My Conans Pizza story is much like many others. I moved to Austin, lived near the University of Texas at Austin campus, and found the place—which serves deep dish pies both made-to-order and buffet-style—while wandering around the Drag. It was affordable, even on a tight budget. The buffet is still under ten bucks, and a small pizza with a topping, good for a meal and leftovers, is only a little more. Go up in size and you could eat for a week. So when it was announced last week that the campus location of Conans would be closing down, it hit me hard for a place I don’t visit much anymore.
When I moved to Austin in 2002 as a deep-dish-loving Chicagoan, Conans was a welcome respite in a veritable pizza desert. Other options were sparse: Gumby’s was cheap but greasy and cardboard-like, and the Chicago-style Mangia was like a visit to the Uncanny Valley—it looked but didn’t taste like the pizza I grew up eating. Conans, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly Chicago-style: The sauce was under the cheese, and it didn’t aspire to mimic the city’s famous deep dish. It had its own spin on pizza, and it was delicious.
These days, people in Austin looking for good pizza are spoiled for choice. Campus area shop Via 313—which also serves its Detroit-style thick crust in locations down south and on the city’s extremely hip east side—is regularly recognized as one of the best pizza places in the country. Instead of cardboard-thin crust, we can get amazing New York–style pizza at places like Homeslice. There’s a slew of Neopolitan-style pizza at places like Unit-D, Buffalina, and The Backspace. And so maybe it makes sense that Conans, a dependable classic up against trendy competitors, will close the doors of its campus location this summer.
There’ll still be two other Conans restaurants in the family—one in North Central Austin, and one down south—and the pizza at each location tastes the same to me. But there’s a special charm to the Conans on 29th Street. The interior is all dark wood and prints from twentieth-century fantasy art: Conan the Barbarian, of course, but also Tarzan and Red Sonja and the occasional Marvel superhero, painted by artists like Boris Vallejo and Joe Jusko and Julie Bell. It’s the sort of juvenile-but-awesome work designed to appeal specifically to thirteen-year-old boys, especially alongside a slice of pizza and the old-school arcade game cabinet. There are imprints on the ground from when a truck crashed through the front of the restaurant, and a photo of Bono by the register, signed to “Conan” and thanking him for the pizza. There are large family-style tables for when a big group of students splits a few pies, and booths facing the window offer a perfect spot to sit and eat a pizza with a book or a copy of the Austin Chronicle, for those—like me—who often enjoy a solitary lunch.
That’ll be gone soon, and it’ll be a shame, although not an unexpected one. The Drag by UT Austin is constantly changing, of course. During the first year I lived in Austin, the area lost its last record store as vintage clothing stores and bubble tea shops moved in, all of which are now long gone. Before I got to town, Austinites lamented the closing of the Varsity Theater, and the end of the cafes and co-ops immortalized in Slacker. It’s natural for businesses serving a student body to have high turnover, as the undergraduate population shifts entirely every four years. When a beloved restaurant shutters, whatever replaces it will provide different foundational memories for the next crop of young people who come to Austin.
Nonetheless, I’ll miss the campus Conans location, as will others. Because the restaurant has served generations of people who moved near the university in their late teens or early twenties, there are countless Austinites who have similar fond memories of the place. I’ve known people decades older than I am and a decade younger who make their own pilgrimages to Conans every time they visit the city. For a stretch of my mid-twenties, when I was living in Chicago, I would still make it a point to get a pie from Conans every time I would visit Austin—the highest praise from a connoisseur of deep dish.
I’ll still be able to get the pizza up north or down south. But I’ll still be sure to stop by Conans on the Drag at least once before it closes its doors for good on July 22. Hopefully they’ll have a booth by the window for me.