As an Austinite in the food and wine industry, people often ask about my favorite restaurants in town. My standard answer has long started, “Other than Uchi . . .” Considering the perpetually booked reservation list and the nightly stream of walk-ins who willingly wait an hour or so for a table, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who responds this way.
This month, the Japanese-inspired sushi restaurant celebrated twenty years, which, considering how hard it is to keep a restaurant in business, is quite a feat. But Uchi did much more than keep its doors open—it revolutionized the dining scene in Austin.
It all began with a restaurant dishwasher named Tyson Cole. Raised in the Woodlands, Cole had been looking for a post-college career path and took a job at the now-closed Kyoto on Congress Avenue in Austin. Watching the meticulous chefs at the sushi bar sparked a curiosity that would eventually earn him a spot on the line. He moved on to work the sushi bar at Musashino in northwest Austin and became more fascinated with Japanese cuisine’s tradition and precise intention.
Early on, he fell in love with the blur of service at the sushi bar: pulling tickets in Japanese and conversing with customers while wielding a dangerously sharp knife. He once described the experience as choreographed chaos.
“I loved when I could hand people a piece of sushi and watch their face light up when they tasted it,” Cole says. “I wanted an opportunity to spread that excitement, push the boundaries, and change how people experienced sushi.”
That opportunity arrived in 2003, when a 1920s bungalow in South Austin, a former French eatery, became available. Uchi is Japanese for “house,” but Cole aimed to make it a home—a place where every seat in the dining room was as fun and intimate as a spot at the sushi bar.
Within its first decade, Uchi established itself as the most sought-after reservation in Austin and inspired numerous other restaurants to join its ranks. The movement placed a national spotlight on the city as a culinary hotspot to be reckoned with.
“There really weren’t many high-end restaurants in Austin at the time besides Jeffrey’s or the Driskill Grill. Uchi changed that,” says Yoshi Okai, who started as a sushi chef at Uchi in 2004 and now helms his own sushi restaurant in Austin, Otoko. “It brought better talent to the kitchen that wasn’t available before, shifting the mentality of working in the kitchen to a high-skill profession.”
Okai is one of many chefs who have honed their skills at Uchi. The restaurant is the former workplace of Philip Speer and Paul Qui, and helped launch the likes of Masazumi Saio of Austin’s Uruko; Page Pressley, formerly of Emmer & Rye; and master sommelier June Rodil of Houston’s Goodnight Hospitality.
Cole and his team started expanding in 2010 to include: sibling restaurant Uchiko in Austin and Houston; Uchi outposts in Houston, Dallas, Denver, and Miami; Uchibā cocktail bar in Dallas and coming soon to Austin; and Loro Asian Smokehouse & Bar, a partnership with Aaron Franklin, in Dallas, Austin, and Houston. (A Los Angeles Uchi and a Scottsdale Uchi are set to open later this year, and there are rumblings about a possible New York location as well.) Over the years, Cole (who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2011) has served celebrities like chef José Andrés, Bill Murray, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Gwyneth Paltrow, and John Legend.
From the beginning, regular tasting meetings included an open invitation for any restaurant staff member—dishwashers, sous chefs, and servers alike—to submit a dish for evaluation. Cole and his executive team tasted everything, and if it passed the first cut, elements would be tweaked, edited, and given a shot on the daily specials menu.
“Uchi opened the creative floodgates in our culinary sphere,” says Philip Speer, who spent more than a decade at the restaurant and is now chef of Austin’s Comedor. “So many chefs came through our kitchens and were given a place to imagine and to execute.”
In 2009, I was offered a catbird seat inside the kitchen to help Cole write Uchi’s eponymous cookbook. But long before I knew Cole, my husband had planned a birthday dinner for me at Uchi.
Days before our reservation, he emailed Cole, whom he had never met, and asked if there was something special the restaurant could do for my birthday. Cole responded promptly that he’d love to come up with something and asked for a few tidbits about me. My husband decided to share a few pieces of intel, including the fact that I was wildly obsessed with unicorns as a young girl. Cole replied that that night’s sixth item on the “Specials Menu” would be for me. On the evening of our dinner, the order arrived as morsels of tender sea urchin bathed in a creamy corn broth. The briny uni tasted of the sea and contrasted beautifully with the sweet spring corn. The name of the dish as it was listed on the menu: uni • corn.
We still love to share how Cole gave me a unicorn for my birthday.
As Uchi has evolved, so have its chefs and leadership team. Yet Cole remains very much a part of the ethos. Although he’s mostly involved in the business aspect of the restaurants, he still stops in a few nights a week at Uchi Austin and Uchiko Austin, talking to guests and delivering bites from the kitchen.
I recently heard a presentation from Will Guidara, restaurateur of New York’s renowned Eleven Madison Park and Nomad, in which he talked about the importance of “unreasonable hospitality.” The idea is that it really isn’t hard to make a memorable impact on people through authentic acts of kindness. It’s something Cole and his team put into practice long before it had a definition. In today’s world, it’s something we could all use a little bit more of, and it’s reassuring to know you can still receive a healthy dose of it alongside an inimitable sushi dinner at Uchi.
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