Sixth Street Survivors
The Cafes Paradise and Old Pecan Street: still plating after all these years
Paradise Cafe401 E. Sixth, 476-5667
Food served until midnight
In 1981, nightlife in Austin was alive and hopping, and, then as now, Sixth Street was the epicenter of the action. Even more so then: Other areas of town all but rolled up their sidewalks come 10pm. Live music venues like the Continental Club kept things hopping around town, but for a concentration of action, you had to go to Sixth Street, where Esther's Follies was doing its shenanigans in front of the window, Steamboat was rocking, Wiley's bartenders were pouring friendly drinks, Alanas was serving grub, and Maggie Mae's and Old Pecan Street were doing a bustling business. There were other businesses there, too, at that time: retail shops (whose wares went beyond tattoos and sex toys) and legitimate businesses. A good time to open a restaurant/bar, it would seem. Maybe, except that interest rates were in the double digits, the boom had gone out of the oil business, and the effects of a serious bust were felt throughout the state. Ron Nakashima intrepidly forged ahead, opening the Paradise Cafe with a more "what the hell" approach than a Harvard business school five-year plan. When he signed the original 22-year lease, he found it almost laughable to imagine they would be around that long. But they passed that milestone in 2003, and the Paradise Cafe shows no signs of slowing down.
When the mighty cypress doors opened in 1981 to the cafe/bar, the Paradise Cafe was that quintessential Eighties beast known as the fern bar. And truth be told, it still is a fern bar. If you don't know what that good-naturedly derisive term implies, you are too young to have been present in its early days. A fern bar is distinguished from a dive by the obvious plethora of plants that is the foundation of its decorative scheme. The fern bar seeks to attract a less raunchy, though no less party-happy, crowd. "Yuppies" is what they were called back then, and they were ready to party after their hard day earning a buck in offices. Fern bars offer fruity, fun drinks like Bahama Mamas and Piña Coladas. Fern bars must serve food that satisfies salad-seeking women as well as the potato skins and fried cheese sticks that are the foundation of bar food. And a fern bar does well to offer full-service dining, and in this the Paradise Cafe has done very well.
A fern bar, or any other bar for that matter, is only successful if it's a fun place to hang out. The Archangels, a local band that included Charlie Sexton in its ranks, wrote a song titled "Paradise Cafe" that paid homage to its charms with the lyric "drinking your life away at the Paradise Cafe." And if you are inclined to drink your life away, you could do worse than to do it inside the Paradise. The interior limestone walls are the original masonry erected in 1874, when the building housed the Cotton Exchange. The massive and beautiful east side wood wall is the maple flooring that was taken from the skating rink when the Armadillo World Headquarters was demolished in 1980. A windsurfing board is suspended from the ceiling, giving the place a "life's a beach" ambience. And of course, there are masses of plants hanging everywhere.
Its downtown location and hearty menu have led to its success as a lunch destination as well as a nighttime spot. The menu is filled with the usual suspects, like burgers, French dip and club sandwiches, soups, and salads. It also ventures into more elaborate offerings like meat loaf, chicken-fried steak, catfish, pasta, and steak.
A recent Saturday afternoon visit, surely the slowest day and time of the week for the Paradise, proved their commitment to quality. We began with Pink Lemonade ($4.75), a house drink of vodka, fresh lemon juice, sugar, soda, and cranberry juice. A drink like this could easily veer into Kool-Aid-with-a-kick territory, but it was refreshing and tart and lovely on a Saturday afternoon. We sampled the chicken tender appetizer ($6.75), a cheeseburger with sautéed mushrooms and fries ($7.90), and a Cajun salad ($6.95). The tenders were an enormous portion of flattened strips encased in a peppery, crisp crust. They came with ketchup, honey mustard, and cream gravy, but they didn't require any dipping, as they were moist and flavorful on their own.
The burger is the real deal: fresh ground, a half-pound, and charbroiled to order. The bun was nicely toasted, and the accompanying fries were first-rate. The salad featured a hot (both temperaturewise and spicewise), Cajun-spiced sliced chicken breast atop greens. It, too, was decidedly better than what is often served up in similar establishments. The chicken was nicely grilled and spiced and not at all dry, and the greens, although dominated by iceberg and romaine lettuce, were fresh and crisp. If there was any time that the kitchen was going to trot out tired lettuce, overcooked chicken, and burnt burgers, it would be on a sleepy Saturday, but the quality was not compromised at all.
According to owner Ron Nakashima, "The Paradise Cafe hasn't changed much. People drinking here now are the kids of people who were drinking here before. It's always been a party." It's easy to see why: It's still at the epicenter of Austin's night life, and it still follows the formula that put fern bars on the map to stay. Barbara Chisholm
Old Pecan Street Cafe310 E. Sixth, 478-2491
Longevity in the restaurant business is a rare and remarkable accomplishment. A while back, a reader e-mailed asking why we'd never written about the Paradise Cafe, considering its 23-year track record of success in the Sixth Street entertainment district. I dispatched Barbara Chisholm to check out the Paradise (see p.47) but quickly realized that it wasn't fair to laud 23 years in business without also tipping our hat to the longest-running restaurant operation in the same neighborhood. The Old Pecan Street Cafe has been in business for 32 years, long before Sixth Street as we know it today even existed. The Cafe, the original Antone's location, and Gordo's Billiards were businesses that pioneered the long-abandoned hub of downtown commerce and laid the foundation for future development.
I took a great deal of nostalgia with me on my recent visit to the Old Pecan Street Cafe. The year it opened, Pecan Street quickly became the first official restaurant hangout for a group of students living in a West Campus co-op house. Some friends investigated a pool of light spilling out into the deserted downtown street on a late-night bike ride. They came back to the house bragging about the great new place they'd discovered. The turn-of-the-19th-century building was long and narrow, with high ceilings, limestone walls, old hardwood floors, and a small, vine-covered patio in back. Over the next few years, various members of our group spent evenings around tables in the quaint cafe. With Billie Holiday singing mournfully on the sound system, we discovered such then-exotic dishes as Croque Monsieur sandwiches, Steak au Poivre, crepes, and quiche. Along with big slabs of Fat Chocolate cake, we luxuriated in cups of marvelous fresh-ground coffee that the cafe bought from a new shop called Anderson & Co. In those early years, several of us even worked there, cooking or waiting tables in long, starched, white aprons. It was our place.
Graduation brought change and dispersion to our group, while development of the nascent "entertainment district" brought changes to the cafe. We lost touch. The ownership changed hands and the restaurant expanded, moving from 314 E. Sixth to the larger two-story space at 310. The move provided bigger dining rooms, much larger kitchen and bakery facilities, and, eventually, an upstairs banquet room for weddings and parties. During those days, the Old Pecan Street Cafe maintained a reputation for having the best desserts in town, and it owned the "Best Dessert" category in the early days of the Chronicle Restaurant Poll. As Austin's restaurant scene has become more diverse and sophisticated, Pecan Street has dropped off many locals' radar screens, but the restaurant still does an active business with downtown workers and tourists, as well as a large number of rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions.
A new friend joined me on my recent sentimental journey back to the Old Pecan Street Cafe. The plant-lined windows in the front dining room were open to the street, creating a sidewalk cafe feel. A Billie Holiday recording was indeed playing in the background. Our waitress wore a long, starched, white apron, and many of the menu items were described exactly as they had been in the beginning. Of all the dishes we tried, the dessert crepes Guilans ($3.95), with sautéed bananas, almonds, and light rum, was the only one that tasted the way I remembered. Virginia B. Wood
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