Goodbye to all that
The 10 surprising restaurant shutters that shocked Austin in 2018
If asked to give advice to a potential Austin restaurateur, I could sum it up in a word: run. The local hospitality world, already plagued with high rents, labor shortages, and permitting hurdles, now has to deal with a local dining public that is increasingly overloaded.
Sure, each of Austin’s closures drew howling comments, some with the added chestnut that Californian bogeymen had finally driven the last nail in the heart of “old” Austin. The truth is we are all drawn to sparkle and it’s easy to forget sentimental trinkets when dazzling baubles are being waved in our faces. And new baubles are manufactured almost weekly.
But perhaps the firefly flashes of one restaurant closure after another can serve as a warning. Restaurants can't pay bills with goodwill. This year’s bustling hot spot can make next year’s list of shocking shutters. The difference is often you. In 2019, it’s all about supporting what you love.
Antonelli’s Cheese Shop Fareground
In the most candid statements of the year, co-owner Kendall Antonelli admitted she was relieved to be exiting downtown’s Fareground. The quick service format of the food hall shook the team out of their comfort zone, forcing them to shift their business model from retail to prepared foods. Even with the switch, the outpost never quite gelled with the other vendors, so Kendall and husband John made the heartbreaking decision to retreat.
It wasn’t an easy year for chef Philip Speer. First, his My Name is Joe food truck shuttered in March, followed by his French-inflected Brentwood diner in May. That the latter folded was especially a crying shame. Yes, the interior could have used warmth and Austin’s labor shortage made for sometimes inconsistent fare, but even at its worst, Bonhomie was what neighborhood restaurants should be — a deeply personal vision instead of glossy Insta-diners that have come to define Austin food.
The latest in a long run of tapas joints tapping out of Austin, Parkside Project’s stylish Michael Hsu-designed space was perhaps ill suited for its casual Airport Boulevard locale. Brunch and happy hour should have saved it, but the place could never quite shake its rep of being a special occasion restaurant. A replacement concept, promised to be “more in line with [the] neighborhood and community,” has yet to materialize.
Adored it though I did, it wasn’t particularly surprising when Chicon’s previous incarnation, Gardner, closed in 2016. The severe Scandinavian decor felt too monastic for party hardy Austin and the focus on decidedly non-vegetarian vegetable dishes left many scratching their heads. But I was honestly flabbergasted that its replacement failed to take hold. From the Southwestern decor to the casual menu, Chicon felt like it was in much the same vein as the owner’s Contigo. Still, Austinites ignored it and kept flocking to the original.
Counter 3. Five. VII
Maybe it was schadenfreude over the deeply pretentious name or some Mary J. Blige-style hateration over the pricey New American prix fixe menu, but no other closure story captivated CultureMap Austin readers as much as this downtown eatery’s sudden demise. With a vaguely Kubrickian interior and no waiters to speak of, it was always a weird concept, but it also produced strikingly good cuisine. Its ending signaled a change of direction for the Austin restaurant scene, one towards tongs instead of tweezers.
Frank & Angie’s Pizzeria
I never made a conscious decision to eat at this shaggy Italian joint. More often than not, I would be lured in by the promise of free parking. Stomach grumbling, I’d agree with my dining companions that it’ll do. Once inside, the tangy red sauce glopped on the pastas nor the pizzas held aloft on stands never disappointed. (And no one else in the always busy dining room seemed disappointed either.) Maybe in the age of Ubers and Lime scooters, Austin has a new definition of easy.
I ate exactly one meal at the Frisco in my 15 years in Austin — a chicken fried steak with creamy mashed potatoes and canned corn. By then, original owners Harry Akin’s mantra, “There is nothing accidental about quality,” had been long forgotten, but it still held its commitment to serving comfort to anyone who walked through the door. Times change and chicken fried steak can now fetch a princely sum on South Congress Avenue. Wouldn’t be nice if local restaurateurs still believed that good food should be available to everyone?
When this Warehouse District eatery finally crumbled, it felt like a portent. Even the star power of Top Chef finalist Brian Malarkey was not enough to fill up the cavernous space. Searsucker suffered a lack of identity with an interior that tried to scream cool Austin but was as bland as a Waco Fixer Upper. Plus, Malarkey never seemed to have a real investment in the city’s food culture — a lesson some of his peers need to learn before suffering the same fate.
When I was in high school, The Drag represented promise. Walking from vintage shop to record store, I wasn’t a weird kid with Manic Panic hair dye; I was barely even noticeable among the egg white-pomaded punks and clashing polyester ravers. That counter-cultural spirit has long since bled out of Guadalupe Street, but owner Pat Mares kept it alive longer than most. Hole in the Wall, it’s up to you now.
Talk about surprises. Capital City romantics were caught in a lurch when this contemporary South Austin restaurant texted guests at 3 pm on February 14 to say it would not be open for Valentine’s Day dinner service. Although the (wildly popular, but still) experience of squeezing creamy coconut sauce through hamachi was off putting at best, the rest of chef Joe Anguiano’s menu was playful without being gimmicky. And the bar program was consistently innovative. It deserved a longer run.