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10 predictions and questions for the Austin restaurant scene in 2022

Matthew Odam
Austin American-Statesman
Birdie's has proven that there is a market for counter service restaurants that serve much more than burgers and tacos.

With tumult roiling the dining world (again? still?), there are probably more questions to be asked than safe predictions to be made for the coming year in the Austin restaurant world. 

But we wanted to look at the year to come and consider what we can expect from restaurants in Austin and Central Texas in 2022. Here are 10 questions and predictions that could give shape to the year ahead. 

The number one question facing not just the dining world but society at large is how the coronavirus and its variants will continue to disrupt life. The answer to any other question and the accuracy of any other prediction are all dependent on that massive unknown. 

For subscribers:15 of the best dishes at new Austin restaurants in 2021

From mobile to mortar

The pandemic has seen some exciting new additions to the Austin food truck/trailer world. With second generation restaurant spaces becoming available because of closures and newish truck operators feeling confident in their product and systems, expect some mobile operations to make the move to brick and mortar. 

Chef changes

At the other end of the trailer-restaurant spectrum, you will likely see some chefs leaving restaurants — maybe ones that have closed or frozen into understandable creative stasis in order to stay afloat — in order to pursue their own unique passion. The pandemic has witnessed former Pitchfork Pretty executive chef Max Snyder open veggie-forward trailer Rogue Radish, and former Counter 357 and Jester King Brewery executive chef Damien Brockway struck out on his own to pursue a culinary narrative with deep personal meaning at Distant Relatives. 

Jester King Brewery executive chef Damien Brockway opened up Distant Relatives, one several high-profile Austin chef changes recently.

Fixed menus

The owners of the sadly departed Chez Nous told me that one way they survived the economic crash of the mid-1980s in Texas was by adding a prix fixe menu. The three-course meal actually cost less than one of their entrees during the early boom years of the restaurant that opened in 1982.

For subscribers:Au revoir, Chez Nous: Austin's longest-running French restaurant closed in 2021 after 39 years

A prix fixe menu allows restaurants to control costs more efficiently and manage expectations around their bottom line. During historically insecure financial times at restaurants, some businesses may turn to fixed menus. 

Austin classic Chez Nous has bid the city adieu.

More to-go and more delivery options

When Uchi started offering sushi to go, you knew that things were changing in the takeout landscape. If your favorite high-end restaurant isn’t yet offering to go, they probably will add the service in 2022. And don't be surprised if more restaurants add their own delivery service in order to eliminate the steep cut third-party delivery businesses take.

With the success of restaurants like Store House Market & Eatery in Bastrop, smaller towns may be seeing more Austin talent arriving in search of more palatable real estate prices.

More counter service

Birdie’s was my favorite new Austin restaurant in 2021. Chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and Arjav Ezekiel’s restaurant serves clean, direct, flavorful dishes inspired mainly by Italy and well suited for a complementary wine selection, and does so with a counter-service model. The owners say the system not only makes for a more casual dining experience but allows the business to treat front and back-of-house workers equitably. Other operators may look to copy the model. 

A great Birdie's dish: rigatoni amatriciana with guanciale, pepperoncino and pecorino.

Limited menus?

Speaking of controlling costs and managing the economic realities of a restaurant, there was a fabulous little restaurant called Il Corvo in Seattle that unfortunately closed in 2020. The restaurant, which operated only at lunch and took no reservations, featured a tiny menu with a handful of pasta dishes. The restaurant sold out every day. I could envision restaurants with limited menus opening in 2022. 

You'll have to trek to Lockhart for Commerce Cafe's crispy pork chop sandwich.

A boom outside the city limits

Maybe you’ve heard: Real estate prices in Austin are bananas. And even if they magically levelled off for a period, they would still be way too high for many restaurant owners, whether that be in the form of triple-net leases (where the restaurant leasee pays taxes, insurance and utilities on top of rent), or building ownership. Those prices have already driven some owners and chefs to look beyond Austin (see: Store House Market & Eatery in Bastrop, Commerce Cafe in Lockhart, and Abby Jane Bakeshop in Dripping Springs). I reckon smaller towns outside of Austin will continue to benefit from Austin’s prohibitive pricing. 

There are several exciting free agents on the Austin culinary scene as we enter 2022, including former Fresa's and Launderette pastry chef-partner Laura Sawicki.

Outside forces

With rent and property prices at astronomic levels and the city’s population on a seemingly never ending upward trajectory, I imagine deep-pocketed operators and chains from outside of Austin will pounce in hopes of capturing some of the city’s dining dollars. 

Watch for where these chefs go next

We know about some of the exciting new restaurants coming to town in 2022, such as the Mexican seafood restaurant Este from the owners of Suerte and the Uptown Sports Club in East Austin, a bar that will feature a menu crafted by Aaron Franklin. Just as intriguing is where some of the big name chefs who left concepts or saw their restaurants close in 2021 will end up.

Among the exciting new restaurants coming to town in 2022: the Uptown Sports Club in East Austin, a bar that will feature a menu crafted by  barbecue maestro Aaron Franklin.

Three of the most exciting Austin chef free agents worth keeping an eye on in the New Year are pastry chef Laura Sawicki, who ended her partnership with Fresa’s and Launderette at the end of the year; Grae Nonas, the former Olamaie and Carpenters Hall chef who ran pasta pop-up Le Cowboy during the first year of the pandemic; and Contigo chef-partner Andrew Wiseheart, who closed his restaurant at the end of 2021.

Bonus prediction

I will (humbly but gleefully) return to regularly reviewing restaurants in Central Texas.