What does define Austin dining?
Careful observers of the Austin Chronicle Food section (I hope we have those) might notice that something is missing from this week's edition – a big somethin, in fact. First Plates, our annual celebration of the hundred restaurants defining Austin dining, has been pushed back to the first week of May. Most of that was a matter of logistics. SXSW and the Austin Music Awards are on the horizon, which gave both marketing and editorial scant time to devote to the issue and its associated events. But I am glad for another reason. I eat out almost every meal, and I still don't know what eateries define the city in 2016.
I've talked a lot about closures this year, and there are certainly some spots that will be dropping off that list because they shuttered, but that's not really the problem. The problem is that there are so many Austins to define.
There's the Austin of the glittering high-rises, some housing restaurants that are very, very good (see last week's review of Emmer & Rye). Downtown would be hardly recognizable if I didn't watch it grow, but are the upscale, chef-driven eateries that came along with it any less defined by place than Quack's 43rd Street Bakery?
There's the Austin of eternal hipness. Launderette and Juniper and qui all have superlative food, but, let's face it, we enjoy going to them as much for the comments of "jealous" on our social media feeds. That kind of display, the stitching on $1,000 boots, has been a part of Austin for years.
But we've also always enjoyed a good scuff too – the burgers at Casino el Camino or migas at Star Seeds. Maybe the food isn't on the same level as the new crop of chef-driven places, but soaking up a long night of drinking is about as Austin as Austin gets.
And then there are those places that seem eternal – the places where we took our mom for last year's Mother's Day brunch and where our friends worked. And where the menu changes in slow drifts. It feels like the artichoke manicotti at Eastside Cafe was always just there. And that Austin Land & Cattle always had an amazing happy hour. They quietly lope from service to service, making grooves in the foundation of Austin.
There are chains like P. Terry's and Verts, homegrown and redefining what fast casual can be. And there are indulgences like Jeffrey's and humble trucks like Nainai and hubs of community like Counter Culture. All these define the messy city that Austin is now.
So how do you choose just a hundred? Well, I'm glad I have a few extra months.
There is, of course, one other thing that is missing from the section this week – the inimitable voice of Virginia B. Wood. After almost 23 years at the Chronicle, Virginia has decided to retire. It is difficult to think of any person who has been more essential to the story of Austin food. As a writer, she set the tone for not only what food coverage in Austin could be, but also what the restaurant scene could be. As an editor, she made our food coverage an indispensable weekly read. As our "Food-o-File" columnist, she paved the way for food news to be taken seriously, helping to create today's media landscape. And as a critic, she was always the talk of the town with sharp reviews like her famous 2013 blind item takedown. She remains a wit, a visionary, and a true grande dame. I feel blessed that I got to work with her. See Louis Black's tribute, "Page Two: Of Cabbages and Kings."
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