Everyone has an off year. For those in local hospitality, that was 2018. In all the splash and flash of the year, there was plenty of good, but little that rose to great. Money may not be the root of all evil, but in the Austin this year, the staggering amount of capital thrown into restaurants bought a lot of selfie props and even more mediocre food.
But a select few did manage to peek out from the miasma. Whether from humble food trucks or much talked about East Austin debuts, the culinary peaks all came from the smallest things — a slick of mesquite butter slathered on rustic bread or a spike of American cheese on a perfectly executed burger. By focusing on old-school hospitality or pairing menus down to one dish, 2018's best new restaurants are the strongest argument yet for Austin getting back to the basics.
The Austin restaurant scene paid a lot of lip service to the idea of neighborhood restaurants this year without giving much thought to what that actually means. Any eatery with residential neighbors and extended hours can make the claim, but this West Fifth Street eatery is really one of two newcomers that really earned it (see Sour Duck below for the other). Although the menu isn’t heavy on the kinds of fatty classics that most people recognize as comfort food, it is filled with treats you’ll want to eat time and time again. For me that was the greens and grains, a healthy-ish dish that I craved more than any other this year.
The Brewer’s Table
The way in which head brewer Drew Durish and chef Zach Hunter trade ingredients between beer and food at this East Austin spot seems like two seasoned pickers playing “Dueling Banjos.” They borrow elements from each other, say a brewer’s yeast that appears toasted on a venison tartare or the roasted beets that show up in a lager, each adding their own flourish before handing back the spotlight. When combined in a meal, it all comes effortlessly together to form one toe-tapping duet.
What Xose Velasco does looks simple. When guests order, all they see is a mixture of beef and pork being scooped off a plow-like disc, then piled in a small tortilla with fixings. Behind the scenes, however, that meat is marinating for an entire day before being slowly roasted for even longer. And that doesn’t go into the time the chef spent perfecting his family’s recipe. That's a lot of work in service of immediacy — the seconds long burst when the taco’s acid and fat hit the tongue. Austin should thank its lucky stars that someone is willing to do it.
This year had no shortage of beautiful restaurant spaces, but the Fairmont Hotel’s signature restaurant was not one of them. The facade is a Vegas-meets-Hill Country fever dream, the textiles seem pulled from the darkest reaches of Calico Corners, and the cubby holes along the wall don’t make sense. But it is also one of precious few new restaurants that is able to make a special occasion actually seem special. While other new restaurants seem to exist solely for Instagram, Garrison came through where it really counts: impeccable service, an inspiring beverage program, and a kitchen team that knocks it out of the park every time.
Sour Duck Market
Bryce Gilmore’s two other restaurants are synonymous with Austin fine dining, so when the James Beard-nominated chef decided to do a sort of fancified Boston Market, it was impossible not to take notice. That comparison to the bland nationwide chain is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but Sour Duck is the kind of place I wish was on every corner. It’s family friendly without serving chicken nuggets, and works just as well for first dates and happy hours. In the morning, it even does double duty as a coffee shop. In other words, it’s the sort of place that works its way into your daily life. Other upscale restaurateurs should take notice.
This is not a ranked list, but I’ll give it a No. 1 anyway. No new restaurant this year was as electrifying as Sam Hellman-Mass and Fermin Nuñez’s buzzy east side joint. In the U.S., Mexican cuisine can often get bogged down in authenticity, the notion that the country’s traditional foodways should be frozen in time. Even when using ancient techniques — most notably the nixtamilization process used to prepare the masa used throughout Suerte’s menu — the two chefs prove that cooking should be a living art. And man, are dishes like the goat barbacoa, red prawn aguachile, and carnitas tlacoyo startlingly alive.