“Hot” Cuisine: Austin Restaurant History, Part 1

October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

That Austin is a foodie’s paradise is no surprise, given that it was founded and populated by men accustomed to French champagne and silver spoons in their mouths. Beginning with the first Presidential banquet in November 1839, Austinites had gourmandise. They kept it through the dawn of the 20th century, when good taste began to gradually melt down into the culinary wasteland that was Austin when I came here to live in 1971. God help you if you wished to stray beyond the dining trinity of barbecue, Tex-Mex, and American Fried.

Austin started life in early August 1839 with a barbecue dinner near the river, given to lure prospective buyers to the first sale of lots in the newly laid-out capital.

When President Mirabeau Lamar, the father of Austin, arrived here in November 1839, he was feted with a banquet at Bullock’s Tavern, Austin’s original restaurant/tavern/hotel. We have no record of the menu served, but it’s a safe bet that roasted meats were prominent of the table.

It was universally acknowledged that Mrs. B’s cuisine could not be excelled in the backwoods of Texas. Those who had partaken of Bullock’s hospitality will never forget the closing part of his grace – “for Christsake Henry hand round the bread!”

And when the Centinel announced on February 4, 1841, that a grand ball would be given in honor of Col. Cook, on Friday evening next, “the fact that Mrs. Bullock is to preside at the supper, will insure a large assembly.

The china and other furnishings from the Bullock’s previous home in Tennessee contrasted with the hand-made, hide-bottom chairs of the frontier to give a unique atmosphere to the inn’s dining room and tavern located on the ground floor.

Soon after the Bullocks, Mrs. Angelina Eberley, who would soon become the heroine of the Archives War, opened a boarding house a few yards west and across from Bullock’s place on West Pecan street.

A November 13, 1839 ad for the Austin City Restaurant on Capitol Hill declared, “The real disciples of Epicurus can at all times be accommodated with the “good things of life” which may be constantly had. Fresh buffalo, venison, turkey, chickens, ham and eggs and beefsteaks, and every delicacy which the market affords.” If the market had anything to afford, as we shall see. J.W. Hann and L.F. Marguerat were the owners.

On November 20, the City Gazette reported on the grand dinner held for Sam Houston on November 14 by Mr. Hall. Lamar’s banquet a month earlier had been relatively cozy, inside Bullock’s Tavern. But Houston’s dinner was an outdoor affair and since it was a raw, cold day, only 200 showed up, Lamar not included. Hall had planned for many more. No mention of the dinner itself was made, but all 43 toasts were described in detail. With all that whiskey, who needed food? Elsewhere in the issue, Whiting does mention “the elegant beefsteak with some hot muffins, well buttered,” that Hann and Marguerat sent over as proof that they are open for business and worth patronizing.

No menus survive, but early merchants advertised their new arrivals in Austin’s two newspapers and give a sense of the nascent city’s priorities: Thompson and Brand were offering flour, old rye whisky, pale and dark brandy, Holland gin, pale sherry wine, sweet wine, porto rico sugar, a few hams and loaf sugar. Instead of maintaining a meat market, they sold you bird shot.

French “Count” de Saligny arrived here on Feb. 1 and a few weeks later, the French brig, Fils Unique, arrived in Galveston with a cargo of “wine, brandy, fruit, etc.,” some of which was destined for de Saligny and the other gourmands of Austin.

On March 11, 1840, Austin’s first recipe was published in the Sentinel, but it wasn’t for some tasty pie or stew. It was a remedy against Indian arrows, given by H. Mollhausen, Capt. of Artillery and Austin’s first architect: Take 16 to 24 sheets of blotting paper, interspersed with layers of silk or cotton, wrap it around your torso like a jacket, and you will be invulnerable to arrows and bullets.

We know from Jno. Harrison’s April 1840 ad that Austinites had cloves, spice, pepper, nutmegs, and pepper sauce at their disposal. Salt was another story. In August 1840 Austin celebrated the discovery of a “strong salt spring” on the Colorado a few miles up the city; the current price of salt being then fixed at $12 per bushel.

Sometime in the late summer or fall of 1840, the “French Restaurant” opened. We don’t know much about the French restaurant, except that its two partners split ways in November 1840, with M.P.L. Duval carrying on the business.

The City restaurant opened on or about October 15, 1840, and earned Austin’s first restaurant review in the October 24, 1840, issue of the Centinel: “At the City restaurant, in the rear of the Travis House, anybody can get just as good a dinner as they want. Day before yesterday we went in and got as good a bowl of turtle soup as could be obtained anywhere. Try — they will give you a good dinner. Such as like good eating at any hour, would do well to call.”

This at a time when the Comanches were raiding town nightly, taking loose horses and whatever they needed or fancied from Austin yards.

In November, a Mr. Matossy announced he had taken the house in the rear of the capitol, safe within the capitol’s stockade, where he was opening a restaurant, confectionary and pastry, with hot coffee ready every morning.

The fierce competition forced Maguerat, the City restaurant’s proprietor, to offer a reduced price, three squares deal to prospective day boarders: $1 per diem, serving “the best the market affords.”

Late in February 1841, the Centinel complained that there was “yet scarcely a single fruit tree within the city limits of Austin,” and now was the time to plant peach, apple, plumb and fig trees.

Austin was home to the French ambassador to Texas, and folks vied for invitations to the lavish dinners thrown by the Count de Saligny, who lived next door to Bullock’s Tavern and across the street from Mrs. Eberley.

In February 1841, H. Brown opened the Log Cabin restaurant one door below the State department on Congress Avenue, where he was “happy to serve up meals to his customers at all hours. Hot coffee, pies, cakes, eggs, etc., ready at all times, serving the best the market affords.”

That phrase, “serving the best the market affords,” would haunt Austin diners for the next 30 years, until the railroad arrived, because, depending on local harvests and the condition of the roads between Austin and the coast, there were times the Austin market afforded precious little in the way of comestibles, and there were more flies than goods at the markets.

In good weather, with good roads, a stagecoach could make the trip from the coast to Austin in two days and a wagon in four or five days. In bad weather, with bad roads, the trip might take a month.

It was a trip that some were willing to take, to satisfy Austin appetites. On March 2, 1842 the Centinel reported: “Capt. Duggan with a full load of fresh Matagorda oysters, the finest lot brought to the market this season. Capt. Duggan will give us another cargo very shortly, as this lot met with rapid sale.”

Incurable optimists that they were, Austin’s founders never dreamed that the city would be cut off from rapid transit until the first train arrived in Austin on Christmas night 1871.

They were convinced that the “cars” and steamboats would soon be supplying them with all the luxuries of life. But the steamboats never came and the cars did not come as soon as expected for a variety of reasons. The first voyage of the steamboat Kate Ward to Austin in 1846, was its last voyage, as things turned out. The Colorado river was not naturally friendly to steamboat navigation and no one had the money to make it conducive to regular travel.

It would take fast trains and cold ice to build an Austin cuisine, given the city’s isolation and near tropic location.

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