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2012 Readers Poll | 2012 Critics Picks | 2012 Index of Winners
New Restaurants on the Rise, Landmarks in Transition
When our special issues editor and ballot divination wizard Kate X Messer handed me the results of this year's Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll, it was immediately obvious that this is another year of dramatic change. Our local restaurant scene has received a bounty of national media coverage over the past couple of years. All the increased visibility – in print, online, and on television – has driven some of our newer restaurants and concepts into the Top 35 favorites list, and into winning positions in many categories. For example, the three local restaurants involved in staging the new Austin Food & Wine Festival – Uchi, La Condesa, and Uchiko – shuffled among the top spots again this year and won multiple categories: Appetizers, Desserts, Decor, Service/Waitstaff, Japanese, Best Chef, and Mixologist. Eight newer restaurants and one food trailer company rocketed into that Top 35 list, including Contigo, Texas French Bread's new bistro concept, Tarka Indian Kitchen, Foreign & Domestic, Komé, Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery, East Side King, and Elizabeth St. Cafe. In addition, several newer places garnered top honors in categories previously dominated by other longtime winners: Franklin Barbecue in Barbecue; Hopdoddy in Burgers; Pho Danh in Pho; Black Star Co-op in Pub Grub; Houndstooth Coffee in Coffee; Bombay Bistro in Buffet; Sushi Saké Japanese Cuisine in Happy Hour Deal; and Easy Tiger in both Bread (in a tie with Texas French Bread) and Biergarten/Patio (with Contigo a close second).
Observing the meteoric ascent of newer restaurants into poll dominance made me wonder which, if any, of these new winners would develop the kind of devoted clientele necessary for long-term success and landmark status. Austin is home to several restaurants in the 30- to 60-year age range, and only a few of those – Fonda San Miguel, Eastside Cafe, Kerbey Lane Cafe, Magnolia Cafe, Threadgill's, the Frisco, the Salt Lick, Hut's, Tamale House, Trudy's – show up regularly in the poll. Tweaking some categories in response to Austin's strong locavore, farm-to-table aesthetic produced wins for some older restaurants, such as Eastside Cafe for Locally Sourced Dish and Pie, while Texas French Bread's new bistro concept was recognized as the best Locavore Menu. What we didn't see was recognition for such local stalwarts as Green Pastures, Matt's El Rancho, Top Notch, La Reyna, or Tamale House. Are these places such an integral and lasting part of Austin's hospitality fabric that no one thinks to vote for them at awards time? Are they so old school they wouldn't even think of hiring a publicist or social media strategist, or is it just that their devoted patrons aren't Chronicle poll voters? We decided to investigate and discovered that all those factors are in play, to some extent.
In addition to heaping praise on their favorite dishes from the past year, contributing Chronicle Food writers Claudia Alarcón, MM Pack, Rachel Feit, Kate Thornberry, and Melanie Haupt, along with guest contributor John Kunz, looked at the stories at the heart of some of our local culinary landmarks: Matt's El Rancho is about to celebrate an important milestone; new owners at Jeffrey's are giving the hundred-year-old Clarksville building a face-lift and a new menu; the new ownership at Green Pastures, Top Notch, and La Reyna intend to maintain the standards that have made them popular for decades; Fonda San Miguel plans to add a sibling restaurant within the next year; Tamale House is expanding again after many years; and new owners have breathed new design and new life into Hickory Street. This year's poll and guide reveal that hungry Austinites have plenty of wonderful old and new restaurants on their plate. Eat 'em up! – Virginia B. Wood
Landmarks in Transition