The 2001 Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll

What an incredible rush the past 12 months have been for the Austin restaurant industry. As the Chronicle's 2000 Restaurant Poll went to press, we were still riding the crest of the high tech financial wave. A new crop of good Italian eateries (La Traviata, Asti, Siena) was just opening, an interesting group of fine dining restaurants (22, Girasole, Emilia's, Eddie V's) was on the horizon, and successful restaurants from other cities (Truluck's, Kenichi, Buca di Beppo) were busy building outlets in Austin, attracted by the allure of dot-com dollars. Our choice of ethnic dining options continued to expand, with eateries such as Bismillah (Pakistani), World Beat Cafe (North African), Coco's Cafe (Taiwanese), Elsi's (Salvadoran), and Marakesh (Middle Eastern) offering their fascinating native fare. A few votes in Florida sent the Bush family to the White House, and an outlet of Austin's most successful fine dining operation to the Watergate Hotel. Jeffrey's restaurateurs Ron and Peggy Weiss and their chefs David Garrido and Alma Alcocer-Thomas experienced their 15 minutes of fame, ably representing Austin's restaurant community in the national press, in NPR interviews, and on network morning shows. Increased national attention on Austin had TVFN and every major food magazine trolling for local stories. Food & Wine magazine was so impressed with what they discovered about Emilia's chef Will Packwood, they named him one of the top young chefs for 2001, the first time an Austinite has made their annual list.

Somewhere during all the restaurant openings and public adulation, the heady economic wave subsided. Most of the new dot-com enterprises failed when their venture capital ran out and local high tech firms began regular rounds of layoffs as the worldwide PC market softened. Suddenly, the dot-com kids weren't casually dropping $1,000 at dinner, and the high tech wizards were having fewer "money is no object" catered events and expense account meals with each passing week of the new year. A wave of community belt-tightening was in order, and as tax time approached, we were saddened to notice a rash of restaurant closings, saying goodbye to Tocai, Pao's downtown, Little Italy, Little Bombay, Fresh Planet, and 22. Longtime restaurateurs began to speculate about whether we'd see another restaurant purge like the one that hit the industry in the mid-to-late Eighties, casualties of the real estate bust. The good news is that many local restaurants were lucky enough to survive that bust, and most will weather the current economic downturn by tightening their operations and offering customers good food, good service, and good value. And the Chronicle Cuisines section will be right here to report, review, comment, and cajole as things continue to unfold.

The annual Chronicle Restaurant Poll serves as a snapshot of the local food business at a particular time. When the Chronicle food staff (myself, Rebecca Chastenet de Géry, Pableaux Johnson, Mick Vann, Rachel Feit, and MM Pack) met to review the 2001 Readers Poll results and record our own reactions, we were pleased to notice many of our favorite local eateries getting some well-deserved respect from the readers this year. We also heartily encourage readers to sample the restaurants and dishes we've chosen to honor in the Critics Picks for some variety and spice in their dining experiences. We present you with the results of the Chronicle Restaurant Poll 2001. Use them as a guide to dine out with gusto!

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