Austin restaurants that closed during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020
It’s a blue Christmas this year for the restaurant industry. Restaurants continue to fight to stay open while protecting public and staff health, and many veterans of the service industry remain unemployed due to fewer jobs or out of concern for their own well-being.
We will long remember 2020 as the independent restaurant community's most devastating year in our lifetimes. I can't remember a year that witnessed as many significant Austin restaurant closures.
And, while the arrival of a vaccine for COVID-19 has pierced a hole of light at the end of this dark tunnel, the beginning of 2021 will continue to pose challenges for independent restaurants, as people slowly and safely return to their pre-pandemic behavior.
Another round of federal stimulus could help fortify the bridge into the future for many, but there is still a ways to go.
As we bring this troubling chapter to a close, a time that has seen more than 100,000 independent restaurants close across the country, I wanted to look back at a few of our most notable closures in Austin and give thanks for the role they played in shaping and supporting our community. They, and many more, will be missed.
All of these restaurants closed permanently after the pandemic began in March, with the coronavirus sharing some or all of the blame. The restaurants are listed alphabetically.
Cafe Josie (opened in 1997)
After 15 years of working at Cafe Josie, the last seven of those as owner, Cody Taylor decided this spring that it was time to turn off the lights for good at the West Sixth Street restaurant established by his mentor, trailblazing Austin chef Charles Mayes, in 1997.
“My connection with Cafe Josie runs deeper than anything I have in my life,” Taylor told the American-Statesman when he made the announcement.
The financial calamity caused by the pandemic, along with rising rents, served as a death knell for many Austin restaurants this year, but Taylor pointed to the changing cultural landscape as an equal culprit in his restaurant’s fade to black.
Over its 23 years, Cafe Josie has attracted arguably as loyal a base of regular customers as any restaurant in Austin, but Taylor felt the charming, modestly adorned bungalow restaurant went underappreciated.
“We never got the opportunity to be a part of the conversation with the new and shiny restaurants,” Taylor said. “We were always determined to keep pushing forward.”
Taylor learned perseverance and leadership during his first eight years at Cafe Josie, working under Mayes, one of the foundational members of Austin’s modern dining scene. Before bringing his Caribbean-meets-Southwestern flavors to Josie — named after his then-7-year-old daughter — to the former home of the West End Cafe, Mayes worked at Gilligan's Seafood Restaurant, Manana Grill, Treaty Oak Cafe and Mother's Cafe.
Mayes’ leadership and tutelage cultivated Taylor’s faith in the restaurant’s mission and helped mature the young employee, who started as a cocksure server in 2005. Taylor learned from Mayes how to treat people, how to believe in himself and how to lead from the front.
“The things that he taught me transcended the restaurant business. They became part of my life philosophy,” Taylor said.
Taylor now operates Texas comfort food restaurant Industry in San Marcos.
Dart Bowl (opened in 1958)
How many other cities have boasted a local entertainment institution as well known for its enchiladas as its bowling? Dart Bowl was a true Austin original.
The beloved business reset the pins for the final time and turned off the grill this summer, ending a 62-year run for the business and a 24-year roll at its Grover Lane address.
“It’s rough,” co-owner John Donovan said of closing the business that his grandparents started in 1958. “I’ve got people that have worked for us since they were in high school who have kids now. It’s devastating. It’s personally the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and hopefully the hardest thing I ever will have to do.”
The Dart Bowl Cafe was one of the attractions that always made the bowling spot special. Sure, you can get a burger and maybe even a chicken fried steak at bowling alley diners across Texas, but how many offer enchiladas covered in chile con carne and served with homemade toast?
The cafe helped define Dart Bowl as a one-of-a-kind Austin cultural institution, one that was featured in Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood” and the TV show “Friday Night Lights.” Its weathered wall featured an array of graffiti and autographs from Ethan Hawke, Lance Armstrong and at least one Texas governor.
Butch Martinets opened the cafe as a separate entity at the original Dart Bowl location in the late 1960s, according to Donovan, and though he died within the last year, cafe veteran Peggy Zamarripa continued his legacy for almost 50 years, making some of the most popular enchiladas in town.
Fabi + Rosi (opened in 2009)
West Austin has never been one of the top dining destinations in the city, making the sting of the elegant European restaurant Fabi + Rosi’s closing even more significant.
German chef Wolfgang Murber and his wife, native Austinite Cassie Williamson (whom the chef met while cooking aboard a yacht in Spain), created a charming bungalow restaurant that served as both a popular neighborhood spot for Tarrytown residents and destination dining for date nights and celebrants looking for a great meal away from the teeming crowds downtown and in East Austin.
The couple opened the restaurant in 2009 in the building on Hearn Street that had previously been home to Zoot and Kate’s.
Fabi + Rossi’s menu was anchored with Bavarian dishes like pork schnitzel, housemade charcuterie and a meaty and woodsy mushroom ravioli. It featured nods to other European countries like Italy and France. The restaurant made many appearances in the Austin360 Dining Guide’s Top 50 during its 12-year run.
The minimalist dining room blended antique and posh pop vibes. Staff, several of whom in the front of house were recognizable year after year, gave the unique destination a professional but casual warmth.
“It has truly been an honor for Wolfgang and I to be part of your lives through very special weddings, proposals, first dates, and neighbors near and far that have made us ‘your place,’” Williamson wrote in an email to customers. “We hope our paths cross another time in another place.”
The couple is taking time off to travel and reevaluate things, but they tell the Statesman they are "pretty certain another restaurant is in our future and definitely in the same vein."
Magnolia Cafe West (opened in 1979)
It sobered up late-night revelers and fueled early-morning joggers; played host to Little League teams and at least one president of the United States; and its friendly and funky spirit helped define an era of Old Austin. West Austin likely won't feel the same without the recently departed Magnolia Cafe for some time.
Kent Cole and then-partner Kenny Carpenter opened the restaurant as the Omelettry West in 1979, then a sibling of the Omelettry on Burnet Road. Cole bought out Carpenter in 1987 and changed the name to the Magnolia Cafe, naming it haphazardly after the famed Camellia Grill in New Orleans.
“Their attention to the customer experience had a profound effect on me as a young person,” Cole said of the New Orleans diners as beloved for their hospitality as their burgers and freezes.
A similarly friendly staff — plus pancakes, migas and 24/7 hours — defined the restaurant with the notoriously tricky, horseshoe-shaped parking lot across from Deep Eddy Pool. But a lot of diners serve comfort on a plate. The regulars of Magnolia Cafe kept coming back for more than the food.
“It wasn’t the food — it was the vibe,” said Evan Smith, the CEO of Texas Tribune, who has lived most of the last three decades in West Austin. “Laid back, unpretentious. Kid friendly: How many times over the years did we mindlessly end up there after a ballgame? Those vinyl booths. That hot-mess parking lot. It was the best kind of throwback to another era and another Austin — before everything got frou-frou.”
Cole credited the restaurant’s enduring success and special place in the Austin community to two simple ideas: “Good manners and the Golden Rule.”
As for what he will miss most at the restaurant he co-founded: “All the love."
The Magnolia Cafe on South Congress Avenue is still open.
Mother’s Cafe (opened in 1980)
Almost 120 years of combined service that owners John Silberberg, Anne Daniels and Cameron Alexander gave to vegetarian haven Mother’s Cafe in Hyde Park must be a record for a trio at one Austin restaurant.
The owners of what was Austin’s longest-running vegetarian restaurant weathered floods, a fire and multiple economic downturns over the decades, enduring on the strength of vegetarian enchiladas, tamari-cashew dressing and the kind of community fostering that made their restaurant more than just a business.
Mother’s Cafe founders chef Charles Mayes and Blake Mitchell opened the restaurant, originally called Good Food Cafe, near 24th and Guadalupe streets in the late 1970s and moved it to its current home on Duval Street in 1980.
A 21-year-old Alexander started as a cook on opening day in June 1980. Within a few months, Daniels arrived to work as a server. Silberberg was always “the new guy.” He didn’t show up until 1981.
The trio bought the vegetarian restaurant from the founders in 1985 and grew the healthful oasis in this burger and Tex-Mex town into a beloved institution, winning over diners with fresh food, moderate prices and a sense of family that pervaded the entire restaurant.
“For me, these past 40 years have been so much about the great, longterm friendships that I've developed with so many kind, hard-working, talented and dedicated co-workers. People that have poured their hearts into helping us navigate the crazy growth — folks that treated the restaurant as if it were their own,” Alexander said in the fall.
Second Bar & Kitchen (opened in 2010)
When La Corsha Hospitality Group partners Jeff Trigger and chef David Bull opened Second Bar + Kitchen at Congress Avenue and Second Street in late 2010, downtown Austin was still relatively quiet in terms of high-quality local dining and drinking options.
Their New American restaurant, which helped introduce Austinites to the idea of pizzas topped with fanciful ingredients like black truffles, blue cheese and dates served from a menu that also featured light, Asian-inspired fish dishes, ushered in a new era of refined casual dining. Second’s bustling bar scene and the group’s adjacent craft cocktail destination, Bar Congress, and fine dining restaurant, Congress, both since closed, rounded out the impressive offerings and made the complex the visual hub for dining and drinking of a new downtown.
Ten years later, downtown Austin is relatively quiet once again, as the coronavirus pandemic has emptied many office towers, put a halt to overflowing festival crowds, spelled the temporary end of conventioneers wandering the streets and stifled out-of-state tourism.
The restaurant’s 10-year lease was set to expire at the end of the year, and La Corsha president Trigger said there was no way forward given the circumstances.
“You’re faced with this reality when your main sources of business have dried up,” Trigger told the Statesman. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Though Trigger say’s he’s optimistic that the restaurant business could return to close to 70 percent by fall, the bridge to get there is too tenuous.
“It’s a nightmare and we’re still not finished with it,” Trigger said.
La Corsha continues to operate its Second locations at the Domain and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Shady Grove (opened in 1992)
The plug of another Austin institution was officially pulled in May after almost 30 years.
Shady Grove, the pastoral comfort food restaurant that was home to one of the longest-running free live music series in Austin, might not have been the most critically acclaimed restaurant or the city’s premiere music venue, but it was much more than the sum of its parts.
With its family-friendly vibe, unfussy Southwestern comfort food and long-running Unplugged at the Grove music series, the restaurant on Barton Springs Road was a uniquely Austin treasure that felt like the city’s unofficial backyard.
Chuy’s founders Mike Young and John Zapp opened Shady Grove, with its recognizable lariat signage, in 1992. The next year, the restaurant started its music series set beneath a 100-year-old pecan tree, attracting some of the biggest names in Americana music.
The series ran every Thursday from April through September and featured acts such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Alejandro Escovedo, Ryan Bingham, Jimmie Vaughan, Marcia Ball, Rhett Miller, Bob Schneider, Sarah Jarosz and dozens more. The combination of big names and intimate outdoor space made Unplugged at the Grove a concert series unlike any other in town.
“We created magic there on a regular basis,” series music programmer Marsha Milam told the Statesman.
Unplugged at the Grove kicked off about the time Rusty Zagst joined the restaurant as a busboy in 1993. Twenty-seven years later, Zagst, a near-daily fixture at the restaurant who also was a drummer in the Austin band Kissinger, was a co-owner and managing partner when the restaurant closed.
“It’s absolutely defined my life. It’s been the running theme of my life,” Zagst said of the restaurant when it closed. “It’s been my home. It’s been my place of business. It’s where I started my family. It’s where I met all of my friends.”
He wasn’t the only one to have his life shaped in part by the Austin staple. Former employees of the restaurant went on to open their own businesses and helped define local culture.
Kelly Chappell started working at Shady Grove in 1992 and spent 14 years there before opening Galaxy Cafe and Zocalo Cafe with partners he met while working on Barton Springs Road.
“So many of us grew up together in that place. We were a family that kept evolving. I met and worked with my best friends there,” Chappell said. “The best part was always the staff. We attracted the greatest people and had the most fun.
Threadgill’s (modern incarnation opened in 1981)
The flame of Old Austin flickered more dimly when restaurateur, raconteur and cultural torchbearer Eddie Wilson decided to retire from the business and close the original Threadgill’s after almost 40 years.
“This whole pandemic has been like a kick in the gut that bent me over,” Wilson told the Statesman in April. “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.”
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 was still 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 Wimberley-based writer and former Texas Monthly staffer 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.”
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 reopening in 1981 marked a relatively big moment for Austin dining.
Patoski, 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.
Other notable restaurant closures in 2020 included Austin Java (downtown Austin, Met Center and Dripping Springs locations), B.D. Riley’s in downtown Austin, Be More Pacific, Blue Dahlia in East Austin, Botticellis, the Brewer’s Table, Brick Oven, Daruma Ramen, Easy Tiger in downtown Austin, Fricano’s Deli, Full English, Holy Roller, Kyoten Sushiko, Lucy’s Fried Chicken on Lake Travis, Micklethwait Market & Grocery in Smithville, North by Northwest, Pitchfork Pretty, She’s Not Here, Veggie Heaven and Yuyo.