small twists on eggs Benedict and hash browns. There’s also the Casbah, one of those delightful biscuits mentioned earlier, swiped with honey-butter and layered with knobby and juicy fried chicken and a fried egg ($13), and a migas kolache, a fun CenTex idea that gets weighed down by too much bread ($13). But many of the other dishes at Holy Roller could easily fall into the lunch category, which works just fine for me.
Word has gotten out that Holy Roller is the city’s hot new brunch spot. And while that’s great news for the restaurant, people who wear #brunch T-shirts, and those who go downtown four times a year, it can be bad news for anyone who doesn’t like to wait (see: me). Lines stretch down the sidewalk before the 10 a.m. opening on Saturdays and Sundays, and since the restaurant only seats about 50 and another 24 at the bar, if you show up an hour after the restaurant opens, expect a wait of almost two hours (though they will text you).
For me, that means more weekday and late weekend lunch visits, which is just fine. In the midday light, with its black brick walls, exposed black beams, skeletal taxidermy, hanging roller skates, dark furniture and former Club DeVille neon sign propped against the wall, the space looks like a cool (wo)man cave above a bar in the East Village, a nook bubbling with neighborhood-bar friendliness during a time of day when all the cheesy nearby bars are empty and reeking of stale beer and desperation.
Sure, lunch means I’m less likely to indulge in a bracing Irish coffee ($10), or a cocktail riffing on anonymous confessions from diners (the Pennsutucky, a whiskey, blood orange and honey cocktail offered one weekend, was based off the posted confession, “I went to jail twice while watching orange is the new black, so I stopped watching”). But I will enjoy one of the best burgers in town — an American-cheese-draped, double-patty pinup model of nostalgia served on a small, not-too-sweet-or-buttery bun ($14). Or perhaps an electric Waldorf salad (yes, Holy Roller serves four salads!) that swaps out mayonnaise for whipped yogurt ($9), or shrimp with grits formed into a toasty-edged circle like a polenta cake in a dish that leaves its Creole and Sriracha sting on your lips ($16). As for golden, Mexican-accented french fries ($9) loaded with green chili, sunny egg, sour cream, corn, lime, cotija, jalapeno and cilantro, I recommend being hungover or in the process of getting drunk if you’re going to make a run at them.
While those dishes capably unwind into a late afternoon lunch, the menu at the hideout hang loses a little of its luster as day turns to night. Dinner at Holy Roller feels a little empty, like drinking canned cold beers backstage with friends after a concert, when the band and their attendant buzz has already left the arena. It’s still pretty cool, but the energy’s not really the same.
The slightly pink steak and runny eggs, with their spicy and floral Mexican flavor profile and very approachable $18 price tag, were solid, but it’s a dish that I want at 10 a.m. or 1 a.m., not 8 p.m. The dish and I both felt out of place at dinner. I see Holy Roller as a restaurant, not a brunch gimmick, but if it’s going to be open for dinner, it needs more dishes that feel specifically engineered for the night.
Having not yet read my complaint (but maybe my mind), Speer told the Statesman just days ago that she intends to roll out a menu insert this week featuring a handful of nightly blue-plate dinner specials, which I think will round out the offerings and solidify the restaurant’s all-day appeal.
Holy Roller can be more than just brunch. It can help people reimagine what a modern diner looks like and how it feels.
Besides, anyone can cook brunch. (Ugh, not this guy again.)
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the Holy Rollers were a defunct roller derby team. The team still competes in the Texas Roller Derby league in Austin.
509 Rio Grande St. 512-502-5119, holyrolleraustin.com
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. “Sunday School” brunch, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Salads, $9-$14. Shareables, $6-$11. Plates, $13-$18. Desserts, $8.
Expect to pay: $18 (per person without tax, tip or alcohol)
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.
Notes: Limited street and paid surface-lot parking within a few blocks. If going for weekend brunch, expect a wait.
The Bottom Line: Bold flavors, a strong sense of self and a devil-may-care attitude define this female-run rock-and-roll diner that specializes in brunch.