My department at the newspaper met at the beginning of the year to discuss our ongoing strategy for 2020. We planned to use the symbolic year and its evocation of perfect vision as an opportunity to look to Austin’s future, while glancing back to see how our past might inform our progress.
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Texas, debilitating and destabilizing our way of life.
It all seems so quaint now. The luxury and presumptiveness we had then. The idea that we had the time to consider our past and that we might be prescient enough to imagine the years to come.
Of course, those considerations remain important. But it’s easy to feel disconnected from them now. It can feel like there is no past or future, only the immediacy and disorienting nature of the present.
Beyond being a human being and citizen struggling to understand this time, the pandemic also forced me to reconsider my role as a restaurant critic during this window of our history.
I’ve long described my role as a restaurant critic not just as a person who tells you what tastes good and where you should consider spending your money. I aim to use our dining scene as a mirror to reflect back to us our city, its people, its traditions and its promise.
Reviewing restaurants doesn’t consist of a simple thumbs up or thumbs down; it’s a job that contextualizes businesses and creative enterprises into the historical and contemporary narratives of our town.
But when the coronavirus upended our daily lives and crippled our economy, there was no greater context or narrative. The coronavirus threw a blanket of uncertainty around us, forcing us to reevaluate priorities and focus on more basic needs. The pandemic was the context and the narrative.
Restaurants received a unique and debilitating blow from the pandemic. Dining out is an inherently social activity, one that thrives on crowded rooms, closeness and sharing, of ideas, of bites, of toasts and sips. Coronavirus tore straight through that fabric and left thousands of employees out of work, and restaurant owners and chefs scrambling to keep their businesses alive or at least protected.
So, where did that leave me, a restaurant critic? Well, traditional criticism went out the window, obviously. I started telling people’s stories — tales of owners fighting for survival who turned their dining rooms into retail grocery markets and takeout work-stations, and others who prepared meals for out-of-work industry peers and those experiencing homelessness.
When restaurants were allowed to reopen, I didn’t rush back into dining rooms, instead supporting mainly through gift card purchases and takeout ordering. I’ve dined on a few patios and witnessed restaurants working hard to try to bring some sense of normalcy to people’s dining lives.
But we’re a long way from normal, and I understand diners who don’t feel comfortable entering restaurants or even dining on patios in the near future. And, at the same time, I recognize that restaurant owners, especially those operating the independent restaurants I annually feature in this Dining Guide, can pivot to takeout and ask for rent abatement only for so long, and that an industry that has long survived on tiny margins (10% profit is considered a success) cannot weather much more damage without financial assistance and, eventually, a vaccine.
What becomes of this Dining Guide for 2020? While people don’t ask for my opinions with the daily frequency they once did, I still get emails and texts weekly asking for takeout and patio ideas, so I’m going to include some of those recommendations here, unranked.
As for the “Best Restaurants”? Ranking the best restaurants in town doesn’t feel thoughtful, purposeful or even possible in these unprecedented times. That subjective task is darn near a fool’s errand even in the best of circumstances.
So, you want to know which restaurant I think is the best in town? Every single one of them. Every restaurant that continues to survive in the face of an unknown but terrifying future. Every restaurant that’s providing a living for employees. Every restaurant owner who has fed a hungry former server or dishwasher and struggled to keep her staff and the public safe while trying to make sure she doesn’t lose her house and every dollar in the bank is running the best restaurant in town. Every soul food restaurant, taqueria, barbecue joint and fine dining restaurant still holding on is the best restaurant in town. As is every restaurant that was forced to turn out its lights for good.
In order to give a more specific sense of what things look like on the ground, I’ll also use this space to spotlight some notable Austin restaurants and how they’ve responded to our new reality and share with you what I miss and what I hope is waiting for me and all of us on the other side of this tumultuous moment in history.