The restaurant business is brutal. We know this because of the kennel yaps of reality celebrities like Gordon Ramsey and the pop culture trope of the struggling baker who lost everything, and is now banking on their proficiency with a pastry bag. We know this because marking the near constant stream of shutters has become one of Austin’s favorite spectator sports.
But even as dozens of Austin restaurants called it quits this year, almost 100 more rushed in to take their place. You could call it masochism, but restaurateurs keep going under the belief that they have something better. And unlike in previous years when lauded projects like Gardner or laV failed to take hold, this year they were largely right.
While I don’t take the heartbreaking work of closing any restaurant lightly (they are, after all, where life takes place), I hope that this year’s class of closures applies the reset button — replacing uninspiring eateries with concepts that will help Austin grow from being a buzzy hotspot into a viable, world-class culinary scene. So while I shed a tear (or at least a sad face emoji) for the restaurants below that called it a day, I look forward to seeing where the intensely personal projects that defined 2017 openings will take us.
No pain, no gain.
House Pizzeria, Pizzeria Vetri, Rebel Pizza Bar
The Austin pizza wars have been won. The big three — Via 313, Home Slice, and Bufalina — still draw crowds with consistency and quality, while the rest of the field has the thankless task of convincing the public that there is some reason to give any other pie a chance. Three pizzerias lost that argument this year, joining less-than-stellar recent casualties like Due Forni, Burn, and Sagra.
El Sapo, Silo on 7th, Sputnik, Symon’s Burger Joint
Austinites take their burgers just as seriously as they take their pizza. Homegrown chains like P. Terry’s and Hopdoddy Burger Bar edge out national competitors, while fine dining destinations like Odd Duck and Second Bar + Kitchen compete at the top of the food chain. There's such little wiggle room in the local scene that neither the big name behind Symon’s nor the great patio at Silo excused substituting "meh" for "mmm."
Cantine, Delicious, El Burro
There was a lot of talk about a Lamar Union curse after three high-profile projects toppled earlier in the year. But the truth is that location only played a small part. Upmarket grocery Delicious had its pleasures, but the community dining room had the cold feel of a suburban elementary cafeteria. Cantine felt like a retread of owners Lisa and Emmett Fox’s greatest hits, never quite capturing the sensuality of much-missed Fino nor the neighborhood vibe of Asti. And El Burro was shockingly bad, completely ignoring the commitment to standards and innovation of sister restaurant Vox Table.
Aroma, Dine, Fumaça Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse, Isla, NoVa, Porter Ale House and Gastropub, Trackside
If the bloodletting of 2015 and 2016 taught Austin’s dining scene anything, it’s that you have to to try harder when it seems like every other restaurant is helmed by a future James Beard nominee. Though very different, each of these seven never seemed to do much to rise above the fray. Porter Ale House always had a whiff of the corporate, Aroma caused eyes to roll with its cutesy and dated spelling convention (aRoma — get it?), and Fumaça Gaucha vastly overestimated Austin’s appetite for skewered meats. NoVa, Isla, and Dine simply never lived up to their promise. And the less that is said about Trackside, the lazily executed three-strikes-and-you’re-out reinvention of failed restaurants Mettle and Ophelia, the better.
Apothecary Cafe and Wine Bar, Carmelo’s Italian Restaurant, Dog & Duck Pub, Hudson’s on the Bend, Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food
Sometimes it’s hard to weather the storm, even while clinging to a strong foundation. At one time, each of these eateries defined Austin food, but times change. Hudson’s put a lot of money into a splashy renovation, but the dearth of fine dining restaurants in town made the country drive less appealing. Dog and Duck never recaptured its dive bar spirit behind a shiny new facade. Apothecary and Carmelo's both represented the funkier tastes of an older Austin, now enamored with everything sleek and new. And Lola’s commitment to feeding her neighborhood often took priority over running a restaurant. All will be missed.
Though perhaps not the most high-profile closing of the batch, the sudden shutter of the Domain Northside restaurant left me most surprised. They had a solid product, a good hook for a fast casual audience, and the owners (Jessica and Gary Wu) even deemed it a success. But I give credit to them for knowing when to make a change and look forward to their bringing Miami’s Lotus + Cleaver to Austin.
There is no denying that there was a surfeit of talent involved in the reboot of East Austin’s Qui. But if this year taught us anything, it’s that we can no longer pretend that talent excuses action.