Wooden ceilings, an expansive back patio, vintage needlepoint art, flower petal lighting fixtures, a copper-backed bar, exposed brick and white cinder-block walls … your aunt and uncle from the country would love Jacoby’s Restaurant and Mercantile. It would help if they subscribed to Garden and Gun magazine and enjoyed thoughtful bourbon cocktails and Australian psych rockers Tame Impala.
Adam Jacoby’s eponymous restaurant continues the Austin (and national) trend of fetishizing rusticity. Restaurant owners and designers create a distressed and upcycled aesthetic to stylize and package nostalgia. The menus reflect the idea of worn comfort, riffing on classics like fried chicken and meatloaf. Drinks often come in Mason jars, and servicewear resembles a blind grab from a vintage store drawer.
But Adam Jacoby comes by his rural blueprint honestly. Jacoby’s looks and feels like the kind of restaurant you hope to come across (and rarely do) when passing through small West Texas towns. That’s probably because Jacoby grew up around his family’s farm, ranch and feed store, and later helped run the family’s café, in tiny Melvin (150 miles northwest of Austin, for those of you who are not regular viewers of “Texas Country Reporter”).
University of Texas graduates Jacoby and partner, Kris Swift (the man responsible for the impeccably curated design), opened the East Austin restaurant in August. The menu takes cues from the family café back in Melvin with dishes like chicken-fried steak, while allowing for more refined items like pumpkin and goat cheese dumplings.
The family ranch affords the restaurant the unique vertically integrated opportunity to serve humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic-free beef raised by the family. The Jacoby ranch beef is featured in a box on the daily menu, and the standout in that section is the half-pound cheeseburger ($16), a thick patty made of roast, brisket, chuck and steak trimmings. Melted cheese stretches across the soft char of the thick, juicy burger sandwiched between a softly sweet brioche-style bun. The Salisbury steak ($18), by comparison, was dense and dry, a problem not remedied by the strong brown gravy in which it sat, or the fluffy and buttery tumult of mashed potatoes.
The restaurant serves a rotating selection of Jacoby-raised steaks on its features menu. The 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye ($52), while well-seasoned and cooked to a rosy medium-rare, needed a bolder sear and more marbled fat for flavoring. The bigger problem with the steak was that I ordered the 10-ounce rib-eye ($40) but received the much larger and more expensive 22-ounce version. When I asked about the error, the server doubted my memory and eventually charged me the full price for the steak. The interaction didn’t feel hostile, but I do think harried service in an overcrowded dining room led to the lack of finesse and concern.
A roster of shareable snacks serves as a nice point of entry into the menu, with a jar of sharp-edged pimento cheese ($8) and creamy deviled eggs (three for $6) with chili-spiked sauce hitting the nostalgia and comfort points of the brain. Oysters fried to a delicate finish were accompanied by tart, crunchy wedges of fried green tomatoes on a plate that carried a couple stowaway knobs of okra.
The snacks section gives the kitchen a little room to paint outside the lines of small-town diner food, but the leathery pull of finely ground smoky boar sausage ($10) and dense, under-seasoned triangles of pumpkin and goat cheese dumplings draped with spinach, cherry tomatoes and sautéed onions could’ve benefited from tighter execution.
The Cornish hen, on the other hand, was phenomenal ($21). Served amid a sweet scattering of roasted carrots and pearl onions, the meat — moist, supple and easily coaxed from the bone — soaked in a tawny and fragrant jus enlivened by mustard’s vinegar snap.
The entrees, which include sweet grilled pork ribs ($22) topped with pickles and red onions, can be supplemented with family-style sides like firm green beans and fried shallots served in a zingy tomato broth ($6). Molten mac and cheese fortified with lager ($8) lost its flavor to a scorched and brittle top layer, while a sweet potato gratin drizzled with cream and dotted with wavy sunchoke chips found a bold-mellow balance ($7).
The strawberry cake ($7) exemplifies the transportive though not transcendent dishes at Jacoby’s. One doesn’t even need to bite into the creamy hot-pink slice to be whisked back in time to a church social or family reunion. Jacoby’s take on cheesecake didn’t contain similar propulsive properties, a stubborn graham cracker crust guarding frigid and impenetrable layers of cake and cinnamon whipped cream.
We strolled the back of the property following dessert one cold night and admired one of Jacoby’s greatest selling points. An outdoor deck extends to a large patio with plenty of seating and a remarkable view of the Colorado River below. I could see beyond the inclement weather and imagine a warm early evening with a cold beer and a burger as the sun faded. Between the river, the trees and the fact you’re just far enough away from downtown to glimpse some stars, you might trick yourself into thinking that you’re in the country. And doesn’t that seem to be the place we all dream of escaping to lately?
Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile
3235 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-366-5808, jacobysaustin.com
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Snacks, $7-$18. Family-style sides, $6-$9. Entrees (varies), $16-$52.
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: Thoughtfully curated design and a menu of comforting classics make Jacoby’s a transportive, if not transcendent, dining experience.
Notes: The Mercantile section of the operation offers an impressive selection of charming vintage and handmade house and personal items at equally impressive mark-ups. Jacoby’s handsome private dining room features a separate entrance and I imagine makes for a special and unique environment for a secluded gathering.