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Queen of Eastside Cafe goes west

Elaine Martin prepares for her next chapter after deciding to sell beloved restaurant

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Elaine Martin and her partners opened Eastside Cafe in a 1920s bungalow on Manor Road in 1988. Martin recently decided to sell the building and the land and retire to California. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Elaine Martin can finally stop juggling. There’s a pool in Palm Springs calling.

The owner of Eastside Cafe recently decided to sell the East Austin institution she opened in 1988 and retire from the restaurant business. Eastside Cafe will serve its final meal Jan. 31.

Thirty-one years represents multiple lifetimes in the challenging world of restaurants. And one morning last spring, the East Texas native who helped change the way Austinites think about garden-to-table dining woke up and realized she no longer wanted to summon the energy required for a restaurant.

“Running a restaurant is like having 10,000 balls in the air at any time and knowing you are going to only be able to catch two or three,” Martin says recently at Eastside’s dining room on Manor Road, her light humor standing in contrast with her all-black wardrobe. “Thirty-one years is a long time to be in business. There aren’t that many places that stay open that long, because owner/operators lose interest or customers lose interest. It’s a grueling thing to own your own business in any field.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Eastside Cafe’s Martin always ahead of the kitchen curve

After Martin decided she wanted to sell the restaurant (and the land it sits on) and ride off into the California sunset, she scoured the city looking for signs of activity, names that might represent the next wave in Austin restaurants. She also beat the digital streets, emailing industry professionals across town in search of potential buyers. An answer came from close to home. Martin’s friend and neighbor, restaurant architect Jamie Chioco, introduced the Eastside owner to Sam Hellman-Mass, owner of modern Mexican restaurant Suerte and a founding partner of Odd Duck and Barley Swine.

Her first dinner at the warm and welcoming East Austin Mexican standout and a meeting with the chef who was born just three years before Eastside Cafe opened convinced Martin that Hellman-Mass would make an ideal buyer.

“Sam has the I-want-to-feed-people gene, which is essential if you’re going to be in the business. He’s got it for real. And he’s humble. Imagine what he’s done,” Martin says of the 33-year-old who has played an integral role in operating three of Austin’s top 10 restaurants.

Martin understands that gene. It has defined her life. She was born in Longview and says she started cooking “right after that.”

The no-nonsense East Texas native comes from a long line of home cooks, who passed the traditions down through the family. Her father was an electrical contractor whose roving teams hung wires from his native Wisconsin to Texas in the '30s and '40s, and Martin’s mother, the oldest of 16 children, fed the traveling work crews. When she was a child, Martin’s family opened its East Texas home most weekends to 30 or 40 guests, with the men conducting fish fries outside while the women made hush puppies and cole slaw in the kitchen.

“I cooked at their feet for many, many, many years,” Martin says of her mother and grandmother, who were also fantastic bakers.

A brief stint as a fry cook at the old McDonald’s on Guadalupe Street — her dad always told her if she wanted to run a business she needed to start at the bottom — led to work in a commissary kitchen for airlines and eventually a string of Austin restaurant jobs that included seafood restaurant Mamma’s Money in the current Chez Nous space on Neches Street.

“That was a wild place. Stories I can’t tell,” Martin says with a chuckle. “And, honestly, in those days, that was how the restaurant business was. And probably still is; I’m just too old to participate.”

Martin says she was always the only woman in the kitchen but was undeterred by the gender gap in the historically male-dominated profession.

“I’m pretty tough,” Martin says. “I’m kind of a no-nonsense kinda guy. That’s just who I am; I can’t be anybody else.”

Her job at Good Eats Cafe on Barton Springs Road in the space now occupied by Billy’s Brewery and Smokehouse proved fateful. There the University of Texas graduate met Dorsey Barger. The duo eventually partnered with fellow Good Eats employee James Lance and purchased Carla’s, the progenitor to Eastside Cafe, in 1988 from Carla Blumberg. Martin describes Blumberg, who had purchased a farm in Bertram before opening Carla's, as a "true visionary."

Blumberg may have been a little too far out on the cutting edge, serving high tea in East Austin in the mid-80s, but she did have the vision to bust through the hard caliche on the neighboring lot and create an urban farm. She was also a very early adopter of composting everything that came through the restaurant and recycling. Blumberg’s was a model that would inform the growth and uniqueness of Eastside Cafe.

Martin and Barger, who bought Lance out after two years, split duties at the restaurant for years, until Martin acquired sole ownership in 2011. The gregarious Barger, now a co-owner of HausBar Urban Farm in East Austin, ran the front-of-house operations and tended to the gardens while Martin stayed in her comfort zone, showing up to cook 360 days a year from sunrise to sundown.

The owners consistently sourced their garden for herbs and produce and culled eggs from their brood of chickens. Eastside delivered a farm ethos and aesthetic to a residential part of Northeast Austin that in the late '80s was home to almost no restaurants, on the stretch of Manor between I-35 and Airport Boulevard.

The restaurant pulled influences from Asia and the Southwest and stood out with a rotating seasonal menu that included comforting dishes such as chicken enchiladas, pasta and meatloaf. Other popular menu items include roasted acorn squash lacquered with a ginger-tamari blend and baked brie topped with apple chutney. It was a thoughtful but accessible restaurant not given to pretense or artifice.

“That’s what Eastside has always been about: having accessible food, a place where you can bring your grandmother from Ohio and your vegan nephew from California,” Martin says.

Eastside flourished because it felt like a restaurant that was nurtured from the inside. It was a place that, as cliche as it sounds, felt like dining in your grandmother’s home.

Longtime Austinite Carla Hardin dined at Eastside Cafe during the restaurant’s first month and was part of the avalanche of diners that descended on Eastside in its final weeks once the closing was announced. She wanted one last meal in the bungalow that first enchanted her in 1988 and always served as a quality, reliable option for her vegetarian daughter.

“I’m in the city, but I’m not in the city,” Hardin says of dining at Eastside Cafe.

It was and is the kind of restaurant that's almost extinct in modern Austin.

“Don’t talk to me about ‘modern Austin,’” Hardin says.

The restaurant that provided a sense of comfort and belonging to its patrons also served an important role in Austin’s gay community, especially in its early years. Susan Campion, AIDS Services of Austin chief programs officer and vice president, moved to Austin in 1991 and learned of the restaurant thanks to its home cooking but also because it was “a safe, welcoming space.”

“Everything about it just felt really good, from the nourishment to the overall environment. It really nourished well-being,” Campion says. “You could see people you knew from the gay community and other folks we now would call ‘allies,’ but back then they were just regular patrons who were influencers in the Austin community who helped change the way people looked at the gay community.”

The restaurant helped propel AIDS Services of Austin’s nascent Dining Out for Life event, which still runs each spring. Barger’s and Martin’s connections and respect in the Austin restaurant community helped open doors that Campion says the nonprofit never could have opened on its own.

While Eastside Cafe was always a welcoming neighbor that evoked in its diners a sense of home, it truly felt like a family to the staff, whom Martin credits as being the key to the restaurant’s longevity and success.

“I have the best people," Martin says. "They take care of me, and I take care of them. The end.”

The Eastside Cafe team numbers a couple of dozen, with an average tenure of 15 to 20 years. That group includes cook Sixto Soto, who has been there since day one, and general manager Donna Perry, who has worked at Eastside Cafe for 25 years and says she “feels lucky to have worked with people who are like an extended family.”

Martin says the hardest part of choosing to leave is feeling that she may have disappointed her longtime staff in some ways, but she acknowledges that any restaurant in town will be lucky to land any of her team of “rock stars.”

She didn’t rush into the decision to sell and decamp for California. Martin spent the past couple of years kicking around ideas about how she could bring Eastside more fully into the 21st century.

“To me it’s about food. And that’s what it’s always been about,” Martin says. “But these days it needs to be an experience. It needs to be Instagrammable, it needs to be Twitterable. I just didn’t have the juice.”

The new reality of dining in Austin also includes much more competition and much more noise to penetrate. Martin, who finally stepped from behind the line about 10 years ago, says plainly that there are just too many restaurants in Austin. She jokes that she wants to start a hospitality consulting business where she asks prospective new owners for a million dollars and then gives them back $500,000 before sending them on their way.

“I just saved you $500,000,” Martin says. “Don’t open a restaurant. Don’t do it. You have to be passionate. You have to love it. It’s hard, grueling, never-ending work.”

Despite her concerns about oversaturation and unrelenting development (Martin says she likely could have taken more money from someone who wanted to clear her four lots for building), Martin believes the future is in good hands with Hellman-Mass.

“He gives everyone credit. We have very similar values in that regard,” Martin says. “Sam knows what he’s doing. He has a very calm demeanor, which is really important. It really couldn’t have come out any better.”

Hellman-Mass says Martin has set a high bar and he wants to keep a deserved spotlight on Martin in her final days at Eastside Cafe. He won’t reveal much about his ideas for the future project, but he admits to feeling a mixture of excitement and fear as he looks to the future.

“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 says. “That page is gonna turn, but right now is the time to honor the place she’s got. I don’t want to rush to turn the page too fast.”

As winter becomes spring, Martin will open a new chapter of her life in California. She’ll be without a professional restaurant kitchen for the first time in decades. But she still foresees dinner parties in her future.

“That’s one thing great about being a cook,” Martin says. “You always have friends.”

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