Just like the housing market, the restaurant industry is all about location, location, location.
That merciless truth reared its ugly head last weekend when a sentimental favorite of mine, Austin’s Fino, closed its doors for the last time.
But restaurants go out of business every day. Why am I getting misty about this one? Because ten years ago I wrote a story headlined “How to Open a Restaurant.” It was a behind-the-scenes at what it takes to usher a new dining establishment into the world. For eight months I embedded with Fino’s owners, Lisa and Emmett Fox, their contractor, architect, and carpenters, watching it grow from an empty shell full of sawhorses and construction debris to a slick restaurant and bar with a great geometric wooden screen down the middle and a tall vase of flowers on the hostess stand.
There were many anxious moments, and some funny ones too, but only in retrospect. My most vivid memory was the night of the friends-and-family dinner, when Murphy’s Law kicked in with a vengeance: The air conditioning failed. In JULY. And right around the dessert course, some kitchen shelves holding hundreds of plates gave way and crashed to the floor with a sound like an atom bomb going off. (I found out later that somebody had used the wrong size screws.)
But Fino opened the next night and in the first heady years, Lisa and Emmett had every reason to think it would be a long-term success. After all, their Italian restaurant, Asti, in Austin’s Hyde Park, certainly was. And Fino had a lot going for it. It was a pioneer in the small-plate dining trend. It had one of the first community tables in the city. Its Middle Eastern–oriented menu was fairly novel for the time. It was one of the first to use Michael Hsu, who went on to become one of the most sought-after restaurant designers in the state. And one of its first cocktail specialists was Bill Norris, who had a cult following even then.
But all those positives couldn’t counteract the bad-location mojo: Fino was upstairs, a block off a busy street, and not easy to find.
And so it closed. I had dinner there on a pretty Friday night two days before the official last day, April 19. When my friends and I walked in, every one of the little wooden tables on the wrap-around terrace was filled. Many people were craning their necks and taking pictures with their phones. We did the same. We didn’t want to forget. And I’m sure all of us were kicking ourselves, thinking, if I had just come here a little more often, maybe this wouldn’t be happening.
A few days earlier, to bring things full circle, I had met with Lisa and Emmett and asked them to reflect on the end of an era and talk about their next new restaurant, Cantine, which is supposed to open around May in Lamar Union, the hot new shopping complex on S. Lamar.
Texas Monthly: Will any of the “greatest hits” from Fino make the transition to Cantine?
Lisa Fox: The fried goat cheese with honey and red onion jam, for sure—it has been a classic since day one. The pork pinchitos on a skewer, and the flatbread we make in house.
Emmett Fox: The fried olives. And some of the dips, like the muhummara [red peppers and walnuts].
EF: And we’ll have some popular dishes from Asti, like the white pizza, with three cheeses and truffle oil.
LF: But there will be original dishes too. One big thing is that we’ll have all fresh pasta, because we have a fantastic pasta machine. Our executive chef at Fino, Luke Hursey, will move to Cantine.
TM: Is Michael Hsu doing the design?
LF: Yes. The whole room will be very open, with lots of natural light. We’ll have a marble-topped bar.
EF: He wanted to keep it simple and organic. The walls will be covered in loblolly pine “tiles”—as he calls them—that come from trees that were scorched in the big forest fires in Bastrop a few years back. The trees belonged to a friend, who had to cut them down.
TM: What’s the size, compared to Fino?
EF: Similar, but not as big outside. Around a hundred seats, with maybe thirty outside.
TM: If you don’t mind me asking, how expensive was it to do Cantine and how are you financing it?
EF: With private investors, like we did with Fino. It’s at least three times more expensive to open a restaurant now. Shares in Fino were $25,000 each. For Cantine, they were $100,000. Even so, we raised the money in less than a month.
TM: What kind of crowd do you expect?
LF: Probably younger and hipper. We’ll have to keep up!
TM: Was it a hard decision to close Fino? Was it sudden or gradual?
LF: I’d say gradual. Fino was a good business at first. We employed thirty people consistently, but it never really grew like we wanted.
EF: We tried to keep our name in the public eye—we called it the dog and pony show. We were out in public, we did social media. We did some radio. We had a marketing and PR person for years. We even considered renting space on that billboard right out there at Lamar and Twenty-ninth, but it was something like $10,000 a month! We decided against it [laughs].
LF: After the first few years, Fino just maintained. And this last year or two, with so many new restaurants opening in Austin, things started slowing noticeably.
EF: Closing Fino was a very, very hard decision. We loved the place and put a lot into it. And we loved our staff—they did amazing jobs.
LF: The crew took a lot of ownership in the place
EF: So it was really emotional to have to tell them that we were closing. They were crying; they came up and hugged us. But there’s a happy ending, too, because a lot of them are coming over to Cantine. We kept as many as we could.
LF: They’re family.(Emmett and Lisa Fox, center. Photographs by Kenny Braun.)