Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater Austin roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen who stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables. This week: Laura McIngvale-Brown of Vince Young Steakhouse.
Laura McIngvale-Brown and huge longorn. [Photo: Patrick Michels/EATX]
Fine dining and football aren’t often found in business together, but damned if the innovators over at Vince Young Steakhouse haven’t stumbled upon a winning combination. You might call this Laura McIngvale-Brown’s Statue of Liberty play – as owner and operator of the downtown juggernaut, Brown, alongside her husband, Austin chef Phillip Brown (not to mention a certain legendary Longhorn footballer), envisioned a restaurant that brings a unique food experience to any patron crossing its welcoming threshold.
With the focus laid squarely on a dynamic menu, always soaking up the best in locally cultivated fare, it’s no surprise that the Steakhouse has become a fixture on the Austin steakhouse scene. We talked to McIngvale-Brown about her friendship with Vince Young--he came to her wedding--and what she learned about hospitality in Las Vegas.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your background? Have you long been a part of the food service industry?
I’ve always been part of the hospitality industry. My parents own a furniture store in Houston, and I always knew growing up I’d be in some sort of retail or hospitality [industry]. I ended up going to the University of Houston, at Conrad-Hilton College there, and was a casino management major, actually. I went to Las Vegas, where I had an internship at Caesar’s Palace, and I fell in love with the food and beverage industry while I was there. I came back to Texas – obviously, there’s no gaming here – so you had to look to hotels for food and beverage. My husband had gone to the technical academy, the Le Cordon Bleu, here in Austin (we were dating at the time), and we figured that we’d eventually open a restaurant. After we got married, we decided to open up the Steakhouse, which was in 2010, and ever since then we’ve just been in the industry full time. Phillip worked previously in restaurants here in Austin, and I’ve always been in the hotel industry, but as for our first major business, this is definitely it.
How did the partnership with Vince Young come about?
We’ve actually been really good friends for many years now. Vince has been like a brother to both of us. He graduated from the University of Texas in 2005, and he came to Houston, where he stopped in my family’s store, and we all became really good friends. My husband and I got married in 2010, and Vince was at the wedding. We announced at the wedding that we were planning to open a restaurant. We were going to open a restaurant here in Austin, and Vince expressed an interest in maybe wanting to be a part of it. We said sure, and jumped at the chance, and that’s how it all came to fruition.
Do any of your skills from working in Vegas carry over to the work you do here?
Oh absolutely. I think the number one thing in Las Vegas is that everything’s derived from service. Everything is based upon the service industry: what you’re going to do for guests, what you’re going to do for clients, day in and day out. I think that’s the number one thing that anybody can learn in the hospitality industry, whether you’re a line cook in the kitchen or you’re a hostess. I think service is just the number one thing, and it’s something that I’ve always carried with me: how to deliver a high level of service to everybody who comes in, when you have to deal with literally hundreds of people a day. That was the thing that I learned from it the most, and took away from it the most. I feel like it has helped me so much in my career in restaurant industry – it’s just general hospitality.
Do you think you’d ever go back to Vegas?
I would love to go back to Vegas. It’s a fun place to visit; I don’t think I’d ever go and live there again, but if the option ever presented itself, I wouldn’t say no right now to the opportunity. I love it there. It’s a great city, but Austin is currently home – I want to be here, I love Austin, Texas, and I don’t plan on leaving any time soon.
What, in your opinion, distinguishes the Steakhouse from other sports ‘n’ steak-type establishments?
Well, I think first and foremost, even with or without Vince’s name on the outside of the building – which obviously we’re so fortunate to have, since he’s such a huge draw in Austin – we would be the same restaurant. We know that. We’ve set ourself up as a fine-dining local steakhouse, and we really want to let the people know what we are. We’re not a sports bar. We do have a beautiful bar where we play games, but our heart and soul is that we really are a fine-dining steakhouse. We have a great menu when it comes to composed entrees, for both people who aren’t meat eaters and for those at the Steakhouse for a juicy steak. I really feel that that distinguishes us from everybody else – not in town, but from just steakhouses in general. Most steakhouses have a static menu, but we feel that we have a really great menu going on, and we change our menu seasonally. Many of our items are completely local, so we’re really excited about being able to do those things that you can’t always do when you’re a corporation or a big chain restaurant. Since we’re local and since we own the business, we can make those decisions at the drop of a hat.
Is there any particular trait that you think you bring to the local Austin foodie scene, in specific?
I think for a steakhouse, we’re very different. For instance, every single day, my husband Phillip and I go into the restaurant and work on the menu. We have an in-house chef who bakes our pastries and breads; we really do things that we feel we would do if we weren’t a steakhouse. You know, really using really good composed entrees, and trying to make sure that we’re getting the best produce. We want to make sure that everything that gets to one of our guests is truly something that we’re very proud of.
Do you think the atmosphere at the Steakhouse invites any niche Austin group? How do you create cross-demographic appeal?
You know, I think that we have something for everyone at the Steakhouse – I really do believe that. When people think about going out for a big dinner, steakhouses are frequently the thing that people will go to. Especially in bigger cities. We’re really fortunate here in Austin that we’re surrounded by incredible restaurants that have really nurtured the food scene. We’re really fortunate that so many times, when people do come out to dinner, they do want to go to a steakhouse. We’re really lucky in that aspect, and we feel that we’re bringing food to people who will really enjoy it. There is definitely something for everyone on the menu. We can absolutely accommodate for anybody that comes in. I don’t really think that we have to cross demographics. I mean, we serve everyone, from 18-year-olds who just started at the University of Texas to really successful business people here in town. I think the key with any restaurant is the food that you put out, the service that you give, and the experience that you create which your customer walks away with.
Do you have a favorite menu item?
Personally, myself, I’d have to say the short ribs are really fantastic right now. The short rib chili is fantastic – I love it. It’s perfect for it being a little cold outside; people are still eager to order hot, filling foods, so I’d definitely pick it as one of my favorites right now.
If you were to invite the world’s pickiest eater over for lunch, why would you recommend this menu item?
The short rib chili? I think it’s a combination that will really bring you back, even if you’ve never had short rib, or even if you’re not a huge chili fan. I think it’s something where if you try it, I’m pretty sure you’re going to enjoy it. It’s one of those things that I think a lot of people like, even if they’ve never tried short ribs before or have just recently experienced them. It’s really and truly a great cut of beef, and it’s also the kind of meat that’s relatively inexpensive. The way our guys cook it and prepare it, they make it into something that tastes like a million bucks. It’s fantastic.
Describe the atmosphere at the Steakhouse. What’s a typical Saturday night like there?
A typical Saturday night is? busy busy. It really is. From open to close, we’re just really super busy. We get a bit of the bar business, which is nice; we have a really great bar. We have some great TVs where people can watch games, which is nice because we didn’t ever want to be a sports bar, by any means, but we have this great set up where you can come in to watch a game, or a couple can have a quieter night away from the tables in the bar. We consider ourselves just a really chic environment; we had the restaurant designed by someone who was one of Architectural Digest’s top 50 designers in the world. We seat about 150 at one time, so we’re not as big as some of the other steakhouses in town, but we like that we have a really intimate setting. There are some beautiful booths that give the feeling something really stunning, think. The atmosphere is really very stunning.
It’s very Texas without being too burnt orange in your face. It’s a fun environment – it really is a very fun, pretty environment.
Was it your idea to do the specialty cocktails, named after Vince’s career highlights?
We said, well, we’re definitely going to have to throw in football memorabilia somewhere, and we didn’t want to go overboard with it. We wanted to make sure that we still kept up that fine-dining experience goal, but we did want to give a little play on words here and there. Some of the cocktails are named after football things, but besides that, that’s really it when it comes to football-related things on the menu. It’s funny, because as many people who come to the restaurant because of Vince’s name, you get just as many people that come who have no idea who Vince is. So it’s a really nice healthy balance, actually – it’s exciting to be able to cater to Longhorns fans alongside people who have no real interest in football at all.
Could you pick a favorite cocktail from among the specialties?
I am not a big tequila drinker, but I would have to say right now on the menu? the Burnt Orange-tini has always been one of my favorites. Right now, we have on there a gingerberry which is really, really good. I think we have a really good speciality cocktail menu, without being too overboard about it, but ultimately, people at the bar can order whatever they like, and we’re happy to get it for them.
How do you see the Steakhouse – and your role in it – growing and changing over time?
I think that everything’s always evolving. It’s nice being the owner of a restaurant, because you get to really oversee a lot of local evolution, and that really influences what you’re doing in the restaurant. I think that, as Austin gets bigger and as Austin becomes more of a major city, you can put more interesting items on the menu. We are closed on Sundays, and that’s really our only day off, so when we do get a second to get away, we’re constantly going to try new food and experience new food. I think that’s how you always evolve, just by tasting and trying and understanding foods from everybody who makes it. Food is such an amazing thing that there’s always something you can learn from anybody, whether it’s a five-star restaurant in the middle of downtown, or just your little local hole-in-the-wall place. I think you can always learn something about food.
-- by Emma Kat Richardson
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