The New Look of Fine Dining
Austin's emerging restaurant empires
Food culture has changed a lot in Austin since the days when Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe famously flopped after less than two years in business. That was back in 1995, when the high-end Santa Fe chain swaggered into town to teach Austinites a thing or two about fine dining. In the end, it was Austin that schooled Miller about the perils of presumption.
Austin, and particularly Central Austin, has always been slow to embrace out-of-town fine-dining groups. "Chains [from other places] don't seem to make it in Austin," says 24 Diner's Drew Curren. Remember Bar Louie on Sixth Street? The national chain specializing in spendy burgers and craft cocktails lasted less than two years Downtown before shuttering its doors in late 2013. Curren and his partners at ELM Restaurant Group have taken over the lease on that space for a new Italian restaurant that will open later this year. The Austin outlet of the Roy's Hawaii-based chain packed up its Downtown operation after less than five years. McCormick and Schmick's Downtown outlet similarly lasted just a few years before it relocated to the Domain, an environment better suited to the chain's upholstered corporate ambience. Out-of-town fine-dining restaurants that are successful tend to be located along the city's suburban margins, where development relies heavily on big-box mentality and corporate chains.
It's not as if Austin is suspicious of chains. One has only to look at the storybook success of Torchy's, Tacodeli, Hopdoddy, P. Terry's, and other homegrown casual cafes to know that Austin loves its food chains. These places seem to have dialed in to the local fast-food and takeout market in a big way, with no sign of falling out of favor. Schlotzsky's, Chuy's, Kerbey Lane Cafe, and Thundercloud Subs all started here with humble roots. And long before that, Harry Akin built a small kingdom with a string of Night Hawk diners. Food chains have always and will always be a part of Austin's dining culture. It's just that Austin likes to keep it local, maintaining loyalty to homegrown places.
Now local fine-dining groups are also getting in on the action, and they are seriously reshaping the town's culinary landscape. Unlike Torchy's, Chuy's, and P.Terry's, these groups tend not to replicate restaurants. Rather, each new restaurant that is part of the group has its own identity, is its own little art piece.
In the restaurant business, the term "concept" gets thrown around a lot. Restaurateurs I talked to wield the word like a sword, slashing through all that personal fluff about atmosphere, food quality, and hospitality. In restaurant parlance, a concept is an idea or theme that unifies a place and makes it resonate with the dining public. Curren points out, "One of the worst things is being kind of wishy-washy on what [a restaurant] is, because the customer feels it immediately." A concept is the whole package, and it either succeeds or fails. Austin's emerging fine-dining groups are launching exciting new concepts at a steady clip, and so far, we're embracing them.
The New Taste of Austin
On any given night, Downtown's Arro is a beehive of activity. Arro opened less than a year ago to much acclaim for its welcoming take on French bistro cuisine. It didn't hurt that the restaurant's chef and co-owner, 35-year-old Drew Curren, has been steadily gathering national press, first as a would-be contestant on Season 9 of Top Chef (Paul Qui eventually won that season; Curren was eliminated in the early qualifying round), then as one of Food & Wine's People's Best New Chef finalists in 2011. It also didn't hurt that Curren and his partners already have name recognition from two other successful Downtown restaurants, 24 Diner and Easy Tiger. Both are very different concepts, but both have captivated Austin tastes – 24 Diner for its classy farm-to-table comfort foods served around the clock, and Easy Tiger for its friendly beer garden and terrific sandwiches on David Norman's hearty, artisan pretzels and breads.
Not content to hone his craft with the three concepts, Curren's fourth project will open later this year. The new place will be "rustic, honest Italian food," says Curren. "It will be about local, seasonal, well-prepared and balanced food." Four restaurants in five years: Not bad for a guy who couldn't even get a job when he moved here from New York in 2009.
Curren and his partners are hardly unique in this town. Olivia chef James Holmes also owns Lucy's Fried Chicken, the popular South Congress spot that recently opened a second location on Burnet Road. Parkside and backspace chef/owner Shawn Cirkiel opened the Italian-inspired Olive & June in 2012 and just launched chavez, a Southwestern concept in the Downtown Radisson. Meanwhile, well-known restaurateurs Lisa and Emmett Fox, owners of Asti and Fino, will be opening a third restaurant called Cantine in the Lamar Union development later this year. Their concept for Cantine, which will serve rotisserie chicken, pizzas, and homemade pasta, is different from both Asti and Fino in that it will be less tied to genre. "We just want to break outside of the Italian genre and have some fun," says Lisa.
The list of entrepreneurial local restaurateurs goes on. If it seems like every new restaurant that opens these days is a sister project of some other concept, it could be because fine-dining hospitality groups are sprouting like weeds in this town. But what is really happening here? Is this corporate expansionism in its infancy, or is something else going on?
The Big Picture
Hospitality groups are nothing new. They've been colonizing strip malls, shopping centers, and hotels for decades so that now a shopping mall in Dallas looks startlingly similar to one in Topeka. Landry's Inc., owned by Tilman Fertitta, for instance, controls more than 500 restaurants across the country, including household names such as Saltgrass Steakhouse, the Rainforest Cafe, and Cadillac Bar. These sit-down establishments are generally not known for their inventiveness, but rather for consistency and reliability, which is part of what makes them so successful nationally. People know and trust the Landry's brand.
More recently, a few smaller hospitality groups have emerged that are more chef-driven, emphasizing culinary innovation and offering a more personalized approach to hospitality. Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group is generally cited as a model for this new paradigm. Meyer's group, which includes well-regarded restaurants like New York's Union Square Cafe and the Gramercy Tavern, has garnered 25 James Beard Awards. The group currently has 11 restaurant concepts in operation, with restaurants across the country. Even legendary purist Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame), who now has five different concepts spread over four cities, has not been able to resist the lure of empire building. Chef-driven restaurant groups like these have redefined what it means to be part of a hospitality chain.
In Austin, Reed Clemons was one of the first restaurateurs to build a fine-dining group composed of individualized restaurants. In the late Eighties, fresh out of culinary school, Clemons opened the Granite Cafe at 29th and San Gabriel (Fino is there now), filling a gaping void for casual fine dining in the city. Within a few weeks, waits at the Granite topped an hour. The next year he opened Mezzaluna in an old warehouse space Downtown, effectively providing the main attraction in what would become the Warehouse District. "Granite Cafe was successful, but Mezzaluna was really successful," says Clemons, whose restaurant immediately became the place to see and be seen.
Over the next decade, Clemons launched a number of new concepts – most succeeded, though some did not. By the late Nineties, Clemons was operating two Mezzalunas, the Bitter End, the Granite Cafe, Reed's Jazz & Supper Club, and Luna Notte in San Antonio. Then the stock market and tech bubble burst in 2001 and each of the restaurants closed or were sold in domino-like succession. Without partners, and juggling multiple concepts, Clemons had stretched himself too thin, competition had increased, and by 2005, the only restaurant he still operated was Reed's Supper Club near the Arboretum. "When the Domain opened, there were five new restaurants only a mile away, and some were doing the exact same concept." Clemons sold Reed's in 2007. The biggest lesson he learned? Any successful group needs to have partners. "If you're a restaurant group, you want to put together a team."
Virtually everyone I talked to mentioned how important this was. Curren attributes his success to the great partners he has working with him at ELM Restaurant Group. "My partners, we all depend on each other and that's what allows us to keep growing," he says. In spite of the attention celebrity chefs and individual personalities attract, hospitality is, after all, a team sport.
Keeping It Local
Surprisingly, even during the heyday of Clemons' empire, no hospitality group, local or national, ever emerged to challenge his domination of the Austin dining scene. And it took a decade more for the market to catch up with Clemons' original vision.
The modern-day heir apparent to Clemons is without a doubt Larry McGuire, the scruffily handsome 31-year-old Austin native whose group, McGuire Moorman, owns Lamberts, Perla's, Clark's Oyster Bar, Elizabeth Street Cafe, and, most recently, the new Jeffrey's and Josephine House. McGuire, who started in the business while still in high school working as a prep cook for Lou Lambert's Liberty Catering, followed Lambert when he went to work for a corporate hospitality group in Dallas. At age 22, McGuire wrote a business plan for what would become Lamberts, raised money through investors, and within two years had opened his first restaurant, Lamberts, in partnership with Lambert and Tom Moorman.
McGuire Moorman restaurants are among the most highly concepted in town. From the pink pin-striped shorts the valets wear at Jeffrey's to the meat-heavy menu served from the 120-year-old Schneider Building that is now Lamberts, each of their restaurants have very different personalities that saturate every aspect of the business. "I get excited by the whole package," McGuire says. "Having the concept, building the restaurant, creating the food, putting it all together, opening the doors – for sure that's a thrill."
The group has just finished building five new restaurants in five years. Although it is hard to imagine that anyone could maintain quality and consistency with such breakneck expansion, McGuire Moorman restaurants are dizzyingly popular. They are also well regarded among chefs, foodies, and critics alike. In fact, Bon Appétit named Jeffrey's and Josephine House among the country's top 50 restaurants in 2013.
Though McGuire told me that 2014 is going to be the year of no new restaurants, he knows that there will be new concepts in the future. What those are, though, will be partially dictated by the opportunities that present themselves. Despite the appearance of calculated expansion, McGuire claims the business has grown organically.
In fact, that was the theme from all the local groups I talked to, none of whom have long-term business plans, or who even do market research. They apply intuition, local understanding, and experience to decide which concepts will work and which won't.
Austin's emerging restaurant groups are for the most part young and intensely engaged with their craft. They see each new restaurant as a chance to try something new, to grow, and to allow their employees to grow, too. They share a strong commitment to working here and to making Austin a more interesting place to live and eat. About expanding to another city, Curren says, "Ideally, I would stay in Austin and do new concepts because I think Austin thrives on that .... I want to be a part of Austin, part of the growth. I want to stay here and raise my kids." McGuire expressed a similar sentiment. "There is a social component that I take very seriously. I feel like we are part of what's making Austin what it is right now. It's kind of a special place."
Time will tell whether the city's emerging restaurant groups remain exclusively committed to Austin. For now, says McGuire, "it's not like we feel we need to build seven Perla's and then sell it for a bunch of money. Maybe when we get older we'll feel that way, but that's not what it's about right now." What it's about is creativity, craft, and, for now, local commitment.