Anyone who has ever waited two hours for a table at Barley Swine will tell you that Austin's restaurant scene is red hot at the moment. Once a culinary backwater, Austin has, in the past decade, become a destination for chefs and foodies alike. New eateries open almost weekly, fueled by a steady buzz of celebrity-style gossip from social media, TV, and traditional news. The Food Network includes Austin on its customary call list, The New York Times checks in regularly, and Anthony Bourdain popped in for a plate of chicken's balls during SXSW 2012.
Certainly, cuisine is a big part of this. Austin chefs and diners alike have become increasingly worldly, with a growing sense of sophistication about the art of eating well. Gone are the days of chicken-fried steak and bland Tex-Mex. (OK, so maybe they're not gone, but they've taken a backseat.) Food at places like Uchi, Barley Swine, Foreign & Domestic, and Sway is about experimentation, novelty, and, increasingly, art.
Look around at the whimsical play of firecracker-red tile and rough-finished wood at Uchiko or the soaring windows and blue-accented sculptural concrete at La Condesa, and you can see how the look of Austin dining has transformed. These places bespeak a new artfulness that didn't exist back in the days when design meant a champagne bottle in the men's urinal at Jean Pierre's Upstairs, and stodgy old Jeffrey's was the only A-game in town. On this new culinary terrain, restaurant design – its concept, if you will – has become almost as important as the food.
Austin was never a restaurant town. During the heyday of the Armadillo and Liberty Lunch, eating out was something you did quickly, on your way to a movie or a club. "Back then, the dining experience was not an evening's entertainment; it was just feeding the machine," says architect Dick Clark. "The idea of destination dining did not exist in Austin."
That began to change in the Nineties when the first wave of destination restaurants opened. Restaurateur Reed Clemons opened Mezzaluna on Colorado Street in 1992 and almost single-handedly created a new "warehouse" district Downtown. Clark designed Mezzaluna, and until then Austin had never seen anything so modern. All glass, metal, and concrete, a curving see-and-be-seen bar dominated the room, while twinkling lights artfully illuminated private corners. "After [Mezzaluna] took off, people started realizing there was more to dining than just eating. It was also a social scene ... I like to think I had a part in this change."
Clark's impact on restaurant design is undeniable. Clark went on to design many of Austin's buzz restaurants in the Nineties and early Aughties – The Granite Cafe (now Fino), the Bitter End*, Kenichi, Star Bar, Maiko – literally transforming the way Austinites experienced fine dining. Clark's designs were stages, and dining became theatre. More importantly, Clark trained a new crop of architects who have carried on his vision.
These days, the man of the moment is undeniably Michael Hsu, the 44-year-old Clark studio veteran that seemingly everyone wants to hire. And no wonder. With a résumé that includes so many destination restaurants – Uchi, Uchiko, La Condesa, Sway, Épicerie, and Olivia, as well as such family-friendly eateries as P. Terry's, More Home Slice, Lucy's Fried Chicken, and Maudie's in Lakeway – Hsu's work is almost a prerequisite for success.
Hsu took away valuable lessons from his 11 years with Clark, among them the importance of function and flow, and how to choreograph a meal – from the way people enter a room to how they celebrate important moments through food.
Hsu compares restaurant design to the clothes people wear to a party – like a costume. "At restaurants, there is an expectation for novelty and experience because you are there just temporarily. And I think that is the magic of restaurants, because they are not as permanent as a lot of structures. There is an expectation of a slight thrill every time you go out to eat." Whether it comes from the transparency of an open kitchen or from a striking chandelier, a well-designed restaurant is a sensory adventure.
Jamie Chioco, who recently completed Winflo Osteria and the new Benji's, is another A-list designer who started his career in Clark's studio. Like Clark and Hsu, he understands that restaurants do have particular requirements that are different from residential space. For instance, there are acoustics and built-in storage requirements to consider. Acoustics are a particularly thorny problem for restaurants because, while architects and designers favor hard surfaces like concrete, stone, and tile, these same materials tend to bounce sound and make restaurants noisy. At Uchiko, Hsu used a cheap particle board on the ceiling to absorb sound, but, to give it interest, he accented the boards with brass studs inscribed with the Japanese word for "yummy." At Winflo Osteria, Chioco stripped the interior walls down to the old shiplap siding, which absorbs sound better than drywall, but also has the rustic appeal the owners were going for.
The exciting thing about designing restaurants, says Chioco, "is the possibility to be a bit more clever and more inventive." For instance, at Lavaca Teppan, Chioco used bento boxes as tile around the kitchen. The red lacquer boxes stand out boldly against an otherwise understated color palette. "Things like that you would probably never do in a residential project."
Hsu agrees: "We torture wood in a lot of different ways. We use a lot of organic materials. Knotty wood, wood that has checks and cracks in it, is interesting. A lot of what we do is in choosing materials to accent very clean space, and we use a lot of them."
Asked whether he believes that design is a key to a successful restaurant, Hsu responds with an unqualified yes. "It doesn't necessarily have to be design with a capital D, but it is much harder to make a case for a restaurant that is not concepted. Restaurants that don't do that will find it much harder to succeed."
Restaurant owners agree. The growing commitment to design has redefined customer expectations. That twentysomething computer animator in the green American Apparel jeans wants his duck confit salad in a restaurant that conveys the spirit of its food. And most owners strive to provide that, even when they cannot afford to hire a professional architect. Ned and Jodi Elliott opened Foreign & Domestic on a shoestring budget, but design was still important to them. They used a combination of natural and industrial elements, highlighted with splashes of color to reflect their unpretentious food and service style. "People can achieve good design at all price points, but design is something that has to be thought about. It is as important as the food and the quality of service," says Larry McGuire, co-owner of Perla's, Clark's Oyster Bar, Elizabeth Street Cafe, and the new Jeffrey's. His lush, highly concept-driven restaurants are among the most successful in the city. Mickie Spencer's DIY restaurants are also good examples. At the steampunky East Side Show Room or fin de siècle-style Hillside Farmacy, atmosphere is part of an immersive dining experience.
While style concepts are still relatively diverse in Austin, designers like Hsu, Clark, Chioco, and others have nonetheless orchestrated a certain look for Austin. The connection between indoor and outdoor space is an element that most designers try to emphasize. Austin is a place where outdoor dining is possible nine or 10 months out of the year, and successful restaurants build on that potential. At the recently opened Benji's, Chioco created a prominent rooftop deck for the restaurant by stringing steel beams up through the building. At Lavaca Teppan, he shrunk the interior dining area in order to carve out a shaded streetside patio. At the Grove in Lakeway, one of Clark's recent restaurant projects, the firm took advantage of mature live oaks to build a lighted patio off the parking lot. "When you are talking about an approach to space, it is important that you make sure to think about how the inside and outside work together," comments Chioco.
Hsu's own intensely private style has also had a big impact on Austin's look. Many of his restaurants are screened or even closed-off to the street, creating courtyard spaces that are almost fortresslike in their independence. Behind the screen, though, lies a sense of discovery. "Once you enter," comments Hsu, "we try to transport you and try to choreograph the experience." Hsu admits his penchant for courtyards may be cultural. A Chinese-American, he loves courtyards because they remind him of homes in Taiwan. They are private, but they also give people an opportunity to peek in. It is almost counterintuitive for restaurants, which typically rely on the serendipity of street appeal to attract diners. The dining room of the wildly popular Sway, for instance, cannot be seen from the street and the restaurant barely even has a sign out front.
But this is Austin's style. In spite of the very public element of dining out, Hsu believes that Austinites still like a certain privacy and intimacy when it comes to dining. It is almost like the restaurant is hosting an exclusive private party and the patrons are invited guests. So far, the formula has worked.
Nonetheless, virtually everyone interviewed here agreed that the magic of a well-designed restaurant can't be bottled. "I love to feel a personality in a place, a quirkiness and charm," commented Foreign & Domestic's Jodi Elliott. Design matters, but it is also organic – which means the dining scene currently sizzling in Austin is destined to evolve as the city does.
For more images of Austin restaurants that do design with a capital D, see the gallery at www.austinchronicle.com.
Editor’s note: This article erroneously reported that the Bitter End was formerly in the space currently occupied by Frank. Our Food editor, Virginia B. Wood, sets the record straight: “The Bitter End was one of Austin's first brew pubs and was located in the 300 block of Colorado, across the street from Mezzaluna and what became Sullivan's Steakhouse. It burned to the ground and the owner of the building declined to rebuild. The popular Eighties and Nineties restaurant in the 400 block of Colorado where Frank is now was called Gilligan’s – owned by Stan Adams (Brick Ovens, Siena) with Charles Mayes as the chef."
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