Not many restaurants close one night and reopen a little more than two weeks later with a new name, a different menu, and an extreme makeover. But that’s what happened when the co-owners of failing Austin restaurant Gardner reluctantly concluded that if they didn’t make some serious changes, they could kiss their revenue and reputation goodbye. On the evening of March 12, proprietor Ben Edgerton and chef Andrew Wiseheart put a Closed sign on the door of the trendy East Side place they had opened with such high hopes sixteen months earlier. The next morning a battalion of carpenters, painters, and electricians attacked the dining room. In the kitchen, the staff—almost all of whom chose to stay—frantically learned how to cook, plate, and serve more than two dozen new dishes. On March 28, the doors reopened. Goodbye, Gardner. Hello, Chicon.
As a customer who had truly liked Gardner, I was a little dubious about the reincarnation. I had admired the former establishment’s risky vegetable-forward menu and its clean, geometric look (the latter such a welcome departure from the omnipresent Barn Wood and Canning Jar School of Restaurant Design). I fretted that Edgerton and Wiseheart might have had to compromise too much. With trepidation, I texted friends and invited them to dinner. What would we find, I wondered as I parked my car. Immediately, I could see change number one: a string of glowing lights around a congenial patio. Inside, Gardner’s sculptural seating had been replaced by rustic Mexican leather chairs and wooden banquettes with colorful throw pillows. On several tables were small cast-iron serving dishes. Goodbye, minimalist and international. Hello, homey and regional.
We had made a point to arrive before seven o’clock so we could take advantage of happy hour prices on cocktails, which in itself was a huge change. Gardner had started out offering only a tiny selection of mixed drinks (all together now: What were they thinking?). Chicon’s menu opened up to bar snacks and booze, which is probably why there were already more diners in there that night than I had ever seen in Gardner. I scanned the menu, and my fears evaporated: the imagination that had made Gardner’s kitchen special was still intact.
Cocktails in hand (including a sturdy New Delhi Mule with vodka, grapefruit, ginger beer, and cardamom), we fortified ourselves with a smoked-trout dip (tricked out with horseradish-spiked pickled shallots) and a novel carrot hummus (coarsely mashed and studded with crispy slivers of sweet potato). Even better was seductive whipped feta lightened with cream and accompanied by a relish of pickled green tomatoes propped up with onions, mustard seed, and mint (Wiseheart is big on vinegars and fermenty flavors).
Temporarily appeased, we sought out the meaty dishes that are a big part of Chicon’s new identity. Passing up a monster T-bone, offered family style with chimichurri and red-wine butter, we settled on a flatiron steak, which came medium-rare, deliciously charred, and rubbed with an adobo of south-of-the-border spices; its side dish was roasted and smashed fingerling potatoes. Turning to fowl, we went for the grilled chicken, half a tender bird cut up and surrounded (oddly) with broccolini and romaine hearts. We were eating them separately until our waiter suggested making tacos. Of course. We piled everything onto the fabulous accompanying camp bread (think extra-fluffy flour tortillas) and dabbed on two chile sauces (hot árbol and mild guajillo). Our final meaty course was an absolutely terrific burger made from Windy Bar Ranch beef on homemade challah.
Chicon’s menu is concise, with four seafood dishes if you don’t count the beer-battered-fish appetizer. The sautéed striped bass was fine and fresh, covered in a coarse salsa verde involving Aleppo peppers and slivered almonds (a little more salt would have given it some needed oomph). Normally I adore octopus, and this one was nicely char-grilled, but unfortunately the small pieces got lost amid a confusing medley of lima beans, caper berries, chimichurri, and chile aioli. The evening’s finale was a pair of desserts from Wiseheart and pastry chef Mallarie Lujan. Coconut cake was modestly sized and fine-textured, with a bright-tasting basil cream glaze and dollops of lime curd—the flavors sang. We loved a ravishing scoop of ice cream aromatic with honey, lavender, and fenugreek. But the best part was the last: the tab was about two thirds of a typical meal at Gardner.
After subsequent visits, I was curious to talk to Wiseheart and Edgerton to see how they had decided to make such a radical change. So why hadn’t Gardner worked, I asked. Wiseheart said, “It was a matter of numbers. It was very tailored to a specific dining experience, and there wasn’t a broad enough audience.” Edgerton added, “Successful restaurants in the Texas market that emphasize vegetables are extremely small, like Oxheart, in Houston,” which has thirty seats. “We have a hundred and twenty seats.”
The flip side of that realization was that they did have an audience that they weren’t reaching: their East Side neighborhood, with young people and families living on decent but not extravagant incomes. Said Edgerton, “Those folks didn’t think there was anything here for them. Gardner was like a special-occasion restaurant. You felt like you needed to speak quietly and behave yourself. And it was not cheap.”
Once they keyed in on the neighborhood, the solution fell into place. They renamed the business for one of the area’s main streets. They started emphasizing “Texas-style fare” and “wood-fired cooking” and shut up about the vegetables. They changed the way they plated the food. They sold Gardner’s beautiful pottery and furniture in a garage sale.
I asked them if they missed Gardner. They do, but not the headaches. Edgerton said, “Chicon reflects our personalities better. It is actually more who we are.”
1914 E. 6th, Austin (512-354-1480). D 7 days. $$
Opened: March 28, 2016