To be real
When food scenesters get together, the conversation inevitably turns to gossip. It's usually good-natured chatter – who's in, who's out, who got together and who broke up – but it has recently lost some of its cheer. Everyone seems to agree that there is something missing from Austin's once-exhilarating dining culture; too many choices, too little to recommend.
As for the reasons, we can fill a larder with conjecture. It's no secret that even some of the most celebrated local kitchens are having trouble finding experienced cooks to work the line. Talented chefs are noticed quickly, but only a few have had a chance to develop a point of view to match their technique. Meanwhile, with few obvious market gaps to plunder, restaurateurs are playing it mostly safe with concept. Many are having trouble articulating what makes them different. Everything is made in-house. Everything is locally sourced. From pasta to bread to ice, everything has its own "program."
It's becoming boring as hell, but I'm not sure that everyday diners – those who aren't seeing the same celery root purées week after week – even notice the growing pains. But surely everyone who eats out in Austin is having much more trouble in deciding where to eat. There are more opinions than ever, and very little of it is measured. Diners go from fever to fever, wanting to participate in the frenzied culture without time to form favorites. One feels like a regular if they ever eat at the same place twice.
That culinary wanderlust is finally taking its toll on our local scene. Although new concepts are invariably filling up the real estate, the casualties are becoming a little more noticeable. Bess Bistro was on my list for a new review, having upgraded their cuisine, but closed before I had the chance to revisit. Mulberry, a place I've spent innumerable brunches attempting to drink rosé from a porrón, shuttered before I ever got the hang of it. Friends in the hospitality industry regularly inform me that their restaurant is hurting, including some very well-known names. Those eateries have one thing in common: No one is really talking about them.
That pains me, but the truth is I am complicit. I have the same tendency to be dazzled by the new without really stopping to consider what is notable. Yes, a food editor ignores restaurant openings at his or her own peril, but maybe it's time for "influencers" (a dubious term if ever there was one) to, well, keep it real. I am guilty of being overheated myself – my first look at Métier was one pom-pom short of a pep rally – but it's time we all take a more critical eye. Austin is a hot property, there's still money, and there's definitely still press. But to become a truly world-class food city, we need to recognize all that is good. And we need to stop making excuses for all that is bad.
A note from Virginia B. Wood: I wanted to take this opportunity to let faithful Food-o-File readers know that both the column and I are taking a hiatus so that I can deal with some medical issues that have long been in need of attention. I hope to be up to telecommuting in a few weeks and back to work before the holidays.