Austin360 Dining Guide 2020: How restaurants have pivoted and persevered
Some restaurants have forged creative new paths while others have pared back operations in an attempt to run as lean as possible as they all navigate this unprecedented time. They’ve all done whatever they could to make sure their businesses are still standing when the fog of the pandemic clears.
Here we take a look at some of the steps restaurant owners have taken to pivot and persevere in the face of historic obstacles. This is only a small sample. Everyone’s fighting. Everyone’s scrambling. And everyone’s fueling their hope with tireless work.
Imagine keeping a restaurant afloat while also opening a brewery in the middle of a pandemic. That’s what the partners at Better Half did, as they continued to make some of the best casual food in town, from their cauliflower tots to overflowing salads and one of the city’s best burgers, while opening Hold Out Brewing on the adjacent lot. Not only does the brewery make great beers, like a juicy Koala Takedown IPA, it also has its own kitchen that offers patio and to-go service. The menu includes my favorite chicken wings and homemade ranch dressing in town and a monster bacon ranch burger. And in a move that revealed them as defenders of Austin culture and prescient pourers, Hold Out had beer cans printed before the pandemic that read “Save Austin. Drink Beer.” Good advice.
When Philip Speer and William Ball couldn’t invite diners into their beautiful downtown restaurant, they took Comedor to guests. The partners started Assembly Kitchen, a company that sends ingredients for dishes like the modern Mexican restaurant’s popular bone marrow tacos to home cooks. You may not be able to execute them with the same ease as Comedor executive chef Gabe Erales, and most home dining rooms aren’t as stunning as Comedor’s, but trying to play “Top Chef” at home is a fun and tasty way to distract yourself from some of the misery of 2020. The cook-at-home service also includes pizza, bakery, produce and cocktail options, along with brunch favorites from downtown’s Holy Roller.
Joanna and Joel Fried’s Eldorado Cafe in North Austin featured one of the city’s busiest dining rooms during pre-pandemic times. The coronavirus put an end to the room filled with bonhomie and enchiladas. After a month closed to perfect takeout operations, the Frieds reopened Eldorado Cafe for curbside takeout only in April. And while Eldorado had more success than most restaurants that shifted to takeout only, the homegrown establishment was still losing money. The Frieds realized they’d probably not reopen their restaurant’s dining room until a vaccine could give more assurances of safety to their staff and customers, so they opened Eldorado Taco y Torta Co., a takeout-only offshoot of their restaurant located in Kitchen United Mix.
The commissary kitchen space opened before the pandemic, and once takeout became one of the main sources of survival, the concept made even more sense. It is home to Seoulju Korean Restaurant, Teji’s Indian Restaurant, Bao’d Up, Ramen512 and more. A model that initially drew skepticism from some now looks like a brilliant supplement to popular existing brands.
Foreign & Domestic chefs and partners Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley not only fought to keep the lights on at their North Loop restaurant, but they also had the determination and vision to open Commerce Cafe on the town square in Lockhart. The couple has brought a taste of the country to Austin for several years and now they’re giving a taste of the city to a small town. The owners also expanded their dining room on North Loop to include new outdoor seating, where they still serve $1 oysters on Tuesday nights. Foreign & Domestic has earned their distinction as one of Austin’s quintessential neighborhood restaurants during the pandemic, with a group of nearby neighbors ordering takeout Sunday brunch and enjoying meals together in a socially distant manner from their respective driveways.
How do you try to re-create an elevated dining room experience as safely as possible? For Lenoir owners Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher that answer was to turn their shabby chic restaurant inside-out, re-creating the ambiance of the small dining room in their wine garden. Strung lanterns, wooden architectural details and eclectic china helped set the mood, as the restaurant returned to dinner service in the summer after a spring spent introducing lunch and Sunday suppers for takeout. The international flavors of their hot weather food were on display with a whole roasted crab-stuffed fish draped with Goan curry and a fragrant garam masala pork chop. My dinner at Lenoir was one of only a few I’ve eaten at a restaurant since the pandemic. The professional service and charm from Duplechan and a team that included Clinton Tedin, one of the city’s best hospitality professionals, transported us to a more innocent and decadent time, while giving hope for a more intimate and familiar future.
L’Oca d’Oro owners Adam Orman and chef Fiore Tedesco have created one of the city’s great neighborhood restaurants, and their sense of community has been on display more than ever during the pandemic. While the restaurant has been closed for most of the last seven months, the partners have helped feed school children and people experiencing homelessness while also keeping their staff working. The duo are also integral in the leadership of Good Work Austin, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equitable and just working conditions, and one that has served as an industry leader in promoting safe ways to reopen restaurants while protecting workers and the public.
Olamaie chef-owner Michael Fojtasek was one of the first restaurant owners to close his restaurant voluntarily. As of our early September deadline, he’s stood by the decision to keep his dining room out of commission for the safety of his staff and the public. While his refined Southern restaurant isn’t serving guests inside, it has shifted operations, transforming into a curbside takeout biscuit shop. The fluffy biscuits that have long been a treasured off-menu item make for perfect sandwiches, like the fried chicken with honey and a classic ham and cheddar.
Chef Max Snyder has worked in one of the world’s top kitchens (Eleven Madison Park in New York City) and helped bring Pitchfork Pretty to a consistent spot in the ranks of Austin’s top restaurants. With Pitchfork owner Seth Baas closing his restaurant to reimagine its operations in light of the coronavirus, Snyder struck out on his own, opening vegetable-forward trailer Rogue Radish in East Austin. The chef coaxes striking natural flavors from seasonal vegetables and pairs them with grains for hearty dishes with complex textures. Snyder’s transition from fine dining to trailer is emblematic of some of the exciting pivots that we’ll see as a result of the pandemic.
While most restaurant owners were forced to adjust their existing businesses in response to the various state orders and decline in business, some faced the terrifying prospect of opening a restaurant during a pandemic. And they didn’t let the coronavirus stop them. Glen Williams started Rolling Rooster as a trailer in Pflugerville in 2015 and had planned since last year to open a location of the fried chicken and soul food restaurant at the historic Victory Grill. And he still did it, even in the face of great odds, originally opening for takeout and delivery just as the coronavirus hit Texas and later opening his dining room for limited capacity.
Williams revitalized the decades-old space and reflected its musical history with a vibrant mural from artist Chris Rogers that celebrates an array of Black musicians, and he supported the community by hosting a Black Artists Matter event in June.
Salt & Time owners Ben Runkle and Bryan Butler had a built-in advantage when deciding to alter their business model. They turned their restaurant into a takeout only operation to focus on their butcher shop but also added a local grocery. The grocery, which includes pizza dough and meatballs from Bufalina, fresh pasta from L’Oca d’Oro and tortilla chips from Suerte, along with produce and dairy from Steelbow Farm in Manor and Austin-based Farm to Table, offered an alternative shopping experience for customers while supporting Salt & Time’s peers in the restaurant industry.
“We’ve tried to do everything we can to help other people out,” Runkle said. “An extra couple hundred dollars can make a difference when it’s this lean.”
Laughter may not cure anything, but it’s certainly helped during the coronavirus. Suerte executive chef Fermin Nunez has taken to social media to spread love and light, and his “Es gonna be ok” message disseminated on signs and T-shirts has served as an unofficial rallying cry for the industry. He also took a light-hearted approach in promoting the new (and excellent) tacos and quesadillas that his restaurant pivoted to serving for takeout before reopening the dining room. Suerte owner Sam Hellman-Mass’ reach during the pandemic has extended beyond that restaurant’s walls, as he offered an opportunity to chefs Grae Nonas (El Cowboy) and Max Snyder (Rogue Radish) to let them operate their concepts on the lot of his forthcoming Mexican seafood restaurant Este, which will sit on the property that was the longtime home of Eastside Cafe.
Restaurants have all had to endure the economic calamities brought on by the pandemic, but for some, the virus has left a deeply personal impact. Willie Joe Showels Sr., whose family has run the restaurant that has borne his name for almost 30 years, served as a father figure not just to his own large family but also to his community in East Austin. He had to curtail his near daily presence at Willie’s Bar-B-Que, which he opened with his late wife, Pearlie Mae Showels, in 1991, because of the threat of the coronavirus. But the paternal figure, and one of the city’s longest-running barbecue operators, succumbed to complications from the virus over the summer. In the face of their grief, Showels’ children and grandchildren have persevered and continue to operate the barbecue restaurant off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard known for its boudin, ribs, turkey legs and mutton.