We went to Dallas over the Easter holiday weekend to have brunch with our daughter. She lives near Plano in a lovely area called The Colony. We ate at a smallish chain restaurant near her apartment called Hash House a Go Go. The wait was well over an hour.
The food was decent but the servings were gigantic. This seems to be their calling card. My daughter and I both ordered a dish that was an amalgam of fried chicken breasts, eggs, a creamy chili sauce, semi-mashed potatoes, biscuits, bacon and cheddar cheese. They had a quote on the menu from Adam Rich, the star of Man v. Food on the Travel Channel; said he loved it. After attempting and failing to finish it, I could see why. My wife had one buttermilk pancake the size of an extra large pizza. She couldn’t finish hers either.
While driving back, we took a little tour of Plano and though we saw dozens of restaurants, they all appeared to be chains. This got me to thinking about Austin’s own restaurant scene.
2016 was a rough year for owner operated restaurants, with a lot of closings for these folks but a bunch of openings at places like The Domain, for example. And if I’m correct, there’s not a single owner operated spot among them.
Fox Restaurant Concepts, a company out of Arizona, owns several eateries at The Domain including Culinary Dropout, North Italia, and Flower Child. I have nothing against these restaurants. In fact, North Italia has long been a favorite, but there’s something special about going into a restaurant and having the actual owner stop by your table for a chat. That’s not going to happen at The Domain.
And if the cost of opening a restaurant downtown gets any costlier, there will be more places like Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille, Bob’s Steak and Chop House, and Fleming’s Steakhouse coming on board (again, these are good restaurants) and high-end owner operated spots like Olivia will be forced either to close or drop down to a more manageable high volume comfort food concept like Lucy’s Fried Chicken. (Now I like Lucy’s, but I loved Olivia).
This may be a reflection of my own bias as a restaurant critic, but there is just something special about dining at a restaurant where the pride of ownership is obvious. I don’t want to see a Hash House a Go Go and its gigantic dishes announcing that Austin will be its next market. I’d much rather see a local Sous Chef boot strapping his personal finances and taking the plunge where he’ll be the Exec and owner (a la Emmer & Rye on Rainey) of a new concept where real artistry and not gimmicky is celebrated.
Time will tell if my vision of chain restaurant Armageddon will come to pass. I hope it won’t in Austin, because there is simply too much talent here. But that local talent needs to be nurtured and supported by local foodies or the next owner-operated opening may well be our last!
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