It’s difficult to say whether 2018’s rocky restaurant climate is actually more brutal than in years past. The hospitality business ebbs and flows, with some years seeing a rush of marquee eateries opening while other years watching them close.
But regardless of how the numbers pan out, 2018 will shape the city’s culinary identity for years to come. Where the last cycle — the 2016 bloodbath that claimed LaV, Gardner, and Arro — could be seen as a correction of course, a rebuke to the Rag and Bone crowd in a town that still sees itself in Levis, this year challenged that identity, claiming classic Austin restaurants like The Frisco and Threadgill's that many assumed would always be here.
The latest to fall is Chu-Mikal’s Cafe, a no-frills East Austin burger joint just short of its 30th year. In an October 1 Facebook post, owners Mike and Margarita Raupe announced that October 27 would be the last day for the establishment.
Mike tells CultureMap that it was a difficult decision, but it was time to move on. He says his son had been running the place for about a year and were ready to move on, so he and his wife decided to retire at the end of Chu-Mikal’s lease. The retirement, Mike says, will allow the couple to plan some long-delayed travel.
No one could blame him for the move. The Raupes have devoted a good chunk of their lives to keeping Austin fed, first as staffers at Dan’s Hamburgers. In 1989, they branched out on their own with Chubby’s, a tiny First Street cafe that eventually was rechristened Chu-Mikal’s after a move to 3223 E. Seventh St. in the 1990s.
That a restaurant with such a heritage should shutter isn’t perhaps such a shock. Although a few menu changes were made along the way (Margarita briefly hosted a series of Salvadoran nights in the late ‘90s), the foundation was always uncomplicated fare like chicken-fried steaks.
Chu-Mikal’s clung to its casual aesthetic in a city eager to rechristen diners “all-day restaurants” by covering up their working class roots with marble and brass. But in an increasingly faceless dining scene dominated by corporate chains and a few upscale restaurant groups, it offered something that Austin may never get back — a place so familiar it seems like a home kitchen.
"[The closure] is bittersweet because we made a lot of friends from our customers,” Mike says, quietly adding, “the city doesn’t make it easy.”