Numerous factors account for the urbanization that has transformed Texas over the past forty years. But perhaps the most important is an amendment passed by the state legislature in 1970 that paved the way for restaurants in Texas to sell liquor by the drink. It seems odd, but before then, alcohol was not such a kingpin in the world of upscale dining (today, many restaurants with bars count on making a third of their revenue from the sale of cocktails, beer, and wine). By underwriting the cost of fancy chefs, lavish ingredients, and designer interiors, liquor by the drink bankrolled the fine-dining explosion that continues to this day. On the following pages, you’ll find a list of the best new restaurants of 2012 in each of our major cities, along with examples of where people were eating out four decades ago. (To be considered for our best new restaurants list, a place must have opened between November 1, 2011, and November 1, 2012. Second locations are not eligible.) What a difference one law has made.
The country club set repaired to Green Pastures, a gracious historic home, for milk punch and prime rib at Sunday brunch. At the Barn, steaks and giant blocks of Swiss cheese cheered many a dad on his birthday. The Old Pecan Street International Café introduced crepes and quiche to folks who weren’t entirely sure how to pronounce the words. There was also the Capital Oyster Company, a New Orleans–style seafood spot where people table-hopped till the wee hours. And that was about it. Forty years later, Austin supports a thriving culinary scene, exemplified by last year’s best new restaurants.
Elizabeth Street Café
The best seat in the house is the table in the front corner, especially in the morning, when sunlight is pouring through tall windows onto aqua-blue banquettes. Snag that spot for a breakfast bánh mì; one version comes layered with fried eggs, crispy pork belly, avocado, and mint. A lunchtime tête-à-tête with your smartphone at the bar calls for the house special, bún bò huê, a pile of soupy noodles zapped with lemongrass. In the evening, check out the bánh cuôn, squishy crepe-like noodles filled with savory pork and wood ear mushrooms. Owner-chefs Tommy Moorman and Larry McGuire, of Lamberts and Perla’s, understand Americans’ tastes, but the final effect is charmingly exotic. 1501 S. First (512-291-2881). B, L & D 7 days. elizabethstreetcafe.com
When people are scraping their plates for every last bite of candied pork belly and collard greens with soy-balsamic syrup, it hardly matters that some folks think the craze for pig parts is passé. Chefs Harold Marmulstein and Richard Velazquez blew into Austin from Sarasota and Atlanta, respectively, early in 2012, bringing with them the Deep South’s salty, crackly, piggy flavor profile. The two tricked out a modest space on Austin’s East Side and forged a menu that focused on Dixie, with frequent liberties taken. Their oyster boudin fritters, for instance, come with a dollop of pink chipotle rémoulade. Their frilly brussels sprouts leaves are tossed with golden raisins and pecorino. We Texans love us some barbecue, Tex-Mex, and steaks, but Southern traditions speak to our souls too. 1917 Manor Rd (512-391-2337). D 7 days. saltysow.com
In Dallas in 1973, a three-course dinner at a nice restaurant would set you back $5 to $8 a person—$10 if you went crazy. Wine was another $5 to $12 a bottle. Where would you go? Arthur’s and Jamil’s were the default steak destinations. The Old Warsaw, Ewald’s, Patry’s, and Mr. Peppe had a lock on the French-continental end of the spectrum, while Taxco and Ojeda’s could be counted on for Mexican food. What difference have four decades made? Back then, classic recipes were set in stone. Today—as our selection of the past year’s top new restaurants shows—rules are out the window and may the best chef win.
The year’s best restaurant art may well be the color-shifting video oak tree at, of course, Oak. Its trembling leaves turn from azure to magenta as you scan a menu that throws everyday expectations to the wind. For a mod surf and turf, try chef Jason Maddy’s braised octopus and crispy pork jowl with dabs of cilantro purée and a pert aji panca vinaigrette. For a contemporary boeuf bourguignonne, check out the tender wagyu cheek in a deep-flavored red-wine braise, cozied up to carrots, cipollini, and pudgy quark spaetzle. At the end of the evening, you may find yourself reluctant to leave, so comfy are the Nutella-hued leather couches, so serene the spacious dining room. Don’t fret; you will be back. 1628 Oak Lawn Ave (214-712-9700). D Mon–Sat.
It must be the Year of the Octopus. Get the critter in the form of a carpaccio appetizer kicked up by a garlicky Meyer lemon vinaigrette, or go all out with an entrée of smoky char-grilled octopus with marble potatoes that have been wickedly roasted in duck fat. Modest, sometimes cacophonous, always interesting, Driftwood has become Dallas’s seafood destination of choice in gentrifying Oak Cliff. You can order a land animal like milk-poached chicken or a duo of rabbit, but why would you when chef Omar Flores’s Naked Cowboy Oysters in Rio Red grapefruit mignonette beckon so brazenly? 642 W. Davis (214-942-2530). D Tue–Sat.
“French but not too French” is the way co-owner Brooks Anderson and chef-owner Nathan Tate describe their hit bistro. It occupies a sunny ninety-year-old building in Oak Cliff, where gilt-framed mirrors hang on the walls (French) but the waiters wear plaid shirts (not too French). The menu, too, goes its idiosyncratic way. Knowing his audience, Tate puts hot sauce in the casino butter that melts over smoky grilled oysters, and he cooks tender Berkshire pork cheeks in a root beer braise. Most shockingly, he ditches bouillabaisse’s hallowed Mediterranean fish broth for one based on lobster stock. Dallasites are lapping it up, mais oui. 408 N. Bishop Ave (214-942-1828). D