Dining scene is heating up

Fresh concepts debut in Southwest Austin area

Austin's buzzworthy restaurant scene does not end at Ben White Boulevard.

A few new restaurants, including District Kitchen + Cocktails and Pieous, are heralding renewed interest in Southwest Austin cuisine, and North by Northwest Restaurant and Brewery began construction in February on a new location in Parkside Village.

Bringing concepts with downtown flair to Southwest Austin is a goal more restaurateurs may aspire to in the next few years, said Philip Speer, director of culinary operations for Uchi Restaurants.

"I think you're going to see more and more of it very soon," he said.

Speer, along with Leo Barrera, managing partner and general manager at Japanese restaurant Uchiko, are gearing up to open St. Philip in Sunset Valley this summer.

Independents on the rise

Speer describes St. Philip as a "thoughtful" restaurant—part pizza parlor, part bakeshop and part culinary workshop.

In addition to pizzas in the $12–$16 range, menu items will include meatballs, pastries, soft-serve ice cream and sandwiches.

"Something that happens at Uchi/Uchiko that not everybody is necessarily aware of is that we have people that walk in the restaurant and can have a full meal without touching sushi, without having any raw food," Barrera said. "We love that people have the ability to do that. We want to have a similar approach here—if somebody walks in [St. Philip] and decides not to have pizza, they can have a full experience without it."

District, a "contemporary new American" restaurant, opened in October on Slaughter Lane, co-owner and chef Amir Hajimaleki said. (See profile on Page 23)

"The feedback has been phenomenal. The number of regulars we have is really something that I definitely did not expect already," Hajimaleki said.

The restaurant's menu, music and industrial decor create a downtown environment, he said.

"You definitely have a lot of fast-casual down here and not enough upscale casual. With the clientele and the demographics you have in Circle C and in this area, I'm surprised not to see more concepts like this down here," he said.

NXNW founder and owner Davis Tucker said he has planned to open the Southwest Austin location for more than two years.

"It just felt right," he said. "When I look around for locations, I ask 'Is this a good demographic for us? Do we think this market is underserved?' And I definitely think that market is underserved."

Slated to open its doors by mid-September, the new NXNW will feature a "comfortable upscale casual" atmosphere similar to that of the north location, Tucker said.

"We've got folks already that drive all the way from [Southwest Austin] to our north location, so I'm glad we'll be able to shorten their trip a little bit," he said.

More independent eateries have opened in the past decade, Cafe Malta owner Nick Goulding said.

"It looks like the neighborhood is getting the attention from restaurateurs that I think it's probably deserved for a while," he said.

Farther west, Pieous opened in February 2013 on West Hwy. 290. Smoke'n Hops opened in August on East Hwy. 290, and Lockhart-based Schmidt Family Barbecue held a grand opening Feb. 11 in the Hill Country Galleria.

Crema Bakery & Cafe opened in April 2013 on Brodie Lane. Owner Jessica Forkner said the cafe offers breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner.

"We're not fine dining. We're not trying to be any kind of groundbreaking [restaurant] except that we don't really take shortcuts. All of our soups we make from scratch; most of our salad dressings we make from scratch," she said, noting one exception is that the shop does not bake its bread. Specials have included lasagna and the Green Grilled Cheese—a sourdough panini with havarti, Swiss and feta cheeses, pesto, spinach and avocado.

Local restaurant PhoNatic Vietnamese Cuisine opened a location in the Southpark Meadows shopping center in June.

A number of national chains including Smashburger and BurgerFi also opened eateries in Southwest Austin in 2013.

Offering families options

In the suburbs, many restaurants offer options for families, said Trish Eichelberger, Austin market chef for 400 Rabbits.

"I think it's probably a really good split," she said, explaining Southwest Austin restaurants seem to fall into one of two categories: places that are child-friendly and places where parents can "escape" within the neighborhood.

400 Rabbits is the latter, she said, citing its mescal and tequila theme, Mexican street food and craft cocktails.

Bordeaux's Prime Steakhouse is among establishments hoping to serve both crowds, co-owner and Executive Chef Larsen Wilkes said. The Dripping Springs restaurant, which opened in 2012, added a partition to its dining area in 2013.

"We have an adults-only dining room, but then we also have a smaller dining room that's for families," he said. "The people who want to enjoy a quieter dinner are really enjoying it."

Culinary focus

Using local ingredients is important to Cafe Malta's customers, Goulding said. The Mediterranean restaurant, which opened in 2011, builds its menu around seasonal ingredients, he said.

Keeping the menu fresh is a priority for Cypress Grill owner John Haug, who plans to add small plates and more craft cocktails to the Louisiana-themed restaurant's menu this spring.

"I'm trying to increase our ability to serve our patrons a little better," he said, adding Cypress has also recently remodeled.

Many chefs point to Jack Allen's Kitchen as a high-quality Southwest Austin restaurant.

Owner and Chef Jack Gilmore said customer service and local ingredients are among the keys to the restaurant's success. He added diners in the area are not looking for "trendy."

"They just want a restaurant to go to where they feel like it's in their community and they're appreciated," he said. "They don't want to go past the river to go eat. They want to stay south of the river."

Southwest Austin has a strong workforce that was not there five years ago, which has attracted restaurants to the area, Gilmore said.

More restaurants coming to the area is a win-win for local businesses, Goulding said.

"As things do get more competitive, it will help every place down here ... that people are thinking of Southwest Austin, thinking of their own neighborhood, as the place to go out at night," Goulding said.

By Kelli Weldon
Kelli joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter and has been covering Southwest Austin news since July 2012. She was promoted to editor of the Southwest Austin edition in April 2015. In addition to covering local businesses, neighborhood development, events, transportation and education, she is also the beat reporter covering the Travis County Commissioners Court.


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