The team behind Savannah’s the Grey tries Austin on for size
When a restaurant opens a second location, especially in another city, there’s bound to be questions about whether something will be lost in translation. I wonder about this regularly living in a mid-sized Southern city, where news of out-of-town restaurant groups swooping into town to open a location is a daily occurrence. While larger restaurant groups with multiple units and presumably limitless investment dollars can easily plunk down a repackaged version of their tapas (or steak or fried chicken) restaurant in Nashville, Atlanta, or Birmingham, what does a smaller, independently owned outfit have to consider when expanding to a new city?
Capturing Character in Austin
For the owners of Savannah’s the Grey, Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano, who opened the Diner Bar in Austin this past spring, the act of rendering one concept to fit the language of another city meant finding the right partner and determining where they fit into the food scene. The catalyst for opening in Austin came thanks to a friendship with the team behind Thompson Hotels—the hotel group was opening an Austin property and approached the Grey team about collaborating.
Morisano says they liked Austin for its similarities to Savannah, like having a vibrant arts and music scene as well as a bit of college life woven into the city’s fabric. But it was also what the city lacked. Despite a booming food scene brimming with character and flavor, what it didn’t have was the Grey. “There was a space for Mashama’s food here and that was what ultimately made the decision,” he told me on a recent visit to the new restaurant.
Still, the move required aesthetic negotiations. There is a rich story fully baked into the Grey. The pair opened inside a once-segregated art deco Greyhound bus terminal and cultivated a menu of what they call “port-city Southern food.”
It was a bold move that put the pair through a range of highs and lows, especially surrounding race. But since opening in 2014, they’ve edited, honed, and tweaked the concept and menu to craft a more fully realized storyline. (You can, and should, read all about it in their 2021 book, Black, White, and the Grey, published by Lorena Jones Books.)
With such a transparent account of their story out in the world, visiting the Diner Bar feels like following a thread from one chapter to the next—echoes of the original are certainly present, but there’s also the anticipation of what’s to come.
Set inside the base of the gleaming new Thompson, Diner Bar rests at the city’s urban core—a block away from the indie live music venues of Sixth Street, and a short scooter ride away from the casually hip South Congress area. While the high-ceilinged, ground-floor space of a downtown hotel doesn’t quite capture the same character of a Savannah bus terminal, Morisano and Bailey enlisted their original design team, Parts and Labor Design, to revisit the vibe and carry over a bit of the motif. There are spacious booths and pendant globe lights, a nod to the Grey’s diner-esque feel. A navy crosshatch pattern wrapping around the base of the bar is revised from one to the next.
If you’ve been to the original, you’ll catch familial traits in this younger sibling—but it’ll come into its own soon enough. When I was there, Morisano was still expecting a few pieces Austin-created artwork to be installed and some greenery along with it.
The Grey Market
Meanwhile, next door, The Grey Market is up-and-running and already feels like a perfect mashup of New York bodega meets effortlessly cool all-day Austin cafe. A full menu of New York-style and Southern diner staples (bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll; Sunday fried chicken; grits and braised greens) can be eaten at the counter, but there’s also grab-and-go items, strawberry turnovers, wine and beer, cookbooks, and even toothbrushes.
Bailey and Morisano have been fixtures at both spaces since opening but they’ve also brought some talent from Savannah with them and enlisted longtime local Kristine Kittrell to serve as chef de cuisine.
The night I visited, our server explained that the dishes on the opening menu covered a lot of “heavy hitters” from the Grey—but as Bailey and Kittrell find their footing, you can likely expect to see even more Austin on the menu, especially since port-city Southern loses its luster in a landlocked town. Instead, it might veer a bit closer to French soul food. How else do you categorize dishes like foie gras and grits or clams and dumplings?
A Taste of the Menu
Whether you’ve seen these dishes at the Grey or not, they’re freshly conceived here, starting from the top. You could easily go with a selections from the starters to make a meal. One of the very best deviled eggs in the South can be found here, topped with smoked trout roe but there’s also a fried ugali served in a pool of fiery salsa macha—it’s made from finely ground cornmeal that’s cooked down to a porridge, and then crisply fried, giving it a creamy interior that tastes just a bit like popcorn. The roasted carrots might be a sleeper hit. Set over a bed of farro and barley, they’ve still got a bit of bite and offer a good kick of heat thanks to a shower of berbere spice. There’s also beef tartare with a golden orb of egg yolk and a few dollops of bottarga mayo, chicken wings served along with a feta vinaigrette, and seafood boudin with potato salad, once a staple on the Grey’s menu.
The plates offer a bit more heft for one or a nice shareable size for two. Those clams and dumplings are exactly as comforting as they sound, with the doughy dumplings resting in and around a bed of littlenecks, all swimming in an unctuous pesto broth with a pair of garlic-slathered toast points for dunking. Shrimp and Carolina Gold rice, also a favorite from the Grey, is cooked up in a seafood-fortified potlikker for a hint of the sea, plus bits of aged Surryano ham and peas to add texture. Next time, I’ll be back for the chicken fried quail, which gets splayed over bed of grits, or the lamb crepinette, whose origins at the Grey had me wondering why we aren’t all playing with caul fat.
Though the menu does pull from Bailey’s greatest hits, it’ll only develop roots from here, and, with time, it’ll naturally fold itself into and around the Austin food scene to develop a storyline of its own. It goes without saying that it’s all about the team here. As the most recent winner of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, Bailey is primed to continue writing her legacy in this other corner of the South. No translation needed.