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7 trends that defined Austin's restaurant scene for better or worse in 2018

7 trends that defined Austin's food scene for better or worse in 2018

Carpenters Hall Austin
Eateries like Carpenters Hall prove hotel restaurants don't have to be bland. Photo courtesy of Carpenter Hotel
Bird Bird Biscuit
Bird Bird Biscuit was at the forefront of Austin's breakfast sandwich trend. Photo courtesy of Bird Bird Biscuit
ThoroughBread Austin
ThoroughBread was one of several new bakeries on the scene in 2018. Photo by Sara Strick
Better Half
Better Half set the bar for the Capital City's new influx of all-day restaurants. Photo by Alison Narro
Apt 115 wine bar ATX
Apt 115 got funky this year with natural wine. Photo courtesy of APT 115
Last Straw Austin
Last Straw was one of several new Austin concepts throwing off tropical vibes. Last Straw/ Facebook
The Brewer's Table
The Brewer's Table ignited 2018 with wood-fire cooking. Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma
Carpenters Hall Austin
Bird Bird Biscuit
ThoroughBread Austin
Better Half
Apt 115 wine bar ATX
Last Straw Austin
The Brewer's Table

To borrow a sentiment from Miranda Priestly’s infamous cerulean rant in The Devil Wears Prada, food trends don’t happen by accident. Before a particular ingredient or cooking technique hits the plate, before influencers stage pics, and before writerly types attempt to give them a catchy headline, chefs are in conversation with suppliers, wine reps are holding tastings, and restaurateurs are doing the thankless task of trying to determine what the fickle public actually wants.

As it turns out, what they want right now is comfort. More than ever, restaurants and bars offer respite from the turbulent world. This year’s most prevailing food trends are all escapist, whether that be a return to midcentury diner foods of yesteryear or beachy pastiche. Though many of them are eye-roll-inducing, there's no denying that that ability to transport is hospitality’s greatest gift.

All-day restaurants
There are plenty of reasons to keep a local restaurant open in the daylight hours. Ingredient costs are lower, the dining public increasingly expects casualness, and Austinites have a never-ending thirst for day drinking. Still, the idea is not a charm that can instantly banish the dark forces of cynicism and unoriginality. Some Austin newcomers got the balance right (Better Half, Joann’s Fine Foods) and some substituted style for substance (Hank’s).

Breakfast sandwiches
Breakfast tacos aren’t likely to fall off their throne soon, but the subject is so fraught with drama that it might as well be fodder for a Real Housewives reunion. The breakfast sandwich offers a gentler narrative, free of intercity rivalries (for now). Get it as a dense biscuit piled with chicken sausage, cheddar, and basil pesto at Bird Bird Biscuit; an English muffin layered with a crispy hash browns, arugula, and a smoked paprika aioli at Better Half; or a beignet with fried egg and gooey cheese at Full Circle Bar’s Bacchus & Brown.

Carbs
The gluten-free backlash hit hard in 2018. Seemingly overnight, Austin hospitality was rolling in the dough. Sour Duck Market wowed with a pork rillette danishes, Bakery Lorraine brought impossibly flaky croissants, and everyone from Aviary Wine & Kitchen to Dai Due Taqueria went gaga for grains from Barton Springs Mill. The standalone bakery is also experiencing a local renaissance at places like Zilker’s sourdough-obsessed ThoroughBread and the charming Lady Quackenbush’s Cakery in Mueller.

Hotel restaurants
It remains to be seen if this is a good trend or not. It’s undeniable that restaurants like the Line Austin’s Arlo Grey, the Fairmont Hotel’s Garrison, the Four Season’s Ciclo, and the Carpenter Hotel’s Carpenters Hall raised the bar in a category once more likely to produce bland breakfast buffets than memorable dining experiences. But just as often, hotels bring duds like the tastefully beige (in cuisine and decor) Osteria Pronto inside the JW Marriott. And it's worrisome that the outsized staffing demands of the projects will squeeze the independent eateries that are the backbone of the Capital City food scene. We’ll soon find out as projects like La Corsha Hospitality Group’s East Austin Hotel — complete with three restaurant and bar concepts — gear up for 2019 openings

Natural wine
There’s no legal definition for these trending wines, just a set of generally agreed criteria like organically grown grapes; minimal manipulation; and a lack of added sugars, cultured yeasts, and additives. Rigorous rules or not, the funky category is taking the wind out of the fussy oeniphile world with volatile flavor profiles ranging from earthy to pleasantly sour. Try them yourself at Bufalina, Texas French Bread, and Apt 115.

Tropical
On any given night, one can find an assortment of millennials at Last Straw cosplaying as Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Flamingo prints and monstera leaves have replaced flocked damask as the bar wallpaper du jour. In 2018, island vibes were all the rage as Austinites sought an escape from, well, everything else in 2018. The best examples of the trend, like downtown’s She’s Not Here, caught the breeze with subtle touches like openwork furniture and ocean palettes.

Wood-fired cooking
In a town so known for barbecue that is even has a signature butcher paper, it’s perhaps not a surprise that local chefs would see the smoke signals. This year, wood-fired cooking was everywhere, from Tyson Cole and Aaron Franklin’s Loro to the Jake Maddux’s beer-focused The Brewer's Table. Expect even more restaurants to feel the primal urge in 2019, like the Emmer & Rye team’s Hestia and Carve American Grille from Perry’s.