The flame of old Austin flickered dimmer Monday. Restaurateur, raconteur and cultural torchbearer Eddie Wilson has decided to close the original Threadgill’s after almost 40 years, the restaurant announced.
Facing an uncertain future amid the coronavirus pandemic, Wilson told the Austin Chronicle, which first reported the closure, that he decided it was time to retire and sell the land on which the restaurant sits at 6416 N. Lamar Blvd. The pandemic led to a then-temporary shutter earlier this month.
"This whole pandemic has been like a kick in the gut that bent me over," Wilson told the Statesman by phone Monday. "I’ve been in a lot of roll-around and tumbling brawls, but I’ve never been this old. It just seems like it’s time for everybody to find a way to take care of themselves."
Wilson has listed the property for sale with Scott Carr, whose father, Kenneth, helped Wilson close the deal on what would become the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1970. The music lover says one of his dreams is that the property in North Austin could land into the hands of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.
Wilson’s phone didn’t stop buzzing Monday, with people calling to give their well wishes and condolences. The living Austin legend says he’ll miss seeing his regular customers every day — with groups of regulars with nicknames like "The Knuckleheads" and "The Regulars" no longer able to pull up a chair at Threadgill’s — along with his staff, some of whom have been at the restaurant for almost 40 years.
"Every few days I meet somebody I crossed paths with 40, 50 years ago. It’s a combination of the customers and employees, best employees I’ve had in 50 years," Wilson said.
The restaurateur, who helped define Austin music culture in the 1970s with his Armadillo World Headquarters, had long held an appreciation for those who came before him. Kenneth Threadgill’s old beer joint on Lamar Boulevard had been closed for years when Wilson reopened it in 1981. The spot’s namesake yodeler still was active playing gigs around town, and Wilson knew of the hootenannies Threadgill used to throw at the converted gas station that once hosted Janis Joplin.
"He was telling that story even when that building was empty," said Austin culture and music writer Joe Nick Patoski, who met Wilson in the 1970s at the Armadillo World Headquarters and later worked on a book with him about the club’s history. "He was just as enamored of what came before. And that sense of digging in history was always important to him."
» FROM 2018: Threadgill’s World Headquarters goes home with the Armadillo
Wilson opened a second location, Threadgill’s World Headquarters on Riverside Drive, in 1996. That space, also a music venue, closed in 2018, but Wilson kept the spirit alive at the original restaurant known as the Old No. 1, the walls papered with posters that told the history of the city and culture he loved.
The closing of the North Lamar spot, which Threadgill opened in 1933, marks the end of an era for old Austin, the traces of which can be hard to detect around town these days.
"It’s sad. It’s a friend dying. It’s been an institution and a part of my life for a long time," Patoski said.
While it may be hard to imagine the home-cooking spot as a culinary trailblazer in the context of Austin’s modern dining scene, Patoski said that Threadgill’s re-opening in 1981 marked a relatively big moment for Austin dining.
The Wimberley-based writer and former Texas Monthly staffer, who once dined at the restaurant with former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton, said that not only did Threadgill’s serve the best chicken fried steak in town, but you could even order a full plate of vegetables.
"It was kind of radical," Patoski said with a laugh.
The restaurant, which hosted regular live music performances, essentially was a living museum of Austin culture from the decades prior to Wilson’s stewardship. It was a place where you might find legendary music producers like Huey Meaux and Jim Dickinson hanging out during South by Southwest.
"The return of Threadgill’s under Eddie’s tutelage … the original Threadgill’s had never been this cool, or edgy or fashionable," Patoski said.
» RELATED: Iconic Threadgill’s art finds new home at South Austin Museum of Popular Culture
Patoski said that Wilson has been a main driver in cultivating Austin’s history and story with his businesses. The Austin Museum of Popular Culture, once located on South Lamar Boulevard, currently shares space on North Lamar with Threadgill’s. The museum continues to operate for now. But with the closing of Old No. 1, Patoski said the responsibility of documenting Austin’s cultural legacy may need to fall to more formal institutions and repositories of history, like the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas.
"This has been informal and cultivated by a guy who runs a restaurant and just happens to be a good storyteller and good (expletive)," Patoski said. "It’s time they all step up and recognize this history that was always kind of outside, alt, illegitimate, not legitimate, call it whatever you want. It doesn’t just inform Austin’s culture. It informs Austin’s economy today; it informs everything about Austin."
Wilson intends to auction off more of his musical and cultural artifacts, mirroring his 2015 auction that briefly landed Patoski in a bidding war for a poster with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Patoski expects another auction along with the selling of the property, would help soften the landing of Wilson, whom he says is deserving of a free and easy life after decades of hard work and beating cancer.
"I hope Eddie and (his wife) Sandra can enjoy their days now, because they worked so damn hard keeping this thing going," Patoski said. "It’s not just a restaurant. It’s like the conscience of Austin. It’s the history of old Austin. It’s how we got to be where we are today and a sense of the need to tell that story. I don’t think anyone’s done it better."