A Landmark Year in Food

Chronicle Critics' Top Tens for 1995

by Virginia B. Wood

It would be difficult to name a more exciting year for the food business in Austin than 1995. A record number of restaurants, many of them excellent, opened and found enthusiastic local audiences, while several others saw anniversaries of 10, 15, and 20 years and are still going strong. Cookbook sales were up and cooking classes became a popular form of entertainment at several venues. Locally produced food products received recognition in national competitions and continue to develop healthy sales at home, while the coffee-bar explosion looks to carry on far into the coming year. Austin restaurant patrons have been the beneficiaries of the talent competition created by so many good chefs doing their best work. But love it or hate it, there is no denying that Coyote Cafe generated the most conversation in 1995. It may just be that proprietor Mark Miller's greatest talent is for creating controversy, because restaurant professionals and patrons alike spent the entire year speculating about the pink restaurant on West Sixth (look for our review next issue).

You'll find my picks for the top ten restaurant/food happenings of 1995 listed below, followed by the top ten lists of some of our other food writers: Patrick Earvolino, Rebecca Chastenet de Gery, Pableaux Johnson, and Greg Beets.

Top Ten Food Events

1. Coyote Cafe opens an Austin location: The nationally known restaurant chain headed up by Southwestern celebrity chef Mark Miller brought with it a national spotlight that will also eventually illuminate some of the other talented and hardworking restaurant professionals in Austin. End-of-the-year gossip notwithstanding, it now seems that the reports of Coyote's demise were somewhat premature. For the moment, they'll be closing for lunch, and spring plans include a roof-top cantina much like the one at their original Santa Fe location.

2. Restaurant openings revitalize inner city areas: Two homegrown Austin restaurants, Bertram's and Güero's, managed to build successful businesses, restore local landmark buildings, create jobs, and help to renew their inner-city neighborhoods all at the same time and with little fanfare.

3. Two Austin chefs made impressive presentations at the James Beard Foundation House in New York City: Chef/owner Miguel Ravago of Fonda San Miguel and Executive chef David Garrido of Jeffrey's both made stellar splashes in the Big Apple. Ravago presented his restaurant's famous Fiesta Sunday brunch and Garrido prepared the beef dishes that won him the recognition of the Beef Industry Council. Bringing national attention to native Austin restaurants was a great way for both companies to celebrate 20 successful years in business.

4. Local cookbook authors get great showing in national markets in 1995 and there will be more in the coming year: Local authors Lucinda Hutson, Angela Shelf Medearis, and the team of Robb Walsh and San Antonio chef Jay McCarthy were busy promoting cookbooks nationwide. In 1996, look for another book from Walsh, a Threadgill's Cookbook from Eddie Wilson, a low-fat, interior Mexican cookbook from Chronicle food writer Patrick Earvolino, and a regional Mexican cookbook from Fonda San Miguel's Mike Ravago.

5. Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival brought Chefs Collaborative 2000 representatives to Austin: There was just something perfect about Republican Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry hosting a $125 a plate dinner where the hot topic of conversation was sustainable agriculture. Whole Foods Market's LaDonna Higdon gets the credit for bringing the national Chefs Collaborative lineup to Austin and she is busy with corporate fundraising for the growing organization.

6. Food products developed in Austin take a bite out of national markets. From sauces (Timpone's) to nuts (Austinuts), homegrown Austin foods made a big national splash in 1995. And the word is that several small local food companies may pool their creative resources to work out better distribution deals for all concerned in 1996.

7. Cooking school phenomenon flourishes: Fueled partly by the booming cookbook publishing business, cooking classes featuring cookbook authors and celebrity chefs became a popular form of entertainment in Austin this past year. On any given night, patrons could enjoy a great meal complete with recipes and an opportunity to kibitz with the chef while sipping a pleasant bottle of wine at Central Market, Breed & Co., Blanco River Cooking School, Cooking with Marie Claire, or restaurants such as Hudson's on the Bend.

8. Central Texas growers and Austin chefs formed bonds that brought more fresh, local produce to the restaurant table. With the encouragement of events like the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival and What's Cooking in the Park?, local growers and chefs had the chance to get acquainted and began to do some serious business. Hopefully, this trend will grow and strengthen to everyone's benefit in the years to come.

9. Austin restaurateurs recognize their power to raise funds for deserving organizations. Whether the recipient was AIDS Services of Austin or Share Our Strength Hunger Relief, talented local chefs and caring restaurateurs were ready, willing, and able to put themselves on the line to raise money.

10. Homegrown Austin bakeries experience a renaissance. Local bakeries indeed experienced a landmark year with Sweetish Hill celebrating 20 years in business, Texas French Bread reaching the 15-year landmark, and both Upper Crust and Whole Foods Bakehouse closing in on 10 years. All of them seem to be at the top of their form with hearty artisan breads and excellent pastries. Look for the new Schlotzsky's/Bread Alone Bakery and the upstart New World Bakery to join the top ranks in 1996. n

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