Downtown Dining: Quo Vadis?

Posted by on Oct 10, 2016 in Rob's Blog

When former Mayor Will Wynn launched his downtown density campaign a while back, the idea was to create a downtown population that could support downtown dining, shopping and general commerce.

Well he achieved that. The last ten years has seen an sunami of building and development unparalleled in Austin’s history. Condos, apartment towers and lofts have sprung up all over. Now we ostensibly have the residents to support downtown businesses and particularly restaurants.

So why are so many restaurants closing? In some cases like the popular LaV on E 7th it was simply a case of an owner getting the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. In others it’s more complicated. Consider the popular Prelog’s on 3rd (formerly an upscale taqueria owned by David Garrido). The food was outstanding and the location gorgeous. But Florian Prelog has closed it and is looking for less expensive space in central Austin. Due Forni at 6th and Congress closed without notice last month as did Cantina Laredo on Colorado along with neighbor Imperia. Tapas bar Malaga on 2nd closed after a long run. And there are more that have closed with several other fine little spots like Il Forte on W 8th hovering dangerously under the radar.

There are a number of explanations for this. But make one thing clear: it isn’t the food. These were all good restaurants.
But there are many other problems. Parking, for one, is hideous. The city has made parking on the street virtually impossible. There are simply not enough valet services to go around and the garages fill up fast.
Landlords have begun to confuse the 78701 zip with 90210. Rents are skyrocketing.
There has been a huge surge in the construction of upscale restaurants in the downtown area so that means more competition for those precious discretionary dollars.

As an uber foodie I’m thrilled to see all these new openings. But as a realist I’m wondering if downtown density hasn’t risen up and bitten us in the proverbial derrière. It costs far more to live downtown. That cuts into discretionary budgets. Yes many downtown diners can now simply walk to a restaurant. But there are apparently not enough of these people to support all these restaurants, or they simply don’t have $200 plus for a nice meal with wine on a regular basis. And the folks who drive in from the burbs to dine have to park which brings us back to square one. Which leads to a lot of so-so nights.

Frankly, if I were advising a new restaurant as to a location where they can maximize their investment, I would ask them to think seriously about downtown for a while until things settle out. In the meantime the Domain looms.