AUSTIN, Texas -- For the longest time, eating out was all about us, The Guests. We travel, we read, we cook, we're so utterly cool. But then, sharp young chefs shifted the spotlight onto themselves with smart menus showcasing unique, locally sourced ingredients or time-consuming prep. Now, restaurateurs are ratcheting up the food scene another notch and in another niche.
A growing trend among restaurant owners and chefs is building an empire. Instead of buying real estate and plopping down clones of an original successful eatery, they construct a family, a brand, of focused but seemingly unrelated dining options.
For example, in Pittsburgh, Big Burrito restaurant group oversees Eleven, Casbah, Kaya, Soba and Mad Mex restaurants. Chef Kevin Sousa is also in the game, and moving fast, with Salt of the Earth, Union Pig and Chicken, and Station Street while working on Magarac in Braddock. In Seattle, Tom Douglas has huge success with Dahlia Lounge, Lola, Serious Pie and others. Chef entrepreneurs are building in other cities, too, but the granddaddy of empire building is Danny Meyer in Manhattan with his hospitality group, which includes Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, The Modern, Shake Shacks and more.
What these restaurateurs share is overall vision, sustainable sourcing, unique menus, nonpretentious buildings and consistent, excellent service and focused demographic appeal. And because prix-fixe tasting menus and white tablecloths seem so very last century, this new breed of eatery is casual. Well-informed customers fluent in the worlds of food and beverage are, shall we say, eating it up.
Austin, whose motto is "Keep Austin Weird," has an ideal culture to adapt to the shift away from formal and traditional in favor of funky and fun. Austin's entry in the restaurant portfolio stakes belongs to Larry McGuire and his stable of partners. Sampling the offerings at his five (and soon to be six and seven) restaurants -- Lambert's, Clark's Oyster Bar, Elizabeth's, Perla's and Fresa's -- was a goal for my husband and me when we were in Austin a few weeks ago house-sitting for Bob's daughter.
Besides indulging in a whirlwind restaurant stake-out, we booked plenty of music in the Music Capital of the World, managed to walk around Lady Bird Lake and immerse ourselves in the Texas Hill Country lifestyle.
This trendy, downtown restaurant is always our first stop and often the last when we visit Austin. It's cozy, comfortable, easy to love, and it just feels like Texas. Lamberts is housed in a warehouse-like historic building, but there's nothing old-fashioned about the customers who crowd in here every day of the week. How do you want your smoked, grilled or barbecued meat? Hot smoked or cold smoked, and would that be over hickory or mesquite? Sides are artisanally made or grown products bought from local producers, and all are prepared with an upscale Texas twist. Upstairs, good bands play both early and late toward the end of the week. 401 W. Second St., 78701; 1-512-494-1500; lambertsaustin.com.
Clark's Oyster Bar
I hate brunch buffets. Too much food, too many ingredients, too much competition for the eye and palate. But I do like the idea of late and lazy weekend breakfasts. Clark's hits the spot. The West Austin neighborhood eatery is casual enough to encourage drop-ins, small enough to feel congenial and smart enough to offer national newspapers to those of us who don't talk before coffee and pundits. The space is airy, bright and gleaming, just the setting for oysters on the half shell, simply prepared seafood (cioppino on grits!), caviar and other roe, house-baked bread and preserves, and a carefully curated list of wine, bubbly, shooters and cocktails. When the weather is good, eat outside on the tree-shaded deck. I could mosey back here for lunch or dinner anytime. Clark's almost convinces you that Austin isn't really landlocked. 1200 W. Sixth St.; 1-512-297-2525; clarksoysterbar.com.
Elizabeth Street Cafe
When you see a hot-pink aerial sign looking down on an aqua-trimmed building that had to be something else in a past incarnation, cheek by jowl to a couple of food carts and almost in the shadow of a Collision Repair sign, pull into the parking lot. You've arrived at Elizabeth Street Cafe (subtitle: "Noodles, Banh Mi, Boulangerie"), a Vietnamese cafe and pastry shop. During one late breakfast, I did a face-plant into an Asian bowl of sticky rice, a couple of poached eggs, ginger sausage patties, fresh herb salad, sriracha and hoisin, only coming up for coffee. My husband stuck with French pastries with homemade jams. The house specialty banh mi at lunch is a baguette with chicken liver mousse, pork pate and roasted pork. There is pho served in bowls the size of helmets, flat rice noodles topped with herbs, sprouts and meats: brisket, flank steak, Niman Ranch pork belly and spicy meatballs. And there's bun: noodles with crunchy Asian produce and braised short ribs or pork belly, chicken, flank steak and seafood. We sipped beer, wine and sake. Had there been time, I'd have succumbed to Singapore Noodles and Vietnamese Yellow Curry. With an easygoing attitude, friendly servers and a dyn-o-mite menu, Elizabeth's gets my vote for Best-in-Show in McGuire's quintet of restaurants. 1500 S. First St., 1-512-291-2881; elizabethstreetcafe.com.
Perla's Seafood and Oyster Bar
The menu is contemporary, fish is fresh and delicious and the servers should be cloned. The biggest patio in town is a people-watching grandstand, with the added benefit (or not) of music rolling over conversation from the outdoor stage next door. But maybe the best thing about Perla's is its location on South Congress Avenue, ground central for Austin. A few feet away is Guero's Taco Bar, a funky Tex-Mex eatery set in the 100-year old Central Feed and Seed building. Allens Boots is right up the street if you've tired of your Luccheses. Tesoros Trading Company will hold you captive with arts, crafts, jewelry, rugs and stuff. And Jo's down the block offers a pure Austin experience: hot coffee, good food, cold beer, free Wi-Fi. They book events, sponsor a costumed pet parade. Walkers, bikers, gay, young, old: Jo's is the philosophical center of town. 1400 S. Congress Ave.; 1-512-291-7300; perlasaustin.com.
Fresa's Chicken al Carbon
Famished after an overlong trip to Home Depot and Walmart buying supplies for Bob's "Daddy-Do" list, we pulled into Fresa's, a drive-through/take-out eatery, formerly home to a photo shop. "We'll have the No 1." Butterflied chicken (heritage-bred and pasture-raised), charcoal-grilled on a massive rack of bars that could've been salvaged from a jail cell, pots of wonderful beans and rice, salsa, grill-blackened onions and fresh corn tortillas. We added tres leches cake ice cream (hecho en casa) and, instead of wine or beer, a margarita kit (just add ice and tequila) and headed home for maybe the best, and certainly the most appreciated, dinner of the week. This efficient and cheerful space, under the big cartoon-y chicken sign, just a few blocks from Whole Foods Market, has no indoor seating. But I'd go back in a minute, glad to sit on the curb just to munch Mexican street corn, a breakfast taco or churros with cajeta. And what I'd be looking at across the street is Bacon, a newish mini-restaurant. With Austin's infatuation with all things pork, it's no surprise to find a bacon-based menu: a burger with both ground beef and ground bacon and BLTs but enough vegan choices to please a mixed bag of diners. 915 N. Lamar Blvd.; 1-512-428-5077; fresaschicken.com.
Some of Austin's best food can be found in food trucks, carts and trailers scattered in clusters of threes, fours and more on open lots all around the city. Doing the dishing are amateur and professional chefs. Many have complex, bordering on fancy menus, while others serve genuine homestyle Mexican and Tex-Mex food. Most have picnic tables and umbrellas, and the food is generally excellent. Doughnuts seem to be the latest food craze nationally, and Austin's favorite dunks are made to order in a silver Airstream trailer, Gourdough (love the pun). Monster doughnuts, $4.30 each, have both savory and sweet toppings, plus charges for piled-on toppings, fillings and extra meat. Samples: Flying Pig (bacon and maple syrup), Mother Clucker (fried chicken strip and honey butter), Cherry Bombs (glazed cherry-topped holes, cinnamon sugar and cake-mix topping, Slow Burn (habanero pepper jelly filling, cream cheese topping). If Primanti's restaurants owned a doughnut food truck, this would be it. Just pull over, or find up-to-date daily cart listings at austinfoodcarts.com.
Downtown Farmers Market
On Saturday morning, walking the farmers market is a must. It features the usual produce, jams, honeys and take-home foods along with crafts, live music, chefs' demos and workshops. The Best-of-Show stall is Dai Due Butcher, good for a late morning breakfast of venison tacos, duck-fried rice, smoked pork sandwich, rabbit enchiladas and more. Get to the market early because when they sell out, they sell out. Wash 'em down with a beet soda: vanilla cream soda with beets, cinnamon and citrus (better than it sounds). Good news for Austin, Dai Due will expand to a retail butcher shop soon. The market is open year-round, rain or shine. sfcfarmersmarket.org
Whole Foods Market
The WFM chain's flagship natural and organic foods supermarket at 525 N. Lamar Blvd. is equal parts grocery, cafeteria, restaurant, bar, smokehouse, bakery, florist, candy shop, performance art and cafe, with each one close to the best of its kind. Even if you never cook, the store is a destination. Have lunch, a glass of wine and listen to musicians on the sunny patio. While the car is parked, go across the street to Book People, a superb independent bookstore. wholefoodsmarket.com.
Work off the calories
Take a walk, bike or run along seven miles of trails around Lady Bird Lake, beginning and ending according to your energy. Tour the University of Texas campus, check out the Capitol buildings and wave to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Pull on boots and dance the Texas Two-step at the Broken Spoke or plan a day trip out to Salt Lick for country barbecue. There's a little bit of Pittsburgh here, too. The Steelers bar is Bikinis Sports Bar and Grill, and Antonelli's Cheese Shop plans to carry Crested Duck Charcuterie's artisanal meat products. There's no shortage of things to see, hear, eat and do in Austin.
Marlene Parrish: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-481-1620. First Published March 31, 2013 4:00 AM