The past year saw the Austin restaurant world start to find its footing again after a shaky 2016. The flow of restaurant openings slowed a little, allowing the scene to settle momentarily. The closures of historic spots and short-lived ideas continued apace, which also helped recalibrate the ecosystem, and existing businesses used their momentum and capital to open new locations and concepts.
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Austin restaurants were not immune to the political and social rumblings in the country, with several restaurants speaking out against perceived injustice and inequality and others finding themselves embroiled in politically tinged controversy.
And, as in years past, the national media and restaurant industry organizations recognized some of the brightest stars in a city with a scene that is hopefully poised for a stronger 2018.
Here are some of the highlights from the year in Austin dining.
The inauguration of President Donald Trump coincided with groups taking a stand for women’s and immigrants’ rights and social justice at large. Members of the Austin restaurant world made their voices heard. Dai Due sold female-themed pastries to coincide with the Women’s March in Austin. Mueller favorite L’Oca d’Oro, a vocal proponent for a living wage and equal rights, opened its kitchen to a squad of female chefs for March on the Kitchen, a dinner that benefited SAFE Austin. Bouldin Creek Cafe, which donated proceeds on Jan. 20 to organizations that support civil rights, was one of of the Austin restaurants to protest Trump’s inauguration, and later in the winter, Weather Up hosted a benefit on Presidents Day weekend to support Planned Parenthood. A Day Without Immigrants in February saw more than a dozen restaurants close in a sign of solidarity with immigrant workers. The event also led to some uneasy tensions, with letters protesting the unofficial workers strike, posted in kitchens at a Maudie’s Tex-Mex and Chuy’s, stirring controversy.
The political climate also ensnared musicians. Austin-based band Spoon put a new spin on the history of musicians speaking out in support of social justice as the rockers teamed with Veracruz All Natural, makers of some of the best tacos in Austin, for the El Norteño taco. Proceeds from the sale of the taco benefited Austin-based American Gateways, a nonprofit dedicated to championing “the dignity and human rights of immigrants and refugees through legal services, education and advocacy.”
And, before he had unofficially become the Chef of the Resistance, Spanish chef José Andrés visited South by Southwest for some talks and dinners, at which he shared his thoughts on Trump and the need for a more distinguished manner of leadership in America.
Of course, not all the news in the restaurant world had a political angle. Aaron and Stacy Franklin lost their smokehouse to a fire at Franklin Barbecue in August, which led to a closure that lasted a few months. But the beloved barbecue institution in East Austin reopened in November.
Bonhomie, the French bistro-meets-Waffle House restaurant from longtime Austin chef Philip Speer; Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, the Japanese smokehouse from the owners of Ramen Tatsu-Ya; and Pitchfork Pretty, an elegant and measured take on rusticity, led the brigade of new restaurants in 2017, and all received extremely positive reviews from me and landed in the Top 20 of my annual dining guide. Paul Qui also returned to the scene with Kuneho, though the restaurant that had a promising opening in January closed in November, with the chef saying he has plans for the future of the space
Other openings that were either notable to me or caught the attention of the public were the reincarnation of Veggie Heaven; Pizzeria Sorellina in Spicewood; J.T. Youngblood’s nostalgic fried chicken joint in Mueller; inventive barbecue truck LeRoy & Lewis; the Phoenix rising from the post oak ashes that is John Mueller Black Box BBQ in Georgetown; Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, which has a better gimmick than sushi; Spanish restaurant El Chipirón; from-scratch Middle Eastern fast-casual concept Mezze Me; the irreverent and hearty Holy Roller; family-friendly Tex-Mex spot Eldorado Cafe in North Austin; Peruvian restaurant Yuyo from the El Chile group; Italian deli La Matta in East Austin; and swanky downtown additions ATX Cocina and Le Politique.
For almost every story of new beginnings, a final chapter was written, as restaurants old and new announced they were closing. Venerable Tex-Mex restaurants El Gallo, which opened in 1957, and Porfirio’s Tacos, which enjoyed a 32-year run, both closed. Manuel “Cowboy” Donley performed with his daughter, Sylvia Donley, to commemorate the closing of El Gallo, which was opened by Abraham and Maria Kennedy 60 years ago. Celebrated Hudson’s on the Bend reopened with great expectations following the sale by founder Jeff Blank to new owners but closed after just three months. Ebullient South Austin staple Maria Corbalan said she was closing her Taco Xpress after 20 years in business, then the deal for a sale fell through, she postponed the sale, and then she finally decided to hold onto the restaurant, which is still selling Tex-Mex and welcoming hippies for church on Sunday.
Lamar Union, the sleek mixed-use development that is home to the Alamo South, struggled with the closings of Cantine and Delicious. After 32 years, Carmelo’s closed downtown. Other staples in the scene — Nubian Queen Lola’s in East Austin, the original Austin Java off Lamar Boulevard, and the relocated Dog and Duck — all closed, as did neighborhood favorites and leaders in their respective genres House Pizzeria and Apothecary Wine Bar & Cafe.
While some struggled, several existing brands added to their portfolios. Poke Poke, Flyrite Chicken, Opal Divine’s, El Chilito, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Papalote Taco House and Veracruz All Natural all opened new locations; haute dog slingers Frank took over food-and-beverage operations at the 151 year-old Scholz Garten; barbecue wizards La Barbecue moved into the Quickie Pickie in East Austin.
Foodies gathered at events throughout the year. The Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce hosted its inaugural Taste of Black Austin event at the end of January. The fifth installment of Austin Food & Wine Festival was highlighted by Uchi chef-founder Tyson Cole’s third Rock Your Taco win in five years and appearances by nationally recognized chefs Ludo Lefebvre of Los Angeles and Alon Shaya of New Orleans. And Aaron Franklin’s Hot Luck welcomed Daniel Johnston, Roy Choi, Andy Ricker and Robert Ellis and many more for a wild and tasty weekend at the inaugural fest that will return in the spring.
The nation continued to set its adoring gaze on Austin. Barley Swine owner Bryce Gilmore earned his fifth consecutive finalist nod for James Beard Best Chef: Southwest award, and Launderette partner Laura Sawicki garnered a semifinalist nomination for best pastry chef. Otoko chef Yoshi Okai was named one of the Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. GQ and Bon Appetit both declared Kemuri Tatsu-Ya one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in America, and McGuire Moorman’s June’s All Day landed on a similar list from Food & Wine magazine.
Finally, the Austin restaurant scene said goodbye to two pioneers. One of the early leaders of the city’s culinary scene and a co-founder of seminal interior Mexican restaurant Fonda San Miguel, chef Miguel Ravago died in June at the age of 72. Ravago, who opened trailblazing Fonda San Miguel with Tom Gilliland in 1975, prided his restaurant on high quality ingredients sourced directly from Mexico. Equally well known for his personality as for his mastery of Mexican cuisine, Ravago spent most of his final years living in Spain and England.
Later in the summer, Austin lost another of its leading lights. An explorer and visionary with a passion for community and wellness, Casa de Luz co-founder Maryann Rose died in August at the age of 73. A native of Dallas, Rose moved to Austin during its bohemian heyday. She met Wayo Longoria at the East West Center in 1984, and together they opened the community center-restaurant Casa de Luz on Rose’s 47th birthday, Jan. 27, 1991.