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