The Eastside is finally coming into its own as a destination for diners
By Rachel Feit, Fri., May 21, 2010
It's been a long time coming, but finally the Eastside is something of a destination for dining. Since 1962, when I-35 opened along Austin's East Avenue, the Eastside has been definitively and physically segregated from the rest of the city. Homes, businesses, schools, and other institutions were cut off from Downtown, and the neighborhoods, which were mostly black and Latino, were largely ignored by Austin's white majority. Yet over the past two decades, the Eastside has been making a quiet comeback. Initially, an abundance of cheap real estate drove urban renewal. And more recently, the proximity to Austin's revitalized Downtown is fueling both residential and commercial development. Big development projects such as the Pedernales Lofts, Swede Hill Lofts, Waterstreet Lofts, and a barrel of others have significantly altered the Eastside demographic. Today's Eastside is home to a diverse set of residents, reflecting a range of ages, socioeconomic groups, and ethnicities.
Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in particular are drawing people like never before. In fact, the past two years have seen a flood of new places opening around the steadily densifying neighborhoods. They come in all stripes, from hamburger stands like the recently reopened Your Mom's Burger Bar (1701-B E. Cesar Chavez, 474-MOMS) to tonier establishments like Justine's Brasserie (4710 E. Fifth, 385-2900). For the most part, restaurant owners have responded with enthusiasm to the neighborhood quality of the Eastside. Steve and Stephanie Williams loved the neighborhood so much after they opened Bennu Coffee (2001 E. MLK, 478-4700) a little over a year ago that they subsequently bought a house a few blocks away: "One of our regulars is the son of the couple who own Sam's Barbecue; another is a longtime resident who owns a string of truck stops." They also draw a lot of students due in part to their proximity to the university.
"We do get a lot of neighborhood people," said Ryan Blackmore of Your Mom's, which specializes in premium stuffed burgers and homemade french fries. "We like to give discounts to people who walk or ride their bikes, but we also get a lot of drive-up traffic." The manager of the Shuck Shack (1808 E. Cesar Chavez, 472-4242) echoed the same sentiments: "We love being a part of the Eastside; we love the location and the outdoor space we have, but our clientele comes from all over the city."
Despite common perceptions, leasing on the Eastside is no longer a bargain. In fact, most places' rent is pretty comparable to what one would expect to pay in Hyde Park. And not all restaurants have managed to make it. Recent casualties of mushrooming rent include the very popular Cafe Mundi and Primizie Osteria, which both closed earlier this year.
So what does the Eastside have that other neighborhoods don't these days? Possibilities. There is still so much potential restaurant stock on the Eastside – in abandoned warehouses, storefronts, and old buildings – and so much of that available space is an uncarved block. To energetic and creative restaurateurs, opening on the Eastside is an opportunity to create a space that's completely unique and completely their own. Mickie Danae Spencer of the East Side Show Room (1100 E. Sixth, 467-4280) adapted an early 20th century brick storefront into a quirky bricolage that is part restaurant, part gallery, and part music venue. The space is so thoroughly unique, it's like stepping into a film set.
Farther east, Pierre Pelegrin and Justine Gilcrease of Justine's Brasserie worked for two years to convert a 1930s house surrounded by warehouses into a charming tree-shaded cafe with an outdoor patio and pétanque court. The appeal for them was transforming the house into exactly what they wanted. Judging by the crowds, it's exactly what Austin wants too.