In 1981, a year after Mother’s Cafe opened in the Hyde Park neighborhood, University of Texas at Austin student and vegetarian John Silberberg was hired to wait tables.
“I’m the newcomer,” Silberberg said.
Along with Cameron Alexander and Anne Daniels, both of whom were hired in 1980, Silberberg quickly rose to the rank of manager. In 1985, the trio bought the restaurant from its owner, Charles Mayes, who went on to open Cafe Josie and, more recently, Cielo Bistro Mexico.
Since then, Silberberg has seen the cafe through the city’s explosive population growth, vegetarianism becoming more mainstream, a serious fire in 2007 and the advent of food-delivery services such as GrubHub.
“I read a Yelp review a few years ago, and it essentially said, ‘Yeah, I enjoyed [Mother’s]. It just seemed like a vegetarian restaurant from the ‘80s,’” Silberberg said. “That’s exactly right, exactly what we are.”
Holding true to the restaurant’s values has helped it not only survive but thrive in Austin’s crowded dining scene.
“We’re a restaurant that believes in the flavor of the actual food,” Silberberg said. “Broccoli has a flavor. Black beans have a flavor.”
To this end, the menu avoids heavy sauces, strong seasonings, and unnecessary salt and sugar.
“If you’re used to eating that way, it can be hard to retrain your senses,” Silberberg said, comparing Mother’s Cafe to a James Taylor song, which could be hard to appreciate if one is used to heavy metal.
Many customers appreciate this approach, as Silberberg and his co-owners learned in 2007, when the restaurant closed for more than seven months following a fire.
“We didn’t know … if [people] would remember us,” Silberberg said.
After extensive repairs, which included replacing the former plant-filled greenhouse with an expanded dining room, Mother’s Cafe reopened.
“All we did at 5 o’clock was turn the deadbolt, and, in 45 minutes, every table was filled,” Silberberg said, adding that the experience was “really gratifying.”
This June, Mother’s Cafe will celebrate its 39th anniversary serving exclusively vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Over the last few decades, Silberberg has noticed customers and employees’ motivations for eating a plant-based diet change, from health concerns to animal welfare and environmentalism.
“More recently ... people don’t like to define themselves,” he said, adding that many are eating less meat without taking an “absolutist” approach and labeling themselves vegetarians or vegans.
“There’s more people eating vegetarian because they want that to be a component of their life to different degrees,” Silberberg said. “And that also brings people into our restaurant.”
But other things remain the same.
“Mother’s reflects a value that the food we eat matters,” Silberberg said. “But it’s not a point of status.”