Bless restaurateurs’ hearts. It’s almost impossible to guess what Austin’s fickle diners want. They flock to healthy, casual restaurants while paying no mind to the calories in their breakfast tacos. They drink more than any other city in Texas, then make a ritual out of dry January. And what made the big bucks one month could lead to ruin the next.
Still, with apologies to Miss Cleo, looking back at the past is still the best indicator of what will happen in the future. And while any predictions should be taken with a grain of fleur de sel, here are the 2017 dining trends we think will point the way to 2018 — and a few educated guesses to what’s in store beyond.
Woe to the common salad. This year, greens and grains are more likely to be separated into rainbow dabs like a painter’s palette. But folks aren’t just eating them for the ‘gram. The artfully arranged bowls provide a lot of variety in one dish, making health less humdrum. And they play into another big trend — food as medicine — with Ayurvedic ingredients like turmeric. Get them at cheery California-influenced eateries like Café no Sé, Flower Child, and Honest Mary’s.
In a scene as closely knit as Austin’s, it may be doing the people involved a disservice to label this year’s outpouring of good deeds merely a “trend,” but it certainly deserves another round of applause. As margins tighten and competition grew ever more fierce, the restaurant industry kept giving more and more. The examples are too numerous to fully mention, but the near universal support of hurricane relief and the sanctuary restaurant movement come to mind.
For years, Austin was caught in a New American rut (see below), flirting with international flavors without ever getting past the first date. This year finally saw us finally start to deliver on some of our promise as a world class food city. Instead of bowing down to group think (the Italian wave finally crested towards the end of last year), restaurateurs looked all over the globe for inspiration, giving us Peruvian (Yuyo), French (Le Politique), Filipino (Be More Pacific), and South American (Cafe Nenaí). Often those influences intersected with local cuisine in interesting ways, such as in the Japanese smokehouse fare of Kemuri Tatsu-ya and the Hill Country/ India mash-up at Puli-Ra.
In a year when the threat of nuclear war seems like the least of our worries, it’s no wonder that more of us are seeking comfort food. But the greasy spoon got polished this year with the opening of the French-inflected Bonhomie, the punky Holy Roller, and the retro Phoebe’s Diner. Even fried chicken revival J.T. Youngblood's caught some of the vibe with an atmosphere that captured all the charm of the classic Southern meat and three.
We tend to picture influencers with glued-on iPhones and floppy felt hats, but one of the most truly influential local figures can usually be found in a pair of Carhartt overalls. James Brown’s Barton Springs Mill upped Austin’s carb ante this year with flours and grains that are more nutritious and more flavorful than mass-produced stuff. You can find them in everything from Pizzeria Sorellina’s crusts to Odd Duck’s wood fired breads.
Not long ago, the only mushrooms found on Austin menus were the sad Portobello slabs flipping the bird to anyone who dared ask for the vegetarian option. Now they have come into their own, adding earthiness and a meaty texture to a variety of plant-based dishes. At Foreign & Domestic, beech mushrooms add some heft to a porridge topped with a duck egg. At Lenoir, they are made into ragu served with a soft egg tamal. And at L’Oca d’Oro, they belt it out in a very basso profondo lasagne.
No more New American
In theory, the nebulous cuisine style is about freedom, allowing a chef to use a full arsenal of international ingredients and techniques. In practice, it often results in food that is neither here nor there, muddled by its attempts to impress. After the New American bonanza of the past few years, only two new restaurants (Aviary Wine & Kitchen and Pitchfork Pretty) could be argued to fit in the category. Both are run by chefs who have enough talent to make a wide-reaching approach work.
Sandwich shops haven’t always been a safe bet in Austin, with lauded trailers like Shhmaltz and Romanouskas closing in the past couple of years. But this year may finally break the curse. Biderman’s brought Jewish-style deli favorites (not to mention Black and White cookies) to North Austin at the beginning of the year. And a pair of newcomers — Italian-focused La Matta from New Waterloo and pastrami slingers Otherside Deli — bookended the year with openings in the past few weeks.
No doubt influenced by the ongoing conversation around substance abuse in the hospitality industry, bars and restaurants started putting as much effort into their zero proof offerings as their boozy cousins. Holy Roller offers bespoke mocktails ordered with buzzwords like “energy” and “sweet.” A bruléed pineapple drink with ginger beer and sage peppercorn syrup and a watermelon shrub with chili basil syrup and sea salt feel celebratory at Launderette. Even shops like Fleet have caught the buzz with unexpected coffee drinks like the New Fashioned (cascara syrup, lavender bitters, orange garnish) and the Hopped Up (grapefruit juice, hop syrup, phosphate, mint garnish).
In a town enamored with the new, it’s no wonder that one-off experiences have become one of the most popular ways to eat. Not only have they become one of the favorite ways for new restaurants to give diners a sneak peek before opening, but they also allow under-the-radar chefs to build up followings. For diners, they offer the thrill of being in on a secret.
Looking ahead to 2018
Austin’s seafood offerings will continue to grow with the opening of Chameleon Group’s Guild and murmurs that a well-known Austin chef will soon be testing the waters. Following the lead of Nickel City, bars will increasingly move towards drinks instead of cocktails — trading in vests and undercuts for T-shirts and caps. And this may be wishful thinking, but I would like to see more intentional eating. Very few of dining’s pleasures can be experienced behind a screen.