Why Are Some of Austin's Smartest Restaurants Heading Toward Dripping Springs?
The Switch, Pieous, and the League look west
When then-fledgling brewers and distillers like Thirsty Planet, Argus Cidery, and Revolution Spirits chose to locate in far Southwest Austin less than a decade ago, the idea seemed like something of a novelty. The farmland was cheap, there were few nearby businesses, and regulations were friendlier than in the central city.
Over the past year, a similar restaurant boom has taken place on the 290 corridor, culminating with this summer's opening of Belterra Village, an outdoor mall with an upscale Sky Cinemas complex, a ubiquitous Torchy's, and three new restaurants from highly regarded members of Austin's restaurant community. Though each project has distinct reasons for choosing the location, collectively they represent the area's ongoing rapid change from quiet Hill Country outpost to booming Austin suburb.
From North To South: The Switch
"We wanted to build something from the ground up," says Catherine Stiles when asked about the origin of the Switch, the family's second Austin-area restaurant. "Stiles Switch is unique, and we didn't want to copy it. We're not a chain."
Stiles cites Southwest Austin's growth, the lauded Dripping Springs ISD, and a proven development partner as factors in their decision to build in Belterra Village. "Endeavor did Domain NORTHSIDE – they understand you can't just do chains in Austin. They incorporate a number of local businesses in their projects." The Stiles team worked with interior designer Fern Santini on the 200-seat space, with accents they describe as "modern farmhouse": There are post oak floors, an oversized rectangular bar, sliding glass patio doors, and photography prints and wallpaper from Wyatt McSpadden. There's an all-star crew working in the pit room and kitchen: Chef Barclay Stratton (Lenoir, Blue Hill) leads the kitchen, while Bill Dumas and Christopher McGhee run a massive pit room with four 1,000-gallon Moberg smokers. Lenoir's Todd Duplechan is also a notable contributor. "Shane [Stiles] and Todd have built an amazing friendship through food. [Todd] was a huge part of our menu development, especially the Cajun dishes, as he's from Louisiana," says Stiles.
Fans of Stiles Switch will find the counter-style ordering familiar, but everything else is new. The restaurant's seating and decor is downright luxurious for a barbecue restaurant, and seems tailored for family outings and large groups. The beverage program is also more robust, and (unsurprisingly) showcases Catherine's "Barbecue Wife" brand Bloody Mary and margarita mixes. Stiles says the learning curve for the team is ongoing. "The lunch crowds and early dinner hours are bustling, but most people don't stay out too late. We're learning what the neighborhood wants and needs."
Initial traffic seems to show an even split between neighborhood guests and Austin destination diners. Though the feel may be more upscale than the original North Austin restaurant, there's no doubt it's a family business – a mural of Shane Stiles' late father walking with his children adorns the exterior wall near the pit room entrance. "He'd intended to retire and work with us on the Switch before he passed," says Stiles. "He wanted to be here, so we made sure he always would be."
Growing Up: Pieous
The Switch's next-door neighbor Pieous had a shorter trek to Belterra – their former space was a mere mile up the road. Having outgrown their wildly popular farmhouse pizzeria, owners Josh and Paige Kaner seized the opportunity to expand without moving away from their home base. "People always ask if we were surprised at our success," says Josh Kaner, "and my smartass response is always, 'Yeah, I started a business to fail.'"
Logistics played a big part in the original Pieous location, recalls Kaner. "We had a young family, the building was close to our house, the area was underserved, and we knew we'd be there 24/7." An almost immediate cult following ensued, with the team's pizzas and pastrami plates collecting numerous best-of accolades. The move to a larger space won't bring about a sea change in the core of the Pieous menu, but rather some incremental expansion. "The bigger kitchen will allow us to make fresh pasta and additional sauces. We'll also have room to expand our pastry shop menu. And you'll see a few additional beers on tap and wine selections."
The end result should make for a more streamlined experience for the diner. "Parking spaces and order lines were always something we were contending with," says Kaner. "The new space has plenty of parking and a better layout – it's best for the customers, and for our staff." While Pieous has been gratified by the neighborhood regulars, they still estimate that more than half of their business comes from Austin. Kaner's parting thought: "This part of Austin is still in the infancy stage. I'd give it a decade before it's fully developed."
The Expansion: The League
In perhaps the best example of the trend, business partners Creed Ford IV and Tony Ciola have made a career out of going where other restaurateurs weren't. The Lakeway natives opened their first location of the League Kitchen and Tavern in 2011 near friends and family. They've since opened Tony C's pizza in Bee Cave and another League location in Avery Ranch. Says Ciola, "We grew up in Lakeway, and my family had a restaurant there [Ciola's], which is where I met Creed. There's something special about a place that's right in your backyard." For the third League in Belterra, the team saw appealing trends in the area. "We target growing, affluent suburbs. We'd like to go to Round Rock and Circle C as well. We'll grow by one to two restaurants a year where Austin is growing," says Ciola.
He and Ford use the touchpoints of familiarity, consistency, and value as their business model. He says, "You want to provide a timeless experience. People want something they can count on, especially when they have busy lives and families." Within the structure, the team works to broadly adapt trends without overreaching. Ciola cites a migration to mostly local beers and spirits in the beverage program as an example. They also work to suit multiple needs and budgets. Says Ciola, "For most people, they visit and order an entrée in the teens. That is our business. But you also have 15 percent of guests that want a nice grilled fish or steak, and lots of families that need a $6 kid's meal. We do that." The team cites good word-of-mouth, coverage in hyperlocal newspapers like Community Impact, and community fundraising nights as primary methods of marketing the restaurant. And the efforts are paying off. According to Ciola, "We see some people three times a week. We're part of their routine. You get to know the customers on a different level."