For more than four glorious decades as the food critic for this magazine, I have been eating my way across Texas. I’ve slurped shoyu ramen in Dallas, stalked the wily barbecued crabs of Sabine Pass, and dabbed stunning mole verde sauce from my lips in Houston. Along the way I’ve watched the state grow from a bit player to a star on the national culinary stage, and I have excitedly welcomed new restaurants to the party while mourning the unlucky favorites that closed. Our economy has seen its ups and downs, but not until the pandemic hit Texas have I been so scared that something truly terrible could happen to our magnificent, rambunctious dining scene.
In the first sign of the carnage that was to come, Asian restaurants in January saw a sudden and steep decline in business caused by panic over coronavirus reports out of China and xenophobia among some diners. In Houston’s diverse Asian district popularly known as Chinatown, Saigon Pagolac, a Vietnamese restaurant, saw its normal Friday night business drop from eighty tables to ten by mid-March. The hammer fell statewide on March 19, when a mandate from Governor Greg Abbott shut down all dining rooms, restricting Texas’s more than 50,000 restaurants to all but takeout and delivery business.
The situation quickly turned dire. At San Antonio restaurant Cured, famed for its charcuterie, chef-owner Steve McHugh went on unemployment with the rest of his staff, not long before he was named as a James Beard nominee for Best Chef: Texas. Tracy Vaught, the co-owner of Houston Mexican restaurant Hugo’s, said everything felt surreal, like the changes were happening in fast and slow motion at the same time. Former Top Chef finalist Tiffany Derry—the owner of Plano’s tiny Roots Chicken Shak—somehow managed a laugh: “I’m planning out menus, I’m cooking the food, I’m delivering the food.” The scene improved in May, when the state allowed restaurants to reopen, first at 25 percent capacity, then 50 percent. On June 12, the number was loosened to 75 percent. But because most restaurants operate on extremely narrow margins, even a small shortfall can leave them unable to pay the rent. Behind the sometimes-jubilant Facebook posts, there was a desperate undertone.
In fact, the restaurant death toll had already begun. Among the first to fall were honored elders, including Threadgill’s, in Austin, where young Janis Joplin once sang. Dallas lost Highland Park Cafeteria, maker of celestial zucchini muffins, and Houstonians mourned the loss of Indika, purveyor of groundbreaking modern Indian cuisine. A closure that hit me hard was Fricano’s Deli, which for years had provided towering sandwiches for this magazine’s monthly deadlines. The grim statistics piled up: the Texas Restaurant Association said on May 21 that 12 percent of the state’s restaurants had closed and warned that the figure could rise to 30 percent. Most victims were small, independent restaurants, some owned by ambitious young chefs, some by actual moms and pops.
Even multibillionaires were not spared. Houston restaurant and casino magnate Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Houston Rockets, furloughed 45,000 employees and closed his nationwide empire, which includes Landry’s and Joe’s Crab Shack, rather than pivot to takeout. As losses reached $2 million a day, Fertitta borrowed $300 million in an effort to keep going. His losses were not more painful than thousands of others, just bigger.
In May, as dining rooms were reopening, I called more than twenty Texas chefs and restaurant owners to ask how they were doing and how they see the future. They seemed compelled to talk, perhaps to make sense of the chaos. After a while, I began to feel like a therapist, honored to have been taken into their confidence. The overarching conclusion? They were barely hanging in there but innovating like crazy. One said, “I feel like we’re creating a new business model on the fly every day.”
Right from the get-go, takeout and delivery were popular, especially offerings like old-fashioned comfort food. In San Antonio, chef Jason Dady of Tre Trattoria, who normally serves artful dishes like handmade gnocchi pan-seared in a blue cheese sauce, hit pay dirt with his take on King Ranch casserole, both as a to-go offering and as one of his new Meals at Home sold at area H-E-B stores. Nancy’s Hustle, in Houston, created the Apocalyptic Bodega, a menu of pâtés, cheeses, and snacky things like lamb dumplings to satisfy the “constant grazing” brought on by being stuck at home, said co-owner Sean Jensen. In Dallas, Donny Sirisavath, of Khao Noodle Shop, delved into his childhood for inspiration. “My mom used to make these stews for us,” including one with pork, eggplant, and kaffir lime leaves, he said. “It travels easily.” Michael Sohocki, of Restaurant Gwendolyn, in San Antonio, agreed that simpler is better: “When you put fancy stuff into an aluminum pan with a plastic lid, the magic is all gone from it.” Desserts stayed in high demand. Fredericksburg chef Rebecca Rather stopped icing pink pig-shaped cookies at Emma + Ollie long enough to observe, “People sure are eating a lot of sugar.”
For the hordes of families looking for a little variety, take-and-bakes and meal kits became a great option. In Austin, former spouses Philip Speer, of modern Mexican hot spot Comedor, and Callie Speer, of decadent brunch specialist Holy Roller, launched Assembly Kitchen, a delivery service offering (literally) half-baked restaurant specialties to finish at home, including her cake-batter pancakes and his bone-marrow tacos. The tamale meal kits from Cuchara Restaurant, in Houston, came with companion video classes.
Barbecue joints, which by their nature are set up for takeout, didn’t have to change much of anything. Demand stayed so steady that a meat supplier who delivers to most of the state said that not a single one of its barbecue customers had closed. Taquerias, Texas’s other iconic culinary institutions, have also endured—the taco, of course, being the ideal to-go food. Rolando Curiel, the owner of Brownsville’s popular El Ultimo Taco Taqueria, hired a fleet of drivers to deliver orders for free, then added a popular birria de res taco that boosted business by 30 percent.
Besides takeout, another revenue stream coalesced around selling groceries and a random array of goods and services. In Houston, at Armadillo Palace, part of the Goode Company group, you could pick up some Post-it notes and Advil along with awesome pecan pies and beef jerky. Dai Due, in Austin, the hunter’s friend, did a brisk business in molasses bacon, camouflage-pattern caps, and Wild Boar Pig Lips–brand lip balm. Houston’s national-award-winning chef Jonny Rhodes temporarily transformed his intimate restaurant Indigo into Broham Fine Soul Food & Groceries, selling sauces, preserves, baked goods, and local produce—then in June, he announced via Instagram that he would reopen Indigo for just one more year and then focus growing the grocery story and its associated farm.
By far the most lucrative play has been booze of all types. Zoom wine tastings sprang up—if you ordered a restaurant’s wine, its sommelier would guide you through the ritual. Margarita sales went crazy after Abbott gave the green light to sell drink packs to go. During one Friday happy hour promotion, the Dallas Mesero restaurants group sold two hundred margarita kits in thirty minutes. In San Antonio, La Gloria restaurant’s first pink margarita truck began roving the streets in late May.
Somehow, in between their sales of fajitas, queso, Skittles, disposable blue gloves, and grass-fed dog food, restaurants found time for good works. Many helped the hard-hit local farmers who normally supplied them, by selling their fruits and vegetables to the general public. Tre’s Jason Dady and his brother Jake converted one of their San Antonio restaurants into a place where laid-off hospitality workers could get free meals. In Houston, chef Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation raised $2 million from March through May for grants to folks in the food and beverage industry. The Dallas group Front Burner Restaurants created a huge temporary free-meal program for workers called Furlough Kitchen. There were soon ten Furlough Kitchens around the country.
After what seemed like eons, but was really just two months, the purgatory of closed dining rooms began to ease. In May, by the time the state had allowed Texas restaurants to admit up to 50 percent of their normal indoor capacity, one had the sense that the dining room of the future had arrived, half-empty and squeaky-clean.
“If you like, we can assign just one server to your table,” said my anxious waiter at Uchiko, a Japanese restaurant in Austin, when I dined there for this story. She gave me a choice of a menu on a smartphone app or on paper (single-use only). And she assured me my table had been thoroughly sanitized. (A few days earlier, at a local steakhouse, I watched a waiter dutifully sanitize the bottle of hand sanitizer that was sitting on the bar. It seemed like the perfect emblem of the new abnormal.)
State regulations have not required customers to wear masks, but some restaurants have been asking guests to use them when entering and exiting. In mid-June, Austin’s mayor declared that masks were mandatory for both employees and customers. A friend of mine joked that she wanted a mask with a little flap for eating and drinking. I thought that was pretty funny; a few days later I saw one online. I also observed a predictable age division: on Rainey Street, in Austin, one night, I passed at least two hundred bar-hopping young people; exactly two had on masks.
Several of the dining rooms I visited while reporting looked a little awkward with their spaced-out tables, but not so much that it bothered me. The bonus was that they were blessedly un-noisy. I looked for the glass screens that some restaurants were installing to block airflow between groups but didn’t see many, probably because of the price. The classy style that Shepherd chose for his Houston restaurants cost around $600 apiece. A Dallas restaurant group made its own out of clear plastic sheets and PVC pipe.
But the best seats in the house (at least until the worst of summer’s heat hits) were outdoors. Tables have been unceremoniously dragged out to patios and even onto sidewalks and parking lots to take advantage of the unlimited seating that is allowed by the state as long as diners are six feet apart.
If restaurants have tried to make dining room changes nonintrusive, the back of the house is bearing the brunt. Chef-owner Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi, of Kata Robata, in Houston, said, “Some of our sushi chefs have sanitized so much their skin is cracked; I feel sorry for them.” Elsewhere in the city, at Shepherd’s UB Preserv and other restaurants, workers went the extra step of delivering silverware and napkins to tables in single-use heat-sealed bags. Joe T. Garcia’s, in Fort Worth, hired a kitchen attendant to keep workers apart. Some places designated a bathroom monitor to patrol the waiting line; that luckless person sometimes had to sanitize the facilities after each visitor. (Browsing the internet one night, I found a new term for the cordoning-off of every other urinal in a long row: social pisstancing.)
At the restaurants whose owners I interviewed, the basic rules were strict. Goode Company required its employees to be tested for COVID-19. It and many others took their temperature daily on arrival. Of all the regulations, the most comprehensive I saw were in Fort Worth chef-restaurateur Tim Love’s eighteen-page safety manual. It forbade employee handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps, then upped the ante by requiring all guests to leave a phone number or email address in case contact tracing was needed. Love was obviously expecting some pushback when he wrote, “If guests decline to complete the form, do not be afraid to turn them away.” His regulations also had advice for managing stress (perhaps an argument with a testy customer?): take five minutes to breathe and refocus.
Despite all of these precautions, though, the risk to workers couldn’t be denied. In June, restaurants around the state have been closing again because of concerns over employee exposure to the virus as cases in Texas began to soar.
Over the course of my interviews with chefs and owners, hearing how their lives had been upended, I was struck not just by the many disruptions but also by how the entire character of our urban restaurant scene had changed. For two fabulous but frantic decades, we had been in an unparalleled growth mode. Every year there had been more glamorous, offbeat, and provocative openings than the year before. Newly minted chefs pushed the boundaries of creativity. Customers swarmed each new restaurant like locusts, then often abandoned it for the next new thing. Prices and real estate went up and up. It became harder and harder for restaurateurs to find a chef, cooks, servers, a location. Everyone in the business wondered how long the boom could possibly go on. And then, just after the ides of March, everything collapsed. Just not in a way anyone could have imagined.
What is the new reality for the Texas restaurant scene? I asked again and again. Two views emerged: short-term and long-range. The short term is easy because it will basically be a continuation of what has worked. Pickup and delivery are here to stay. The grocery sales and Zoom wine tastings and other stopgap measures will last as long as they need to. At the same time, menu prices will gradually rise to help pay for boatloads of sanitizer, gloves, and to-go boxes, not to mention the bills that piled up while dining rooms were shut down. And then, to cover rising meat costs because of virus-related closures at major packers, they will go up some more.
But if things are reasonably clear for the short range, the crystal ball grows dark when looking further out. What else will affect the ultimate survival of restaurants? First, last, and always—money. Most people I spoke to are in business now only because of grants from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Many are also up to their ears in debt. Credit cards have been maxed out, bank loans signed, family members appealed to, landlords cajoled, and investors asked to please pony up a little more. One chef admitted he’d cashed out a chunk of his retirement account. More than a few owners feared a delayed reckoning. Said Derry, of Roots Chicken Shak, “I don’t think it’s going to be a quick thing of just restaurants closing left and right.” Owners will fight to stay open, but if profits aren’t where they need to be, things will get ugly.
If there is a bright spot on the monetary horizon, it is a bill in Congress, the $120 billion Restaurants Act, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in mid-May and has bipartisan support. If passed this summer, it could be huge, making up revenue shortfalls for small operations (no chains allowed). Two prominent Texas chefs, Austin’s Kevin Fink and Fort Worth’s Tim Love, helped lobby for the money by serving on the newly formed Independent Restaurant Coalition, led by outspoken New York and Las Vegas chef Tom Colicchio, the longtime Top Chef cohost. Closer to home, the Texas Restaurant Association has been lobbying the governor and top lawmakers to receive $390 million of the $6.18 billion that was specifically given to Texas from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Ultimately, though, the future of restaurants will come down to the most unpredictable force in all of nature: human behavior. And all I or anyone can do is ask questions, beginning with: Will the relaxed social distancing in Texas that started in May—with crowded beaches and bars—ignite a wave of COVID-19 infections so severe it prompts another dining room shutdown? If so, the consequences will be devastating.
But let’s assume that struggling restaurants manage to stay open at 75 percent capacity, plus patios, for now. Will people go out to eat frequently enough, or order enough delivery and takeout, to keep them afloat? Or will more of us stick close to home, admiring our boxes of sturdy potatoes and dewy lettuces and feeding our sourdough starters? Moreover, will we spend our scarcer disposable income on wining and dining? Yet another unknown is the fate of the enormous business generated by events (the Houston Rodeo, San Antonio’s Fiesta, the hundreds of conventions in our major cities). As Austin chef Shawn Cirkiel, of Parkside Projects, told me, “In a normal year we make forty to sixty percent of our revenue managing South by Southwest events. This year we made nothing.”
Ultimately, though, the future of restaurants will come down to the most unpredictable force in all of nature: human behavior.
Many of us might keep working from home at least part of the time, and some of us could move to the suburbs, where real estate is much cheaper. If so, what would be the effect on boisterous, city-defining restaurant rows like Montrose, in Houston, and Knox-Henderson, in Dallas? I don’t think I like the answer.
In dark moments, I worry over what could happen to our restaurants, to these places that not only nurture and sustain and entertain us but drive tourism, fill hotels, and employ millions. San Antonio and El Paso are defined by their taquerias, Austin by its barbecue joints, Dallas by its steakhouses, Houston by its vast and varied Chinatown. How would those cities feel and function if those parts of their identity were hollowed out?
But in the end, I cling to two hopeful beliefs. The first is that the vast majority of our restaurants will somehow survive. The second is that in the midst of the devastation, there will be new life. Derry is going ahead with her long-planned Roots Southern Table, in Dallas; the people at Nancy’s Hustle are working on Tiny Champions, a pizza spot. Funding for new ventures may be scarce for a while, but it will return. As a venture capitalist told me, investors back restaurants not to make a ton of money but because they believe in the chef (and want a guaranteed table).
And, finally, I am buoyed by what I sensed again and again from the individuals with whom I spoke: a fierce determination to endure. The quick adaptability they showed early on certainly speaks to that. These people are not naive; they know the score. But even as they face more treacherous months ahead, they spoke of their love for what they do, of the dreams they have in spite of everything that’s happened. They said, yes, we’re going to stick with it, and we will come out on the other side.
More than anything, I want to believe they are right.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Out of the Fire, the Restaurant of Tomorrow Is Already Emerging.” Subscribe today.