Is it "Goodnight" for iconic Hill's Cafe?
I finished last week with a serious case of culinary whiplash, ricocheting from one vital part of our diverse scene to another. First, I was a guest at one of the four Indie Chefs dinners Thursday at Foreign & Domestic. It was fascinating to watch a group of talented young people take a step beyond the "virtual camaraderie" they developed via Twitter and become a cohesive unit, putting out eight very different courses and styles of food. Each chef introduced his or her own course, and the open kitchen and small dining room made the dinner guests feel very much a part of the action. It was a much more immediate and satisfying experience than sitting in a tent, watching a Food Network celebrity prepare a dish no one will ever taste, and I'm pleased the Elliotts and their fellow sponsors plan to make Indie Chefs Week an annual event. Look for more of my reaction to that dinner and some inside info about what some of the chefs did while they were in Austin in our On the Range blog.
No sooner had I recovered from the tasting menu marathon than I found myself in a long conversation with radio personality and restaurateur Bob Cole. Readers had been emailing me about Cole all week, and we finally got to chat on Friday. Earlier in the week, Cole told his early morning KOKE-FM listeners that he had just used the last $18,000 of his savings to cover payroll at Hill's Cafe, and he had serious concerns about the future of the iconic South Austin eatery (4700 S. Congress). The news was all over social media by the end of the day, and Cole said he was gratified and humbled by the outpouring of public support, which translated into some increased business at the restaurant. However, our conversation revealed problems a few extra customers may not be able to solve. For those who aren't familiar with Hill's, the business dates back to 1947, when a 20-seat coffee shop was built to serve the customers at the Goodnight Motel. Over the years, the Goodnight family expanded the business, and by the time Cole took over in 2001, it was an aging building with dining and kitchen facilities that could accommodate 500 people. That's an enormous amount of space to heat and cool; Cole says the utilities alone run about $10,000 a month. And though the parking lot is often full, when you've got cooking and dining space for 500, and you're rarely feeding that many, it's tough to be profitable. Cole said Hill's had always been a labor of love that didn't really make any money, but the economic downturn and changing tastes have had it running in the red for too long now. Cole said he'd love to keep the place open and build up the special event and catering parts of the business in order to maximize the potential. He also said he's in conversation with a local restaurant group that has shown an interest in the property in the past. I'll admit, I hadn't eaten at Hill's Cafe in years and really had no idea what to expect when I dropped by Saturday. I'm pleased to report the food is perfectly respectable – not cutting-edge trendy, but well prepared, flavorful, and reasonably priced. Find out more about that on our blog as well. And for all those folks who loudly lament the loss of iconic, quintessentially Austin places, get on down to Hill's.