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Ten Moments That Transformed Austin's Dining Scene

Austin's booming restaurant culture regularly makes national headlines, buoyed by a city mad for barbecue, Tex Mex, and the next new thing. What gave rise to this alchemy of tradition and innovation? Melanie Haupt, the author of Historic Austin Restaurants, breaks down the essential moments in the city's dining evolution.

[Photo: Dena Childs]


August Scholz opens Scholz Garten

The beer garden/bowling alley/singing club at 1607 San Jacinto does triple duty as the seat of German ethnic and cultural identity in Austin (the Austin Saengerrunde owns the building), as well as the traditional pre-game spot for UT sporting events and watering hole for progressive politicians, activists, writers, and professors. The menu is a hodgepodge of German schnitzels and brats and Green Mesquite barbecue, in addition to a deep menu of local, national, and German beers.

[Photo: Dena Childs]


Harry Akin opens his first Nighthawk

The failed actor found his true calling in "chop't" steaks and a progressive human resources policy that welcomed both African Americans and women well in advance of any 20th century rights revolutions. Akin's rigorous training program, which ushered candidates through all positions in the restaurant launched countless careers in the restaurant industry. He also cornered the market on vertical integration before it had a name, growing his own cattle for his restaurant chain (including The Frisco, owned by grandson Harry Akin and his wife Julia) and frozen dinners.

[Photo: Dena Childs]


Robert "Coleman" Hamby and his brother Tom open The Hoffbrau

In August 2014, the Hoffbrau celebrated its 80th birthday with a luncheon honoring the generations of longtime customers who've dined at the West Sixth stalwart over the decades. There were tears, there were joyful reminiscences, and on that day, it was obvious that locals hold this no-frills steak joint, once a boarded-up feed store, dear to their hearts. Your T-bone steak, resting in a generous pool of lemon-margarine sauce and accompanied by a hearty plate of wedge-cut fries, has its roots in Depression-era bootstrapping and bears all the signifiers of a working-class steakhouse.

[Photo: Dena Childs]


Kenneth Threadgill buys a Gulf filling station on North Lamar Boulevard

By procuring the first post-prohibition beer license in Travis County, Threadgill ultimately midwifes the Live Music Capital of the World. For forty years, Threadgill's Tavern served as a gathering place rednecks, hippies, and everyone in between to drink and jam on Wednesday nights. Long before it became the comfort-food outpost and nostalgia cave it is today, Threadgill's helped nurture a counterculture and gave us Janis Joplin.

[Photo: Dena Childs]


Matt Martinez and his wife Janie open a ten-seat cafe on East First

Financed with $75 cash and a $300 loan, the former boxer, whose parents once sold tamales, pralines, and tortillas from a pushcart on the steps of the capitol, made his mark on the Austin restaurant scene with Janie's scratch-made Tex-Mex recipes. From those humble roots we now have Bob Armstrong dip, killer margaritas, and an iconic sign that modestly declares Matt's the "King of Mexican Food." (Also available in Dallas.)

[Photo: Dena Childs]


Tom Gilliland and Chef Miguel Ravago open Fonda San Miguel in Allandale.

Fonda was a risky endeavor in its mission of serving the foods of interior Mexico, rather than kowtowing to the Tex-Mex monopoly. Texans hungry for cheese enchiladas didn't know what to do with black beans, cochinita pibil, and plantains. With an assist from a positive review in Texas Monthly and a forgiving landlord during lean times, Fonda's revolutionary concept took hold, changing the conversation about Mexican food in the process. These days, folks flock to the blissfully wallet-and-gut-busting Sunday buffets to celebrate occasions as monumental as college graduation to as mundane as, uh, Sunday.

[Dena Childs]


Ron and Peggy Weiss and Jeffrey Weinberger open Jeffrey's in Clarksville

The Weisses wanted a place like the ones they'd encountered in Europe that treated dining out like a special event, but without the stuffiness of traditional fine dining. Old West Austin embraced the elegant menu and atmosphere wholeheartedly, all the way up the food chain to Governor George W. Bush. (When he went to Washington, he tried to take a version of Jeffrey's with him; it failed miserably.) The Weisses sold up in 2011 and is now under the hipster purview of Larry McGuire.

[Photo: Dena Childs]


Kenny Carpenter and his future wife Joni open The Omelettry on Burnet Road

How many hangovers did you nurse in college with these enormous made-to-order omelets and giant blueberry pancakes? Did you also know that the Omelettry is the parent of both Magnolia and Kerbey Lane Cafes in a story befitting Krystle Carrington's fiercest shoulder pads? In 1979 Carpenter opened the Omelettry West on Lake Austin Boulevard with his business partners, husband-and-wife Kent Cole and Patricia Atkinson. Atkinson left the operation (and her marriage) and opened Kerbey Lane in 1980; Cole bought out Carpenter in 1986 and renamed the Lake Austin joint Magnolia Cafe. The Omelettry, driven out by rising rents, will relocate to Airport Blvd. later this year.

[Meghan McCarron]


The last Holiday House closes

When Ralph Moreland opened his first burger joint in the TarryTown Shopping Center in 1952, he probably didn't anticipate the fierce love and devotion his restaurants would inspire. Over the course of more than 50 years, Austinites adopted Holiday Houses, which spread from Tarrytown to Barton Springs to Airport Boulevard, as their official hang spots. By the early 2000s, the original location was the last Holiday House standing. When a very wealthy and passionate member of PETA inherited the shopping center, she began a systematic campaign to remove any establishment selling animal products from her property. Holiday House, with its signature charbroiled burgers, was out when its lease expired in 2004. A beloved Austin icon was closed for good.

[Photo: Dena Childs]


Tyson Cole opens Uchi

Who'd'a thunk a tiny little sushi joint on south Lamar would turn the Austin dining scene on its ear? Cole's emphasis on the freshest of ingredients - cost was no issue - and his playful, experimental approach to Japanese food changed the conversation about sushi in Austin. Uchi also kicked off a domino effect that reinvigorated the entire city's attitude about dining out and raised this food scene's profile so profoundly that we're still seeing the effects. It also launched a thousand restaurant careers; there is Uchi DNA in half of the new restaurants opening in this city on any given day.

Author: Melanie Haupt 
Photographer: Dena Childs

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