Over the past six weeks, we have been celebrating Austin’s restaurant and bar scene as part of our 2019 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. After much deliberation from our expert panel of judges (and a heated reader tournament), the list of nominees has now been slimmed down to the best of the best.
On April 10, emcee and local television personality Taylor Ellison revealed the winners during a lavish party at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Please join us in saluting this year's winners.
Restaurant of the Year: Olamaie
For all the “aw shucks” affectations of some of its most visible personalities (ahem, Paula Deen), elegance is at the core of Southern food. The cultural traditions and make-do spirit that forged America’s most vibrant cuisine are about far more than the copious use of butter. Olamaie chef Michael Fojtasek doesn’t shy away from fat (see: those famous biscuits), but his food relies more on the generosity of the Southern lexicon — the salt thwack of country ham, the earthy aromas of Carolina Gold rice, and the promised bounty of black eyed peas and collard greens.
Chef of the Year: Michael Fojtasek, Olamaie
One of the most charming chefs in town, Michael Fojtasek is as known for his megawatt smile as his artful takes on Southern cuisine. That personality translates to a restaurant that delivers all the touches patrons expect from fine dining, but refuses to wallow in preciousness. Sure, his creative takes on staples like Hoppin’ John, pone, and hushpuppies look far from those found at a small town meat and three, but they still focus on a deep generosity of flavor and invite guests to sit for a spell.
Rising Star Chef of the Year: Amanda Turner, Juniper
Perhaps more than any other chef on this list, Amanda Turner is the definition of a rising star. Fresh out of culinary school, she began her career as a line cook at Uchi before taking her skills to Odd Duck as a baker. Faster than a boule can rise, she was overseeing the entire bread program. She joined the opening team of Juniper as sous chef and when first being considered for this year’s Tastemaker Awards, it was for her work as the chef de cuisine. Since then, she has ascended to the executive chef role, where her wide-ranging talents are an essential strand in the Northern Italian restaurant’s DNA. Her wide-ranging talents can be seen in everything Juniper sends out, from charcuterie to pastry.
Bar of the Year: The Roosevelt Room
The dapper owners of this downtown mecca, Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis, are as exacting with their cocktails as they are with their suits. Famously, they run their staff through pre-service tests to ensure no guest has to twiddle their thumbs while waiting for a drink. That’s no easy feat. The Roosevelt Room has some of the most elaborate builds in town, whether it's an innovative clear take on milk punch or its Run the Jules, a strikingly amethyst original concoction.
Bartender of the Year: Caer Ferguson, The Roosevelt Room
Caer Ferguson already wears two hats in The Roosevelt Room organization, bartending at the main lounge while serving as the bar manager to The Eleanor next door. Now, she is trying on a third. On March 22, she will be debuting Daijoubu, a pop-up featuring Asian flavors and techniques, along with fellow Tastemaker nominee Sharon Yeung. The concept is already a winner. Featured drink Ramon’s Revival, a sesame horchata-infused tequila sipper, won a 2018 Espolon cocktail competition.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Laura Sawicki, Launderette
Dear James Beard Award committee: give our hometown hero the Outstanding Pastry Chef crown already. Still, Austinites don’t need anyone else to tell them she’s special. Approachable but not boring, nostalgic but not cloying, Sawicki's temptations have set the culinary standard for the entire decade.
Brewery of the Year: Vista Brewing
Vista’s beers can certainly be enjoyed outside their Driftwood home. The Adair kolsch is a worthy sip while you binge Game of Thrones and the Laissez Faire barrel-aged Brett is as affable a dinner party companion as a dry rosé. Still, there’s just something about enjoying it out in the Texas Hill Country, with the buzz of bees in the background and a gentle breeze darting between the oaks. Even though they use techniques that were born long ago in Europe, each of the taps have a sense of place. Vista may be a destination brewery, but it feels like home.
Wine Program of the Year: June's All Day
Master sommelier and namesake June Rodil shocked Austin in early March when she announced she was leaving McGuire Moorman Hospitality to join Houston’s Goodnight Hospitality. Though the Capital City will lose one of its most talented wine ambassadors, she leaves a dynamic and learned team. What’s June’s without June? We have a feeling that this kid will be alright.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Better Half Coffee & Cocktails
For the past few years, Austin has opened a bevy of all-day restaurants — a term meant to telegraph the wide appeal as much as the opening hours. Arguably, no other restaurant in town embodies the idea as effectively as this stylish West Austin newcomer. Whether stopping by for a ham biscuit and iced coffee in the morning, a cheeseburger at lunch, or a cocktail at night, guests know they will find a fast friend in Better Half. That’s exactly what a neighborhood eatery is supposed to be.
Favorite Taco: Vaquero Taquero, Tacos al Pastor
The words “tacos al pastor” may be common on Austin menus, but few eateries do the dish justice. Although something similar to the culinary icon can be whipped up on a grill, technically it requires roasting on a spit so the marinade can slowly baste the pork and caramelize the sugars — a process both time and labor intensive. Brothers Miguel and Daniel Cobos use a trompo not just because of tradition, but also because deliciousness comes with doing what’s right.
Best New Restaurant: Discada
The first impression of this East Austin food truck may be that it is a very simple operation. However, that doesn’t give enough credit to what goes on behind the scenes. Before hitting a tortilla, each ingredient is layered on the disc-like pan, taking on the flavors of each new addition like a patina on bronze. The process takes plenty of prep work and even more patience. It’s a testament to chef Xose Velasco (and the cooks in his family who came before) that it all appears so effortless.
The top restaurants and bars in San Antonio were also named at the April 10 event. Join us in congratulating the winners:
- Restaurant of the Year: The Cookhouse
- Chef of the Year: Diego Galicia & Rico Torres, Mixtli
- Bar of the Year: The Modernist
- Favorite Taco: Carnitas Lonja, Carnitas
- Best New Restaurant: The Jerk Shack