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New book explores history, cultural relevance of Austin restaurants

Addie Broyles

No matter if you’re heading east or west, it’s easy to drive down Sixth Street and not notice the Hoffbrau as you’re en route to the Whole Foods Market flagship store, or to overlook Cisco’s Restaurant while craning your neck to catch a glimpse of Paul Qui inside his eponymous restaurant across the street.

But Austin writer Melanie Haupt says it’s important to consider that the local food scene, since Austin’s founding in 1839, has been an interconnected patchwork of businesses whose mere existence have influenced the others that followed.

“You can’t look at Austin restaurants in a vacuum,” says Haupt, who painted many of the branches of the Austin family restaurant tree in her new book, “Historic Austin Restaurants: Capital Cuisine Through the Generations” (History Press, $19.99).

Haupt, who has a doctorate in English from the University of Texas and has been writing about food and restaurants for the Austin Chronicle since 2011, says that her academic studies and involvement in the local food community helped her see how the history of Austin restaurants continues to inform almost every aspect of our current food culture.

For instance, long before the craft beer boom or barbecue revival, Scholz Garten sated Austinites’ appetites for suds and sausages.

Scholz Garten, which has operated continuously since 1866, might win the title of Austin’s longest-running business, but it isn’t the only restaurant whose influence on current culture is underappreciated.

Take Mary Gail Hamby, the latest in the Hamby family to run the Hoffbrau, which opened in 1934 and made it out of the Depression by selling cold cuts and nickel beer to customers.

Haupt says that Hamby was so eager to tell the stories behind the restaurant that on the day of Haupt’s visit, which was a day the restaurant was closed, Hamby had covered almost every table in the restaurant with old photographs.

“This is her family heirloom,” Haupt says. “She’s so proud of it.”

Haupt says that as a writer, she sees the current attention given to all that’s shiny and new and fears that we are in danger of losing some of the stories that aren’t so glamorous but that help us track the ups and downs of the local economy and the changes, both big and small, of national and local culture.

Consider Qui’s restaurant, whose opening was covered in a number of national media outlets. “His ‘Top Chef’ victory represents this whole movement of food as entertainment,” she says, which you could trace back to the introduction of cable television or even the early days of cooking on TV.

Austinites also wouldn’t have embraced Qui’s boundary-pushing menu if they didn’t have decades of experience eating at restaurants whose owners immigrated to Austin from all over the world.

Haupt says one of her favorite parts of writing the book was hearing insider restaurant gossip about how marriages, break-ups and real estate deals and steals had the power to change the whole landscape of the scene.

“It was like a ‘Days of Our Lives’ soap opera,” she says. Not all the stories made it into the book, though.

“Some dirty laundry is better left in the basket.”

Haupt will talk about her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., and from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes and Noble, 10000 Research Blvd. On Dec. 15, she’ll be at the Faulk Central Library at 2 p.m. for a meet and greet.

She is also participating in an “Eat, Drink, Read Austin” event from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe St., that will feature a number authors of local food books, including “Austin Breakfast Tacos,” “Austin Beer” and “The Austin Food Blogger Alliance Cookbook.” (Disclosure: I’m a founding member of the blogger alliance and edited the cookbook.)