With an episode of “Chef’s Table” and two James Beard awards under her belt, Mashama Bailey is becoming a household name. But how did the celebrated chef known for her Savannah restaurant, The Grey, end up opening a restaurant in Austin, specifically The Diner Bar?
“It was a little bit out of the blue, but it was serendipitous as well,” she says. It all started when The Grey’s designers embarked on a project with the developers of Austin’s Thompson Hotel. To see the designers’ work in action, the developers headed to Savannah to check out the space and dine at Bailey’s restaurant, about six months after they opened.
A year and a half later, the developers were still thinking about that food, so they came back to Bailey and her business partner, Johno Morisano, to discuss an idea for a new restaurant in Austin. “They thought Austin had a lot in common with Savannah,” she says. “It’s a big college town, it’s a big music town, and it has this kind of funkiness to it that’s very similar to Savannah. And of course, it’s a Southern town. I went out to visit, and I had very similar feelings. I also felt that the food we were going to bring would be a little different from other food we’d seen in the city.” Ultimately, Bailey and Morisano partnered with the Thompson Hotel’s development group and chef de cuisine Kristine Kittrell to open Diner Bar, The Grey’s first sister restaurant. As Bailey puts it, “the rest is history.”
Both restaurants focus on Port City Southern cuisine, which can be difficult to find elsewhere in Austin. “Southern port cities like Savannah had a lot of European influences when they were first settled,” Bailey says. “They also have African influences from the slave ships, and you can get a real sense of the city’s history from the food.” For her Austin restaurant, she wanted to merge the flavors of Savannah with the local ingredients of Texas. That’s where Kittrell, who’s been cooking in Austin for over two decades, comes in. “What’s important to know about Austin is that the food has heavy influences from Mexico and the South,” Kittrell says. “We wanted to be really thoughtful about what Port City Southern means, while incorporating local flavors into the dishes.”
Today, Bailey is known nationally for the Port City Southern cuisine she serves, but when she first opened The Grey, the menu had an Italian format. “We did that for a few years, and we started to get into a bit of a rut,” she says. “We were awarded the best steak in America, which is awesome, but we weren’t a steakhouse. The food was good, but it wasn’t focused. It felt like we were losing the plot.”
That’s when she turned to the work of legendary chef Edna Lewis. “I had heard about her when I was in culinary school over 20 years ago, and she was always sort of in the back of my mind,” explains Bailey. “I really admired the fact that she was a Black woman who was the executive chef of a restaurant. It was in the ’50s in Manhattan, and she had all these cool people coming in and eating her food. Using the term ‘Port City Southern’ and Edna Lewis as the guiding principles of the menu allowed us to really focus. Her perspective on food never gets old, because she uses Southern ingredients over and over again, throughout the four seasons.”
When it came time to open Diner Bar, all the hard work that went into honing the menu at The Grey made for a smooth transition. “We were locked and loaded,” says Bailey. For her Austin restaurant, the team melded classic dishes from the Savannah restaurant with local Texas ingredients to create a dining experience that felt true to both cities. The result? A unique menu packed with history — and flavors that you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere in Austin. Here are the five dishes you should try, according to the women behind the food.
1. Fried Ugali with Salsa Macha
Kristine Kittrell: “This dish is a star. It will never go away no matter what, and I think it’s the perfect example of Savannah meets Austin.”
Mashama Bailey: “Ugali is West African, and it’s simple — it’s really like a corn mush. You just cook the corn flour with water and salt, then you lay it out to dry and eat it with a stew. We cook ours a little tight, then we cut it, bread it, and fry it. What would you say the center is like once it’s cooked through?”
Kittrell: “I think it’s like panisse, or a fried polenta.”
Bailey: “Exactly. Super-fine and super-refined. I thought it was important to go to Mexico before we opened up a restaurant in Austin, so I took a little bit of a hiatus and went to three different places. If I ever do a three-week vacation again, I’m going to stay in one place, because some of it’s a bit of a blur — but I was introduced to salsa macha there. And I’m so happy I was, because when I got back to the States and we opened up in Austin, I started to see salsa macha all over the place. I hadn’t actually realized that it had crossed over the border, but it’s probably been served in Texas for 20 years. It’s a salsa that has peppers, peanuts, sunflower seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices. And I thought, you could find a sauce like that in Savannah.”
2. Goat Crepinette
Bailey: “The goat crepinette is a play on a boudin. It has stewed goat, curried goat meat, Carolina gold rice, brodo, and seasoned plantains. It’s really Kristine on a plate — this is what she loves to do. We’ve been serving boudins at They Grey since we opened, and her reinterpretation of a dish that we see as a staple in Savannah is a great example of how the two cities are married together at Diner Bar.”
Kittrell: “I love goat — the milk, the cheese, and the meat. If I were on a desert island and I could only have one protein, it might be goat. It’s fairly versatile, and I don’t think it’s utilized enough in the U.S. It’s also something that most home cooks don’t mess with. It’s bony, it’s weird, and it’s not like just searing a steak and putting it on a plate. There’s a lot of work required to get to the final product, so I think it’s a really fun item to offer (and order) in a restaurant.”
3. Savannah Red Rice Balls
Bailey: “I first moved to Savannah when I was in elementary school, and my mom cooked this dish starting when we moved, through the rest of my adolescent years. And I didn’t know why she started cooking it or where it came from until I moved back to Savannah as an adult. That’s the cool thing about Savannah — there are a lot of staple dishes from this region that you don’t really see in California or New York. You’re not going to see Savannah red rice or chicken country captain until you come to a place like Savannah. Those dishes feel like a breath of fresh air, and that’s something I was excited to bring to Austin.”
Kittrell: “I think the Savannah red rice balls are going to be around for a long time. They’re Southern, but they’re also Italian. The green goddess dressing is bright and vibrant, and it shows off all the herbs that are in season at the time when you order it.”
4. Chicken-Fried Quail
Kittrell: “The foie and grits gets a lot of credit, because it’s brilliant, and delicious, and decadent, but the next dish I’m going to pick is the chicken-fried quail. As with chicken-fried anything, the grits are on point. I don’t care how hot it is outside. I don’t care how much butter or cream I know goes into those grits. They’re delicious, and they’re beautiful. The grains themselves are artisanal, all either milled here in Texas or from Anson Mills, so they have tooth to them. They’re just creamy and luxurious.
Quail is such a staple of Texas, and we buy them locally from Bandera. I think this dish is another great mashup of Savannah’s The Grey and Austin’s Diner Bar.”
Bailey: “We do a baby bird brunch at The Grey, which is horrible, but it’s true. We’ll take a whole poussin, and we’ll fry it and serve it with red-eye gravy over grits. I think the quail sort of morphed from that. It’s a bird that’s prevalent in Austin, but in Savannah as well. People here go out quail hunting, dove hunting, marsh hen hunting — they shoot a lot of birds here, so we often have quail on the menu in both cities.”
5. Benne Bar
Bailey: “The benne bar was inspired by one of our very first desserts at The Grey, which was a sort of chocolate and peanut butter trifle. It had chocolate pudding, peanut butter whip, crispy chocolate wafers, and these spicy toasted peanuts, and it was topped with regular whipped cream and shaved chocolate. That dessert, regardless of the pastry chef, came on and off the menu for probably the first five years.
We brought it over to Diner Bar, but for some reason, it didn’t work there. It was always a little bit too sweet, or a little bit too this, or a little bit too that. At the time, we had a pastry chef who worked with us for a brief stint. She was obsessed with candy bars, so her reinvention of the dish became a bar. It’s a little wafer of chocolate cake, a little peanut butter cream, and chocolate glaze, and it’s dusted with benne seed. I think that’s a very elevated idea that came from a very humble place.”