The lack of fine dining in Austin isn't just about cost
With the recent closures of two of the last holdouts of truly fine dining in Austin, I've been thinking a lot about what our city is willing to pay for food. Austinites will shell out for yoga pants or boots or rose gold phones – heck, we don't think much about running hundred-dollar tabs at our favorite bars – but somehow we get miserly when the food bill comes. We grumble endlessly. Why, we're not even full yet.
There's a tension there, as if the hospitality industry is trying to pull the wool over our collective eyes. Austin diners have no qualms in biting the hands that feed them. I was thinking about this when I ran across qui chef Jorge Hernandez's Jan. 9 editorial in the Statesman. In the piece, he defended pricier tasting menus while calling for solutions that will allow fine dining to be experienced by more than a moneyed few. It discouraged me that Hernandez – the talented chef de cuisine at one of Austin's truly visionary restaurants – has to defend what he does at all. His entreaty that "[he] wanted all of the effort we put forth to have value and meaning" made me a little sad.
One of the reasons Hernandez postulates for the staticness in the scene is a lack of a "community that is willing to invest in its food and its dining experiences." But it seems to me that this town is full of people who see the value and meaning in food, from the Austin Food & Wine Alliance to Food+City at the University of Texas to an active food media. There's also no lack of serious chefs. What we are missing is the support of diners. We say we're excited by our burgeoning culinary scene, but really care more about checking in to a restaurant than experiencing what it has to offer. Whatever the price point, fine dining forces us to slow down and actually relish through coursing and communication. And in Austin, even the fanciest single meal is about the same price and time commitment one would spend for an evening at Frank Erwin. Perhaps restaurants should start offering concert tees.
Hernandez ends his editorial with a single line: "Restaurants can be more." That's undoubtedly true. But they can't be more without a customer base that really understands what more is. We don't have that yet in Austin. Even if we start giving the food away.