The third location of Austin's classic Counter Cafe is officially open. After quietly opening the doors to its 29th Street restaurant in late December, owner Debbie Downs says she's ready to spread the word.
Like the North Lamar and East Austin locations, the campus-area Counter Cafe offers up the same menu of down-home comfort food and locally sourced fare that has turned the brand into an Austin institution. There is, however, one thing the new spot offers that the others don't: a full bar. Classic cocktails are made to order and use the same locally sourced ingredients as the food. ("Bloody Mary’s and eggs go very well together," Downs admits with a laugh.)
For the past 16 months, Downs and her son, a general contractor, have been working hard to renovate the former Conan's Pizza at 603 W. 29th St., where it operated for more than 40 years. Transforming a casual pizza joint into an airy, sunny cafe proved a lengthier process than originally anticipated. Downs and her son enlisted the help of two architects — lifelong friends, Downs calls them — to help oversee the renovation, a project that included everything from replacing massive front glass panels to leveling the foundation and adding a full commercial kitchen.
On December 31, the new Counter Cafe quietly opened, without a press release or buzzy social media push, but very much on brand for the restaurant.
"We purposely have been kinda quite about this opening," she says. "When Lamar opened 14 years ago, it was all word of mouth."
It's actually the North Lamar Boulevard location — Counter Cafe's first — that inspired Downs and her team to open the campus spot. With the future of that restaurant uncertain (the building, located in a prime spot between Sixth and Seventh streets, is currently for sale), the opportunity to take over the former Conan's space was intriguing. The fact that they were able to sign a 20-year lease on 29th Street, says Downs, made it a no-brainer.
"It’s got this new energy," Downs says of the West Campus neighborhood. "It feels different." Though that nearby stretch of Guadalupe Street has certainly undergone changes in recent years, it's welcoming new projects, including a new Vietnamese restaurant and the latest iteration of El Patio, which reopened under new ownership last fall.
Downs says locals, an eclectic mix of students and longtime residents of nearby North University, Heritage, and Old West Austin, have welcomed the new cafe. Though the owners told friends and family when the new location opened, most of the customers have been local folks popping by to support their local cafe.
"It’s word of mouth," Downs reiterates. "The [neighborhood] feedback has been great. People just come in and are so complimentary — you feel good in there."