Good Restaurants Make Good Neighbors



photograph by John Anderson

For 25 years, Shady Grove BBQ was an unassuming little family joint nestled beneath sheltering trees on a quiet two-lane road near the edge of Zilker Park, and veteran restaurateur Bobbie Covey (El Metate, Chuy's, Salsas) was one of its many frequent customers. But in 1982, the owners confided in her that an illness in the family would make it necessary for them to put the property on the market. Covey immediately recognized the location's great potential, so she discussed the prime property with three young entrepreneurs who were renting her downtown restaurant kitchen for their catering operation. In a matter of weeks, Mike Young, John Zapp, and Craig Ainesworth had secured a lease on the property and were on their way to opening a new Tex-Mex restaurant with a menu designed by Covey. They created the winning combination of a heavily promoted bar with good margaritas and a bill of fare that offered tasty norteño-influenced Tex-Mex food at affordable prices. Little did they know that Chuy's would become the anchor tenant for Austin's first soon-to-be-famous Restaurant Row.

Within a matter of months following its 1982 debut, the relatively small restaurant -- 80-85 seats then, 120 seats now -- was posting sales figures impressive enough to interest other restaurant operators in the neighborhood. Segle Fry, operator of Another Raw Deal on West Sixth, made a deal with restaurant developers Tommy Walker and Jim Person to build Good Eats Cafe just a few blocks east of Chuy's. Good Eats established its reputation serving reasonably priced grilled fish dishes, barbecue, and down-home Texas fare such as chicken-fried steaks paired with lots of fresh vegetables and cornbread. Good bar business was an integral component of Good Eats' success, as well, with the long, busy bar right in the dining room. Both Chuy's and Good Eats flourished during Austin's early Eighties boom, and as more and more developments popped up in the hills west of downtown, traffic on the once quiet Barton Springs Road increased exponentially.

AUSTIN'S ORIGINAL RESTAURANT ROW:
BARTON SPRINGS ROAD


Green Mesquite BBQ
1400 Barton Springs, 479-0485

Romeo's
1500 Barton Springs, 476-1090

Good Eats Cafe (closed)
1530 Barton Springs

Pizza Nizza
1608 Barton Springs, 474-7590

Shady Grove
1624 Barton Springs, 474-9991


Baby Acapulco
1628 Barton Springs, 474-8774

Chuy's
1708 Barton Springs, 474-4452

More traffic meant more potential restaurant customers, and it wasn't too many years before other operators joined the pioneers on "the row." In 1987, Jerry Sanchez built his second Baby Acapulco outlet on Barton Springs Road, and Tom Davis followed suit in 1988, opening Green Mesquite BBQ at a site that had formerly housed PeeWee's and Jacob's Pit BBQ. In 1990, former Whole Foods Market partner Mark Stiles and his wife Sylvie chose Barton Springs Road for the location of their first restaurant venture, Pizza Nizza. Shady Grove came next, a new concept from Comida Deluxe, the company formed by Mike Young and John Zapp. "We really didn't intend to do a different concept," recalls John Zapp, "but our landlord was threatening to raise our rent so high, we decided to pick up and move Chuy's down the street." The landlord relented at the last minute, so Chuy's stayed put and in 1992 the partners designed Shady Grove as a rustic, comfortable burger joint with a very inviting patio. The next year, Comida Deluxe leapfrogged a lot and opened Romeo's in a building that had housed everything from the infamous bar Paula's Playpen to Kate and Dave Meeks' legendary first Austin eatery. Young and Zapp sold Romeo's to former employees Jas and Kristen Lemert in 1996, and the couple have made quite a success with it since.

The success of the restaurants on Barton Springs Road certainly has something to do with the quality and consistency of their food and beverage offerings, but being in the right place at the right time was a major contributing factor. During the Eighties, formerly sleepy Barton Springs Road became a major traffic artery from downtown to the burgeoning developments in western Travis County, and new Austinites from all over town ran the gauntlet of restaurant row on their way to and from recreational activities in Zilker Park. "None of the new places ever seemed to put a dent in our business," says Zapp. On the contrary, restaurant developer Tommy Walker is convinced that being clustered together worked to everyone's advantage. After all, there are two Mexican and two Italian restaurants in very close proximity but each has built its own steady, loyal clientele.

The primary factors contributing to success on the row appear to be the same as those in shopping mall development: good, high-profile anchor tenants; ready traffic; and location, location, location. The Barton Springs Road restaurant row has those things in spades. However, these qualities by themselves couldn't immunize restaurants from the problems that commonly cause such ventures to fail. The lot at 1806 Barton Springs Road is a prime example. The property was developed in the early Nineties as the Majestic Diner to showcase the talents of former Clarksville Cafe chefs Chris Shirley and Mick Vann. Big cost overruns on the initial construction saddled the new eatery with a bigger debt burden than the restaurant was designed to handle. In addition, visibility and access problems worked against them. Traffic approaching from the east couldn't really see the Diner until it was time to turn into the narrow parking lot while cars approaching from the west could see the restaurant easily but had trouble making left turns in front of oncoming traffic. Majestic Diner didn't succeed there and subsequent tenants Cafe Brazil, Compadres, Pulpo Loco, and even the retail business Armadillo Sport couldn't generate enough year-round sales to make the high-cost spot pay off.

Even the longtime successes on this row are vulnerable. After years of struggle resulting from economic downturns, mismanagement, old debts, and management changes, Good Eats sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year and closed the Barton Springs Road location earlier this fall. The closing has commercial realtors busy showing the property to potential suitors who'd like to reap the benefits of a prized location. Although such prominent restaurant operators as Ron Weiss and David Garrido of Jeffrey's and Fresh Planet and chef Miguel Ravago have considered the spot and passed (a unique ground lease requires the operator to lease part of the building, own another section, and be responsible for collecting rent from nearby trailer park residents), the location surely won't sit empty for long. Up and down the row, sentiments about a possible new neighbor are very positive. "We'd like to see a good operator," says John Zapp. Baby Acapulco manager Eve Martinez muses about a Chinese place, perhaps, or seafood. Jas Lemert of Romeo's sums it by saying, "Competition seems to be good for all of us; we'll welcome whoever comes."

While it's easy these days to name successful clusters of restaurants around town -- the Warehouse District, East Sixth, West Sixth -- another restaurant row very much in the mold of Barton Springs Road is shaping up along Manor Road, just east of I-35 and the ever-expanding University of Texas campus. The most established anchor tenant is the venerable East Side Cafe, opened by partners Dorsey Barger, Elaine Martin, and James Lance in 1988. The three restaurant veterans (former Good Eats employees) divided the labor according to their talents with Martin in the kitchen, Barger handling the office and front of the house, and Lance establishing the now-famous garden. They offered an eclectic American cafe menu featuring as many fresh vegetables and herbs as the garden could provide in season and a wine list chosen to complement the fresh-flavored food.

East Side Cafe's relaxed and comfortable setting in a charming older home began to attract a varied clientele of UT faculty and staff, downtown businesspeople attracted by the option of lunchtime reservations, and travelers who stopped to dine on their way to or from Mueller Airport farther east on Manor Road. Lance left the partnership after the first two years, but Martin and Barger have continued to enrich their investment in the cafe, hiring good managers and a creative team that includes master gardener-graphic artist David Kolasta in the garden and soup chef-cookbook author Ruth Carter in the kitchen. They enclosed a patio in 1992 and added a gift and take-out shop called Pitchforks and Tablespoons in 1996.

Elaine Martin is very proud of their accomplishments in both the restaurant and the neighborhood. "I live and work in this neighborhood," she explains, "and we've worked hard with some of the other business and home owners to help clean it up." Such businesses as Discovery Investments, Planet Theatre, and Kestrel Printing are some of East Side's successful neighbors. These businesses and UT expansion that includes Disch-Falk Field and the new offices of the University Interscholastic League should help to replace any commercial traffic lost when the airport moves next year.



photograph by John Anderson

In 1990, East Side was joined by Mi Madre's restaurant, 2201 Manor Road, where Aurelio Torres and his hardworking family took over a building that had previously housed barbecue huts, a couple of Mexican food cafes, and a chicken-fried steak place. Torres has built a loyal breakfast and lunch crowd with his family's Saltillo-style Mexican dishes. The two growing eateries make up a solid anchor on the east end of the newly developing row.

It was several years before other restaurants came to join East Side and Mi Madre's, then a couple of years of upheaval before the current lineup gelled. First, the Roy-Lee grocery closed, and developer Brad Kittel created the Discovery Incubator in its space at 2002 Manor. An adventurous young woman named Bambi opened the Manor Road Coffee House in a ramshackle building two blocks west, and a group of first-time restaurateurs turned an older home at 2015 Manor into Cafe Armageddon. All three businesses would prove to be short-lived. After Discovery Incubator closed, the large building with good visibility and plenty of parking sat empty for months, all but crying out for a restaurant to re-animate the spot.

In mid-1997, a group of Caribbean natives hungry for the cuisines of their various island homelands bought the failing Cafe Armageddon and transformed it into Calabash Caribbean Restaurant. The consortium comprised of Mike Caton, Margaret Reid, Savatri Saldana, Dr. Aziz Laurent, and Nneka Laurent wisely increased the building's air-conditioning capacity, painted the walls in sunsplashed blues and peaches, and added a tin-roofed bar just like the ones that dot tropical island beaches. Calabash offers tasty dishes from a variety of island nations, and the bar is stocked with an impressive selection of island beers and rums for those famous tropical libations. The owners hope to capitalize on Austin's penchant for outdoor drinking and dining with a breezy, tree-shaded patio, a technique that works well on the original restaurant row.

Not long after Calabash opened, James and Margaret Cunzalo hired Glen Taylor to open an in-town version of their popular Lake Travis-area restaurant, Roscoe's Italian Kitchen, at 1809 Manor Road. At first, Roscoe's shared space with Bambi's coffee house, but in recent months, the Kitchen has expanded into the entire space. Roscoe's is fast building a reputation for reliable Italian-American food based on Cunzalo family recipes, very respectable Italian subs, and big pizzas. "The new UIL building has been great for our business," an effusive employee told me. "They get lots of take-out." The fact that Roscoe's is one of only two eateries east of the interstate willing to deliver within a two-mile radius contributes greatly to customer loyalty and adds to the eatery's shot at success.

Early this year, Miranda's Patio reclaimed an eyesore of a vacant lot at 2017 Manor and opened a funky little taco shack surrounded by a variety of colorful outdoor seating options. The menu offers breakfast tacos, burgers, and some very affordably priced Mexican items to go or to be enjoyed in the outdoor "relax-station." With the advent of rains and cooler temperatures, it remains to be seen how Miranda's will weather the winter, but Miranda's wouldn't be the first taco shack to grow into a bigger business.

MANOR ROAD'S EMERGING
RESTAURANT ROW

Roscoe's Italian Kitchen
1809 Manor, 457-0006

Hoover's Cooking
2002 Manor, 479-5006

Calabash Caribbean Restaurant
2015 Manor, 478-4857

Miranda's Patio
2017 Manor, 236-1676

East Side Cafe
2113 Manor, 476-5858

Mi Madre's
2201 Manor, 480-8441

The newest kid on the Manor Road block is Hoover's Cooking, the self-styled "good taste place" from hometown chef Hoover Alexander. Over the past 20 years, Alexander has been a reliable journeyman of the Austin restaurant trade, managing kitchens at the NightHawk, Toulouse, and Good Eats, among others. Hoover's Cooking, in the old Roy-Lee/Discovery Incubator building, is his first personal venture, and he's packed the menu with many of his mother Dorothy's down-home family recipes, good smoked meats, and some spicy foods in the Tex-Mex and Cajun vein. It's an inviting Deep South-meets-Texas menu complemented by decadent homemade pies, frosty pitchers of real lemonade, and a full bar. Hoover's is experiencing the usual new restaurant growing pains and service glitches, but Alexander knows his business and his food is very good. The neighborhood appears to be supporting the venture, with weekday lunch crowds growing daily and large crowds turning out after area church services the last few weekends.

Although there was no organized plan involved in the grouping of their businesses, the eateries that have opened on Austin's newest restaurant row within the past 18 months have some of the same things going for them that the Barton Springs Road tenants enjoyed. There are established anchor tenants with proven drawing power on a busy thoroughfare in a revitalized neighborhood. They've opened at another time of unprecedented local growth, as well as an era when development is being encouraged in the inner city rather than the fringes. The casual new places offer enough unique menus to attract and satisfy crowds of hungry people from the surrounding neighborhoods and all points west of the freeway. History just might repeat itself.

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