10 biggest Austin restaurant stories of 2019
A busy year in Austin’s diverse dining scene meant there was no shortage of news. We had to say goodbye to some old friends who helped build the Austin scene, but we also got to welcome some new faces re-energizing old favorites. Our best modern Mexican restaurants caught the attention of big names outside of Austin, and there was exciting news on our two biggest culinary fronts — tacos and barbecue. These are 2019’s biggest stories from the Austin food world, listed, more or less, chronologically.
1. Eastside Cafe’s Elaine Martin says goodbye
The year saw an end of an era for East Austin. Elaine Martin closed her Eastside Cafe on Manor Road at the end of January, bringing to a close a 31-year-run. The restaurant that had one of the most consistent and tenured staffs in the city was a trailblazer for the farm-to-table dining ethos that eventually caught on all around Austin, and the charming bungalow was one of the first restaurants in that section of East Austin when it opened in 1988.
Eastside Cafe provided a sense of comfort and belonging to its patrons and also served an important role in Austin’s gay community, especially in the restaurant’s early years.
When Martin decided to retire, with visions of Palm Springs in her mind, she sold the restaurant to Suerte owner Sam Hellman-Mass, who intends to open a new restaurant in the space, one he hopes honors Martin’s legacy.
“I don’t wanna screw it up. For myself, for the city, for East Austin. People expect things from us. I want to work to make something we’re really proud of that has heart and soul and passion,” Hellman-Mass told the American-Statesman in January.
2. Little Thailand reopens and ascends to our top 20
Family members of the late Leland R. “Dick” Simcoe and his wife, Surin, rebooted the charming Little Thailand in Garfield at the beginning of the year. Chef Kanjanut Thomas, Surin’s niece and the daughter of former longtime Little Thailand cook Malee Pierce, relies on fresh ingredients to masterfully develop the complex flavors of her native Thailand. Her husband, Thanet Thomas, renovated the space and imbues the restaurant with the same warmth and welcome as the Little Thailand founders. The couple’s efforts led the restaurant to a spot on our list of the 20 best restaurants in Austin this fall.
3. James Beard Foundation passes on Austin chefs, then spotlights Texas
The James Beard Foundation named Kevin Fink (Emmer & Rye), Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine, Odd Duck) and Michael Fojtasek finalists for its best chef Southwest award in the spring, but none of the three took home the coveted medal. That went to Arizona chef Charleen Badman of FnB in Scottsdale. But all Austin chefs should have a much better chance for the gold starting in 2020. The foundation announced in the summer that Texas would have its own regional category for best chef beginning next year.
4. Historic El Patio closes, but reopens weeks later
The final week at Guadalupe Street staple El Patio featured long lines out the door, hot plates of enchiladas, the retelling of old stories from decades past and more than a few tears. But the sadness didn’t linger long. David Joseph announced in July that he was closing the restaurant his father opened in 1954. But just a few weeks later, a group that includes Kristyn Ciani, granddaughter of El Patio founders Paul and MaryAnn Joseph, and her cousin, C3 Presents founding partner Charles Attal, announced it was reopening the restaurant with the same menu and much of the same staff. A rare bittersweet Old Austin story that ends up with a happy ending.
5. GSD&M helps make Popeyes’ chicken sandwich go viral
“Y’all good?” With just one conjunction and one adjective, the brand builders at Austin’s GSD&M helped launch a viral campaign that was almost unavoidable if you spent any time on the internet over the summer. The message came via Twitter from the Popeyes account and targeted Chick-fil-A. Popeyes, a longtime GSD&M client, had just rolled out its spicy chicken sandwich, and it seemed Chick-fil-A took some exception. The tweet led to a barbed back and forth between multiple fast-food brands, countless social media posts from fans weighing in on their favorites and a shortage of Popeyes chicken sandwiches. GSD&M’s good.
6. Austin chefs take a stand for mental health, sober living
The hospitality industry has long been notorious for being incredibly difficult work that can pose challenges for its members’ mental health. With high amounts of stress and a high occurrence of substance abuse, the industry has not frequently been associated with self-care. But times are changing, and two Austin chefs are at the forefront of local efforts to bring awareness to mental health and sobriety. Philip Speer co-founded (with his Comedor partner, William Ball) the Austin chapter of national organization Ben’s Friends, a group that meets weekly to discuss healthy ways to approach the path to recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. And Callie Speer of Holy Roller launched the Austin chapter of Heard, a nonprofit organization that offers free weekly support meetings for those in the service industry who want help cultivating and maintaining their mental health.
7. Hut’s Hamburgers closes
After almost 40 years of overseeing one of Austin’s most iconic burger joints, Hut’s Hamburgers owner Mike Hutchinson decided he needed a break. Hutchinson closed the restaurant that he and his wife, Kim, took over in 1981. The restaurant’s history dates all the way back to 1939, and some of that history will be celebrated next year when McGuire Moorman Hospitality opens Sammie’s, a classic red-sauce Italian restaurant that will be named in honor of the burger joint’s first iteration under Sammie Joseph, whose family still owns the land on which the building sits.
8. Barbecue and tacos
Fans of two of Austin’s favorite food groups found even more reason for excitement this year, as two of the city’s top barbecue men decided to get into the taco business. Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue opened a taco and coffee trailer on the back lot of his famed barbecue restaurant on East 12th Street. The trailer serves tacos made with chopped Franklin Barbecue brisket, housemade patty sausage and chorizo, all served with fresh housemade salsas. Tom Micklethwait of Micklethwait Craft Meats also will be getting into the taco game soon, as he and his partners will open the Taco Bronco trailer on the Batch Craft Beer & Kolaches property on Manor Road. The menu will include tacos filled with a variety of smoked meats.
9. They really like us ...
Austinites and Austin restaurant owners don’t need validation from outside sources to confirm that we’ve got it pretty great down here. But a little bit of love never hurt anyone. The past year saw quite the influx of praise for our restaurants from national publications. Modern Mexican restaurants Comedor and Suerte landed on the best restaurants in America lists from Esquire and Food & Wine, respectively; Bon Appetit named Carpenters Hall at the Carpenter Hotel one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country. And, of course, our barbecue scene garnered some praise, with Southern Living name-checking Franklin Barbecue, Micklethwait Craft Meats and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ among the best in the South.
10. Exporting Austin
Everybody knows Austin is home to some tasty eats, and soon other parts of the state and country are going to get a taste of some of that excellence. Uchi, chef Tyson Cole’s burgeoning sushi empire born in Austin in 2003, announced it will open in Miami next year. This will be the second out-of-state location, joining the one in Denver. Cole also will be busy outside of Austin with one of his other projects. Cole and partner Aaron Franklin announced plans to open versions of their Asian smokehouse Loro in both Dallas and Houston.