The Restaurants of 626 Lamar Reflect a Changing Austin

From Toddle House No. 2 and G/M Steakhouse to Counter Cafe and Garbo's, what's old is new again

The interior of the G/M Steakhouse immediately after its closure in 2005 (photo by Rod Machen)

The building at 626 Lamar is bright white with navy trim, with umbrellaed picnic tables atop a patch of artificial grass. A grab-and-go window beckons passersby with promises of Del's frozen lemonade (a Rhode Island delicacy), caviar, and lobster rolls. The newly installed sign, complete with a neon-pink lobster, proclaims the newest tenant, Garbo's, and while the inside gives off a modern diner vibe, there's a much bigger story to tell: about this building, this street, and this city.

If Austin has a Street of Streets, it's Lamar Boulevard, and of all 18 miles, the several blocks north of Lady Bird Lake house some of the city's most iconic spots. Here, locals and visitors alike can find such staples as BookPeople, Whole Foods, and Waterloo Records. It works as an effective prism into the city's history as well. As Austin has become denser, busier, and frankly wealthier, the landscape has changed from car lots and diners to upscale fashion and chic food.

It's one such diner that exemplifies the changes that have taken place like a tornado all around it, and even to the place itself. The building at 626 Lamar, built in 1946, has been serving food to patrons for decades now, and with every iteration, change becomes manifest.

The building at 626 Lamar, built in 1946, has been serving food to patrons for decades now, and with every iteration, change becomes manifest.

From 1958 to 1974, 626 Lamar housed Toddle House No. 2, a national chain of 24/7 quick-service joints out of Houston, specializing in classic breakfast fare. Before Austin ever sniffed a microchip or a tech bro, there was a hot griddle slinging eggs and potatoes, along with their famous pecan waffles. Even after it changed to a Steak and Eggs Kitchen, breakfast continued to be served until 1979 in the brick, cottagelike structure.

The next occupant of this tiny, nondescript building would end up becoming the most longstanding as well as the most culturally relevant, at least to a certain nostalgic slice of the city. In 1981, G/M Steakhouse moved in, setting up shop on Lamar after a long stint on Guadalupe near campus. Proprietor Gus Vayas was a real character, chomping a cigar while being his lovable, surly self to all comers. The "Breakfast Luncheonette" served greasy-spoon fare, with plenty of grease.

A Toddle House menu circa 1970

G/M Steakhouse made its way into the cultural zeitgeist in Richard Linklater's pioneering 1990 indie film Slacker, in a scene that not only featured Vayas, but also Abra Moore, Poi Dog Pondering's Frank Orrall, and even Chronicle co-founder Louis Black, who wrote about it in a "Page Two" column in 2001, noting his one line – "Stop following me" – berating Orrall, along with a "traumatized yacht owner muttering about sexual dysfunction at the counter." It was the perfect conflagration of time and place, with the diner at ease in the world of late Eighties Austin.

Throughout the Nineties, Vayas carried on. For some, like 1996 newcomer Aaron Franklin, the spot was classic old Austin. "My first time there, I saw the Coca-Cola sign. I was like, 'Oh my God.' The cranky guy was yelling at people, and it was a scene, man. So I got a cup of coffee, pulled out a newspaper, and just sat at the end of the bar."

But times changed, and by 2005, Vayas locked the doors for the last time. The then-Chronicle Food Editor Virginia B. Wood wrote at the time about how the closure reflected the changing face of the city. She noted that while G/M Steakhouse used to be a favorite of Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, current legislators stayed away. This icon from a previous generation just didn't fit into 21st-century Austin.

"The neighborhood changed, tastes changed, smoking in restaurants was banned, and much of Vayas' core clientele is just gone," Wood wrote. "As much as we hate to see anyone lose their restaurant, the life of the GM has come to an end."

Beach vibes at Garbo's on Lamar (photo by John Anderson)

In 2007, Counter Cafe took over operations. The empty building was not without interest; more than 60 people applied to lease it. Owner Debbie Davis saw it as a perfect spot for a more modern diner, one that focused on the best ingredients without leaving the idea of comfort food behind. The place was an instant hit, even garnering statewide accolades for its burger from Texas Monthly.

“It’s the same food. It’s just a more cozy, romantic spot.” – Samantha Garbo on the vibe at Garbo’s on Lamar

Counter Cafe left the exterior of the building pretty much as-is but replaced much of the inside while still keeping the diner aesthetic intact. After more than a decade in business, and with other locations opening, Counter Cafe declined to renew its lease, just weeks before COVID shutdowns hit the entire industry. 626 Lamar was empty once again.

Enter Garbo's. Heidi Garbo, owner of the popular food truck and far north restaurant, decided she wanted a location closer to Downtown, and 626 Lamar was just the spot. While she kept the same 700-square-foot diner layout, almost everything else has changed.

Garbo expresses excitement about moving into a part of town with lots of activity and foot traffic, using the Garbo's food trucks as a vision of how to operate. "We're kind of taking that food truck model over to that space because it is so tiny, and we're putting in the to-go window. So that's kind of a big deal for us having that higher volume."

According to Garbo, there is a thread between the food. While lobster rolls aren't usually considered "comfort food," that designation might be in the eye of the beholder. "We have a very nostalgic cuisine," she said. "The amount of people that we've met over the years from New England, they love to talk about it."

Younger sister Samantha Garbo co-owns and manages Garbo's on Lamar, which opened on March 1, and she sees the expansion of the Garbo's empire as a perfect fit for the new location. "It's the same food. It's just a more cozy, romantic spot."

While no one would have ever accused Gus Vayas and his G/M Steakhouse of being "romantic," the diner vibe lives on. As the city changes all around it, the building at 626 Lamar persists with a different cuisine, but plenty of happy customers.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Toddle House No. 2, G / M Steakhouse, Counter Cafe, Garbo's on Lamar, Heidi Garbo, Samantha Garbo, Debbie Davis, Aaron Franklin, Gus Vayas

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