Austin's Report Card: Grading the 2015 Food Scene

From a Downtown revival to a new wave of fine dining, see how our restaurants stacked up this year
December 29, 2015
by Veronica Meewes

Austin's food scene was on fire this year (and we're not just talking brisket), with more than 100 new restaurants opening across the city. Of course, with such booming growth came some sad shutterings (RIP St. Philip, Blackbird & Henry, Fork & Taco and others), gentrification-fueled controversy and more "mixed-use developments" than we ever thought we'd see in a lifetime. Austin seems to be on the lips of every self-proclaimed foodie from coast to coast, but how does our Texan city match up to major players like Chicago, New York and San Francisco? Read on to see if we make the grade!

Downtown Revival
In a part of town previously known only for its dollar shots and slices of late-night pizza fit for the stumblingly drunk, food business is booming. In the past year alone, Austin gained more than a handful of great restaurants in the Downtown area: Italic, Lonesome Dove, Fixe, Prelog's, Wu Chow, Geraldine's, Emmer & Rye, COUNTER 3.FIVE.VII, Osteria Pronto, Stella San Jac and more. Similarly, new bars like The Townsend and The Roosevelt Room are joining Midnight Cowboy, Garage, Half Step and Firehouse Lounge in raising the cocktail...well, bar. And we can only hope that others will follow suit (because Steampunk just not going to cut it.) We can't wait to see what 2016 has in store for Downtown Austin. Will the center of our prepubescent city grow into a bona fide culinary destination once and for all?

Grade: B+

(Delayed) Openings
Sure, we saw a phenomenal amount of new restaurants open their doors this year, but some of them were a long time coming thanks to massive delays obtaining city permitting. Al Fico was hoping to open in 2012 but the eastside Italian restaurant didn't come to fruition until 2015. VOX Table held a preview dinner at the top of the Austonian in the fall of 2013 but wasn't able to open until spring of 2015. Launderette planned on opening fall of 2014 but didn't actually start serving until February 2015. Wu Chow announced plans to open in 2013, then teased Austin with samples of signature soup dumpling for about two years until they were finally able to launch late this fall. These are some of the more extreme cases, but just about every restaurant to open this year experienced significant permitting delays. Considering opening a restaurant is already such a huge investment for small-business owners, we hope the city can figure out a way to either expand the permitting department or otherwise streamline the current process. 

Grade: B

Barbecue on Spotlight
There's no doubt barbecue fever is continuing to spread across the globe, and one of the most popular (and imitated) styles comes from the Texas tradition of low-and-slow meat-smoking. Once again, barbecue enthusiasts (from Anthony Bourdain to Jimmy Kimmel) flocked from all over to stand in line at Franklin BBQ and La Barbecue, among other (incredibly delicious, just less insanely popular) pits. There was also a considerable amount of BBQ headlines in the news this year, from a controversial BBQ smoke ban that was (luckily) denied to Franklin's banning of line-holders to John Mueller's pit getting stolen (even after he was able to outsmart via text the thief who stole items from his trailer last year). The Texas Monthly BBQ Festival was bigger than ever and Franklin just announced this fall that he will be collaborating on a fire-focused food festival with the founder of Feast in the coming year. 2015 just proved that Texas barbecue is hotter than ever right now. 

Grade: A

Food (Hall) Desert
This fall, Eater announced some big news...Austin is to gain its first food hall in 2017 with the opening of Fareground on Second and Congress! The Michael Hsu–designed space will take over One Congress Plaza's lobby at 111 Congress Avenue, using New York's Gotham West Market as a model. All we can say is: it's about time! Despite past rumors some years ago of a similar development on East Seventh Street and then more rumors of another within the Seaholm Power Plant, a food hall is something Austin has been sorely lacking for years (though, on the plus side, our farmer's market game is still strong.)

Grade: B-

The Center of the Taco-verse
While the rest of the country slowly discovered (and simultaneously became obsessed with) tacos in the past year, here in Austin we just wore a smug "we told you so"–type smile. DUH, tacos are the best. And we would know since that's pretty much what we live on. Also, unless you live in Mexico, our tacos are probably better than yours. This fall, Texas Monthly decided on 120 tacos to eat before you die, and Mando Reyes announced that his second book, Tacos of Texas, will come out in 2016. And while Torchy's Tacos and TacoDeli continue to take over the world (or at least the city), the wait for Veracruz All Natural keeps getting longer and longer, and plenty of roadside mom-and-pop trucks can still be found all over town, Fork & Taco quietly shuttered this fall. So maybe there are some things Austinites won't do for pay for fancy ones when there are so many deliciously cheap ones to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Diversity Lacking
Though Austin may have opened more restaurants in the past year, Houston boasts a huge aspect of food culture missing from our city: diversity. In search for a good bowl of pho or a cheap, tasty banh mi? If it's Vietnamese food you seek here, you're in luck. Good Japanese and Thai are available but not ubiquitous. However, our lack of multiple good Chinese and Korean options is a plaguing issue, and our Greek, Middle Eastern and Indian options pale in comparison to Houston's. (Heck, so does our interior Mexican!) We were thrilled to see both Casa Colombia Colombian restaurant and Lima Criolla Peruvian cafe and pisco bar relocate to bigger, better spaces this year, which goes to show there is a desire within Austin's food community for more cultural diversity than whatever "new American cuisine" affords. Now get out there and support independently owned places like Russian HouseGuantanamera for Cuban, Boteca ATX for Brazilian, DFG Food for Malaysian, Chago's for Puerto Rican and Song La for Taiwanese... we'd love to see Austin's diversity rating skyrocket in 2016!

Grade: C+

The New Fine Dining
Like many fine food cities around the country, Austin is proving time and time again that fine dining doesn't need to mean white tablecloths and synchronized serving. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find either of those elements even at some of the city's best restaurants. COUNTER 3.FIVE.VII. even took away the tables and the waitstaff when they opened this past spring, placing diners directly in front of the kitchen staff at their sleek chef's counter. Fixe dressed up chicharrones, Tim Love topped nachos with antelope at Lonesome Dove and Geraldine's pastry queen Callie Speer turned biscuits and gravy into the happiest of endings. These days, Austin's dress code de rigueur for diners is "whatever layers make the most sense with today's weather whim" — and plenty of waitstaff can be seen wearing their own clothing as well, from Launderette to VOX Table to Emmer & Rye. If there's a downside to this laid-back fine-dining phenomenon, it's that diners often expect low prices to match the casual atmosphere, and that is typically not the case —nor possible for chefs (such as the aforementioned ones) who are often sourcing the finest ingredients available. So before you ring up a tab of shareable plates then pout over the price tag, do keep in mind you are, in fact, fine dining in those jorts of yours. 

Grade: A

This was a huge year for Austin's flourishing food scene and we are lucky to have some incredibly talented chefs at the forefront. Nicholas Yanes opened our eyes to a whole new world of delicate Northern Italian–inspired cuisine with Juniper. Shawn Cirkiel brought some much-needed Spanish cuisine to the city when he added yet another well-done restaurant (by the name of Bullfight) to his repertoire. Kevin Fink and his powerhouse team at Emmer & Rye are turning heads with their innovative use of dim sum carts, fermentation experiments, house-milled grains and commitment to whole-animal butchery. As we approach 2016, there is much to look forward to, from improved dining in Austin-Bergstrom Airport to the emergence of La Corsha Hospitality's epic Boiler 9 Bar + Grill (helmed by Jason Stude) inside the historic power plant to the start of our city's first food hall. As far as "food cities" go, we've come a long way...and there's no time like the present to keep pushing forward!

Grade: B+

east austin
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whole animal
fine dining
downtown austin
food halls
cocktail bars
chef driven
locally sourced
food markets
casual dining
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