BY TOBIN LEVY | September 8, 2014 | People
These visionaries are elevating the city’s entertainment and hospitality scene on their own terms. We can’t imagine an Austin without Larry McGuire, Liz Lambert, Freddy Fletcher, and Bridget Dunlap—and why would we want to?
Larry McGuire has built an empire of sophisticated, food-forward restaurants, from the New England-inspired Perla’s on South Congress to the reimagined Jeffrey’s in Clarksville. And he accomplished this in just eight years time. His string of successes with business partner Tom Moorman, starting with Lamberts downtown when he was all of 24, makes him one of the most influential restaurateurs in town.
But McGuire, who also owns Clark’s (Perla’s little brother), Josephine House (Jeffrey’s sister), and the French-Vietnamese Elizabeth Street Café, is not searching for the next big thing in dining. In fact, his impending move is no move at all; he’d rather focus on longevity, on making his existing restaurants an indisputable part of the city’s identity, his inspiration being the classics like Polvos, Vespaio, Chuy’s, and GuÌˆero’s.
“People don’t give those restaurants enough credit,” he says. “Just to keep something going like that—they are Austin institutions. I think we’re getting there with Lamberts and Perla’s, but we have not done it yet. That’s why we haven’t opened any more restaurants and why we don’t have any plans to go outside Austin. We really want them to live here and be here for a long time.”
McGuire is the handsome face of his restaurants, but he wishes that weren’t the case. “I really am pretty shy, and I think that eating out should be about whom you’re with and enjoying the two hours and relaxing. It shouldn’t be about meeting some random person that you saw on Eater.”
Despite his local fame, the concept of celebrity chefs and restaurateurs somewhat confounds him. “I find it funny that people are now interviewing restaurant people on things like gun issues,” he says. “I’m glad people have opinions, but at the same time we’re just here to provide a service and hospitality. I take that pretty seriously.”
Perhaps that’s why you won’t often find McGuire working the room at any of his restaurants. “When I’m there, I’m pretty focused,” he says. “I’m thinking about how good the food is and how dim the lights are.” It is all about the details, which take time to perfect. Already a signature one: the Jeffrey’s valets, who look like young Tenenbaums clad in pink seersucker shorts with reflective piping and yellow Fred Perry polos.
This doesn’t mean that McGuire Moorman Hospitality won’t embark on new ventures. The partners are getting into retail, working with By George owners Matthew and Katy Culmo to help them launch an e-commerce site and remodel the South Congress store. Fashion is a relatively new interest, though his sartorial taste could be described as casually dapper. More than one reporter has gone the way of the red carpet and asked what he was wearing.
In July, McGuire honed his fashion experience by attending his first Men’s Market Week in New York, a favorite retreat. “In New York, it’s nice to be anonymous, to be able to experience restaurants as a diner again.”
Bridget Dunlap has transformed Rainey Street with her bars Lustre Pearl, Clive, Bar 97, and the Container Bar, turning it from a sleepy, hidden neighborhood into a defining hot spot for those who go out on any sort of regular basis. There are now Rainey Street people, along with Sixth Street people, East Siders, and so on. “The East Side is so—and I’m so sick of this word—hipstery,” says Dunlap. “They are the people who ride bikes and whatever. Not my jam.”
The Queen of Rainey Street, as she’s referred to by many, embraces expletives and is unapologetic if that offends those around her. Though she often comes off as snarky on page, she translates differently in person. Yes, she speaks her mind, but she would also be the kind of good friend who actually tells you if your pants aren’t flattering. The Houston native who’s “43, no, 44” loves the city and its outdoor lifestyle, but there’s not an Austin sensibility she feels the need to imbue in her bars. “I wouldn’t think, oh, this piece of Austin is mine. I really need to nurture it and make it into something else for the people.”
In fact, her larger mission is to brand her four Rainey Street bars as a package that could be re-created and placed in college towns across the country. “I want to work smarter, not harder,” says Dunlap.
Part of her business savvy is moving out of her comfort zone in order to appeal to other people’s, such as opening her sports bar, Bar 96, even though it’s impossible to imagine her watching a football game or a ball cap reining in her wild red curls. “You have to look at what people are asking for, and everybody was asking for a sports bar,” she explains. Afterward, Dunlap focused her attention on Mettle, a sleek East Austin bistro with an unexpected menu (fried chicken, fish and chips, and beef tongue tacos) and an extensive list of specialty cocktails she’ll never order. She’s loudly pro Tito’s and Topo Chico, pro red wine, and anti (other people’s) mixologists.
Her final Rainey Street endeavor will be the creation of a new Lustre Pearl across the street from where the original one used to stand after moving to a new location on East Cesar Chavez to make room for a mixed-use development project. The original Lustre Pearl building (which she now refers to as Lustre Pearl East, although it still might experience a name change) will serve food. Dunlap is also working on another East Side eatery, this one Italian and currently dubbed Nuns and Lovers. She plans to have all three open by South by Southwest, at which point she’ll turn her attention to Dunlap ATX, the parent company she runs with her husband, Chris Parker.
On the upper half of her right arm, the names of the two men in her life— Dunlap’s 11-year-old son, Asher Skye, and Parker—are inked in cursive that’s legible from six feet away. In between them is a sizable butterf ly in need of detail, as if it’s on its way to the imago stage, just not quite there yet. The tattoo artist “is annoyed I still haven’t gone back to get the tattoo finished,” says Dunlap. “I was there for four hours. Who can sit still for that long?”
Freddy Fletcher is the epitome of calm while sitting in his tandem kayak in the middle of the Colorado River in Bastrop, where he moved from Austin two years ago. The 60-year-old yoga enthusiast and longtime runner has more than earned this kind of serenity: His ACL Live at the Moody Theater has been an unmitigated success almost from the moment it opened its doors three years ago.
The three-story music venue is such a part of Austin’s nightlife scene that it’s hard to imagine the anxiety that Fletcher lived with during its development. “It was scary thinking people were going to go, ‘You really screwed up a great, historic PBS TV show,’” says Fletcher from his office at ACL Live, which is on the street named after his uncle, Willie Nelson. His fear was that, as the new venue for the iconic Austin City Limits tapings in addition to the regular concerts, he would disappoint a lot of people, including friends and former band mates such as Delbert McClinton and Billy Joe Shaver. (Fletcher used to be a touring drummer.)
“I grew up here and wanted to preserve the history,” he says. “This has always been a music town, and I felt like Austin really needed a world-class facility.” Fletcher’s hope was that he and his partners would build something that would become a legacy like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and they appear to have succeeded, routinely drawing top-name acts—including his uncle and his mother, Bobbie—and sell-out crowds. As for Austin City Limits, the iconic show is in its 40th season, with tapings this year by Nick Cave, Jeff Tweedy, and a star-studded anniversary concert with Gary Clark Jr., Jeff Bridges, Sheryl Crow, and more.
In many ways ACL Live is the antithesis of Arlyn Studios, the 7,000-square-foot commercial recording studio he founded in 1984. Where ACL Live is expansive and distinctly urbane, the studio—favored by some of the industry’s most renowned musicians (the recording roster includes everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ray Charles to Wilco and Toro y Moi)—has been largely restored to the way it looked in the 1950s and ’60s. It has low ceilings, wooden posts, walls, and beams, and is housed in a nondescript South Austin building that was once owned by Willie Nelson and was known as the Austin Opry House, a concert hall that reveled in “Outlaw Country.” “The studio has a lot of history for me,” says Fletcher. He named Arlyn after his late father and remembers his mother playing piano there when he was a boy and a restaurant stood in its place. “Arlyn is my baby,” he’ll likely say, more than once, in even the shortest conversation. Lisa Fletcher, Will Bridges, T. Murphey, and Chief Engineer Jacob Sciba are now partners.
The venue’s exterior.
Fletcher and his associates at Arlyn have a new venture in the formation stage. They are collaborating with a nonprofit whose global initiative is to provide instruments to children around the world. “Right now it’s my number-one project,” says Fletcher. “I firmly believe you’ve got to leave the world better than when you found it. There’s not a better gift than an instrument. You know, music changes people’s lives.”
About 15 years ago, Liz Lambert took a huge risk on a 1930s flophouse and turned it into the Hotel San Jose, a sort of au courant time capsule instantly embraced by a newly burgeoning city particularly wistful when it comes to change. She showcased a design sensibility that was unique and sophisticated without being ostentatious or infringing upon the city’s ethos. The transformation of South Congress soon followed (she also opened the popular Jo’s Coffee next to the hotel), and people started referring to her in one-breath reverence as “Lizlambert.” She was given collective carte blanche to realize her visions.
In 2006, she started Bunkhouse Management to oversee her slow and deliberate expansion, including the Hotel Saint Cecilia in 2008, the first truly high-end boutique hotel in town; the historic Hotel Havana in San Antonio; and the 18-acre El Cosmico trailer and teepee park in Marfa. There’s a fascination with Lambert’s projects, especially the ones still veiled in secrecy.
Bunkhouse’s latest project is a ground-up hotel in Todos Santos, an untouched area in Baja Sur, about an hour from Cabo San Lucas. “It’s in a great little artist village and on the beach, so we’re really excited about that,” says Lambert. Bunkhouse will work again with San Antonio’s Lake/Flato architects on the property.
Lambert is exploring the possibility of more out-of-state projects. When asked if they’ll have a Texas sensibility, she says, “If it means a certain sort of honesty to it, I think so. But maybe they’re talking about a particular type of hospitality, which is a really welcoming one, and which I think we do really well.”
Her properties are all different, but they come about the same way, she explains. “We explore the place and the community, and then we come up with a story of the hotel. Once we have a vision of what that is, we design around it.”
Lambert’s projects also pay homage to Austin’s identity as a music capital. Both the Saint Cecilia, named after the patron saint of arts and music, and the San Jose offer vinyl libraries for guests. Posters of Keith Richards, John Lennon, and Johnny Cash adorn the walls. And every South by Southwest in March, locals flee to South by San Jose to be reminded of what the festival is really about: gathering with friends in a parking lot to listen to bands and enjoy a few beers.
And many Austinites will make the trek to El Cosmico for the eighth annual Trans-Pecos Festival (September 25-28), featuring the Old 97’s, Deertick, Heartless Bastards, and Bill Callahan, among others. With such an expansive landscape to work with, El Cosmico is the project with no end in sight. “All of the properties are special, but this is one I continue to nurture,” Lambert says. Trans-Pecos Festival, September 25-28, 802 S. Highland Ave. El Cosmico, Marfa
PhOTOgraPhY BY MIchaEL Thad carTEr; by casey dunn (josephine house); briana purser (container bar, bar 96); Jonathan h. Jackson (ACL)