Two Peas in a Pod

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For two decades, the owners of Eastside Café have been cultivating their “garden-variety” restaurant with fresh, natural ingredients. And the fruits of their labor are literally ending up on your plate. Come and get it, Austin!

About 20 years ago, Elaine Martin and Dorsey Barger had a fresh idea. These days, Martin is the big cheese and Barger spends much of her time playing in the dirt. It’s an arrangement that works well for these business partners, and for Austin. In fact, Martin and Barger’s decades-old restaurant, Eastside Café, has become a staple on the Austin food scene. And the pair say they owe it all to a life- long dream.

In the mid-1980s, before Austin was the bustling city we know today, the restaurant landscape – like much of the Austin – was still evolving. Many of the food institutions Austinites can’t bear to live without were long from being established. But the wheels were in motion, and despite a sluggish economy, Austin was on the brink of something delicious.

Enter Martin and Barger. The two women met at Good Eats Café, the now-defunct old Austin hangout known for its country-fried steak, biscuits and gravy, and other comfort food. As the kitchen manager, Martin was somewhat skeptical when Barger came looking for a cooking job since she didn’t have much experience in a commercial kitchen. But Barger’s time spent working at Kerbey Lane was enough to land her a job at Good Eats.

“I never did end up cooking there,” Barger recalls, laughing. “And that was fine with me. I wanted to wait tables anyway.”

With Martin running the kitchen and Barger taking on a ton of responsibilities in the front of the house, the two had little time for anything other than work. Luckily, by immersing themselves in the daily grind, Martin and Barger became proficient at running a restaurant. Before long, they realized they shared a dream of operating their own eatery.

“From the time I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to own my own restaurant and have it in a little house,” Barger says.

Martin, too, shared the desire to run her own restaurant kitchen. In fact, for years Martin would occupy herself in the late hours of the evening by creating grocery lists for delectable edibles fit for a restaurant menu.

So in 1988, the pair left Good Eats with the intention of opening their own place. They found the perfect location: a charming house-turned-restaurant space on Manor Road, just blocks from I-35. Set on an acre of land, the spot was greatly enhanced by the addition of an organic vegetable garden. Though a garden wasn’t necessarily on their wish list, it was a fortuitous addition to the property.

And after a trip to Berkeley, Calif., where the women visited their culinary hero Alice Waters’ famed restaurant Chez Panisse, they solidified their restaurant concept, making the organic garden a key element.

“From the beginning, we knew we wanted to serve natural, homemade food,” Martin says, adding that preservatives, dried mixes and deep-fried meats were definitely out. “We had a serious identity for the restaurant that included fresh, grilled menu items, and the garden really fit well with that concept.”

Though Eastside Café is not strictly an organic restaurant, everything grown in the on-site garden is organic, and every last piece of that homegrown produce gets used in Martin’s recipes.

With only 15 employees and no advertising budget, Eastside Café opened a mere month and a day after Martin and Barger secured the location, with Martin working as head chef and Barger running the front of house and the garden, and keeping the books.

“It was a little frightening opening a business in a deep recession,” Barger admits, adding that, in the early days, the only customers willing to “brave” a trip the diverse Eastside neighborhood were either University of Texas students or those of the well-educated, cultured “café society.” Initially, Martin and Barger were putting in some brutal hours and were lucky to fill seats.

But as word spread about Eastside Café’s fresh menu with organic produce
pulled directly from the backyard garden, business picked up, and before too long, the owners of Eastside Café were expanding. Within the span of a few years, they enclosed the former patio, remodeling the space into what’s now known as “the Garden Room,” and added an entirely new structure that would house Pitchforks & Tablespoons, the restaurant’s gardening and cooking retail shop. Now Eastside Café employs nearly 60 people, and is always brimming with enthusiastic diners.

The restaurant recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, a true accomplishment in a highly competitive restaurant scene like Austin’s. So what is Martin and Barger’s recipe for success? A hands-on management style has certainly helped the pair achieve such a lofty goal, and their commitment to fresh, seasonal, delicious food has garnered Eastside Café a blue-ribbon reputation. But overall, it is Martin and Barger’s attention to detail and willingness to be flexible that have helped them sustain a great local restaurant.

“We’re two of the hard-headedest women in the world,” Martin says. “We just weren’t going to fail.” Eastside Café has had its challenges, mind you. To start with, Martin and Barger were a couple when they opened the restaurant, but after 10 years, they split up. That, however, has not had a negative result on the business, and the two are still incredibly close.

Then, about three years ago, when Manor Road became hot real estate for trendy new restaurants, Martin and Barger’s business began to wane. But far from throwing in the towel, the pair came up with an idea for their garden workshops – classes that involved garden and wine education, and one darn good meal. Additionally, Barger made a commitment to show up at the Austin Farmers’ Market every Saturday with a refrigerated truck full of Eastside Café food samples for shoppers. Such grassroots marketing ideas helped grow the restaurant’s business.

“Nobody else in the world does what we do,” Martin asserts. “We’re doing a Caesar salad today that was picked yesterday, and we’re doing it for 150 to 200 people. Nobody else does that. I think that’s part of what makes us special.”

Another characteristic that makes these business partners special is their dedication to their community. Eastside Café’s recent 20th anniversary celebration was a fundraiser for several local charities that Martin and Barger support. They raised $6,000 for AIDS Services of Austin, the Waterloo Counseling Center and Urban Roots, a gardening-development project for East Austin youth. But Martin and Barger aren’t stopping there. Throughout the café’s anniversary year, they plan to donate money raised from restaurant events and other sales to those non-profit groups.

With 20 years of restaurant success under their belts, Martin and Barger figure that in the next 20 years they’ll stick to the same simple philosophy that has made Eastside Café such a hit. And in the meantime, Martin plans to channel her mother and grandmother as she teaches herself to make the best homemade artisan breads. After all, she says, is there anything better than homemade tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich with warm artisan bread and a homemade chocolate chip cookie? Now there’s some food for thought.

ARUGULA PESTO

Yields 2 cups

2 cups coarsely chopped fresh arugula

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh spinach

1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh garlic

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons olive oil

Place all ingredients except olive oil in a food processor and puree until smooth. Slowly add olive oil until pesto thickens.

Arugula is one of the great treats of gardening in Austin. It is a fabulously spicy, slightly bitter little green. (Harvest it while it’s young to avoid having it become too bitter.) Used as a lettuce in salads tossed with your favorite vinaigrette, it makes a truly fabulous side dish, or top your favorite fish, a steak or some toothsome pasta with spicy Arugula Pesto and treat yourself to garden heaven.

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