How Austin's classic restaurants stay relevant in an ever-changing city
It’s Tuesday night, a waiter is busy lighting candles on the tables as diners arrive. A jazz duo offers an unobtrusive soundtrack to the intimate setting. The dining room is almost full, yet the vibe remains relaxed. Food is on point, service is courteous, and all bottles of wine are half-priced. This is Café Josie today, but the veteran Clarksville mainstay has seen its share of change.
So how has Cafe Josie, and other Austin restaurant institutions, survived the onslaught of new places that seem to pop up every week?
Cody Taylor purchased the tropical-inspired restaurant from founder Charles Mayes in 2011. Taylor changed the cuisine’s focus, allowing chef Todd Havers free rein to create his internationally-tinged American cuisine. Last year, in an effort to stay relevant and bring something new to the city’s ultra-competitive dining scene, Taylor and Havers launched “the Experience,” Austin’s first all-you-can-eat prix fixe fine dining menu. Thanks to the program’s success, Taylor is making some changes to his hours of operation.
“I have decided to adjust my operating hours to play to my strength, which is the Experience,” says Taylor, who is serving the last lunch on October 27, much to the elation of his staff, and will begin dinner service on Monday evenings at 4 pm next week. On November 12, Café Josie will be open on Sundays to offer a brunch version of the Experience.
“When you change your hours, most people will assume that business is slacking or you’re in trouble. But this is just another progression for a 20 year old restaurant,” he says. “During the week, we will be offering a traditional happy hour from 4-6 pm. We decided to open on Sunday and Monday not only to make more room as the weekends are already full, but because so many of our industry friends haven’t had a chance to come in on their only days off.”
Café Josie is not only competing with new, trendy eateries, but also has the disadvantage of a hidden location. The same goes for Andiamo Ristorante, a neighborhood Italian joint tucked in a strip mall on Rutland Drive. Owner Daniela Marcone started working as a hostess, promoted to manager, and finally purchased the restaurant when it faced imminent closure. The restaurant has flourished in her hands, thanks to her continuous search for what’s next.
"Since opening 13 years ago, we've established a very loyal client base by focusing on authentic quality Italian cuisine,” says Marcone. “But Austin is growing at lightning speed, so we're constantly coming up with creative ideas and tactics to reach new customers all over the city. At the start of every season, we introduce new specials such as our pumpkin ravioli, which was added to the menu this fall. In September 2017, we also spearheaded an ongoing monthly promotion called Burnet Road Eats, which takes place the first Wednesday of every month and encourages the community to explore eateries on Burnet Road."
Location has never been a problem for Austin stalwart's Italian restaurant, Vespaio. The restaurant, which is celebrating 20 years in 2018, has weathered the new-kid-on-the-block storm despite sometimes being overlooked for the newest, hottest thing. Instead, Vespaio has embraced its role as the old guard of the neighborhood and hosts a regular clientele of professional diners who eat out all over town but always return to South Congress institution.
“We have a different client base from most places like, say, Launderette,” says Vespaio co-owner Alan Lazarus. "We have certainly evolved to meet modern tastes; we have not rested on our laurels. We have stayed current and always maintained a high standard, with quality of ingredients and professional service.”
Consistency has indeed been key at Vespaio, with staff that has been working there for so long it almost feels like a family. The kitchen has been in the capable hands of chef Ryan Sampson since 2002. “We have been doing it right for a long time,” he says. “We were buying produce from Tecolote Farms way before “farm-to-table” was in vogue. We don’t put our dollars into the fluff; we put it into the food.”
In an Austin enamored by everything new, it's a lesson worth remembering. Buzz can help build a nice facade, but in the end a restaurant has to have a good foundation.