Everything's coming up Larry McGuire this week. The Austin resto-preneur's Fresa's Chicken Al Carbon opened yesterday, which was the same day he officially took over as the man in charge at Jeffrey's, the classic West Austin fine dining spot that's been serving in Clarksville for 36 years. Owners Ron and Peggy Weiss closed out their tenure at the restaurant with a staff reunion party on Sunday night.
Eater Austin talked to McGuire about Fresa's last week, and today in the second installment of our interview, McGuire outlines his plans for the Jeffrey's takeover (look for a "Wolfgang Puck-ish" menu and martini carts) and talks about the intimidation factor when it comes to revamping one of Austin's oldest neighborhood restaurants, slated to re-open in the fall.
How did you come to be the new guy behind Jeffrey's?
Jeffrey’s is a really complicated project for a lot of reasons. [Laughs] I’d been hearing rumors about it from friends, the Weiss’ son, I went to high school with him. I’d run into him and we’d talk about it. I knew they were looking to semi-retire, and that it hadn’t been going that well since the last chef, Deegan McClung, took over. I knew they weren’t really having any fun with it any more. They’d had it for 36 years. It’s amazing that any business stays open that long, especially a restaurant. So I heard that Daryl Kunik had gotten it. He owns Uchi. He’s the part of Uchi you never hear about. You hear about Tyson, but he’s the business side of it. So I thought, it’s tied up. Daryl’s a super good businessperson. If he wants it, he’s going to get it. He had it under contract, and then this like, real estate shark from Dallas heard about it. And he outbid him, like a ridiculous amount of money. The Weisses were like, sure. But they signed a clause with him, because they didn’t know him, that the name died when he took over.
It was going to be a different restaurant. But he liked Perla’s, so he called me to be the new tenant, to look at it. I was like sure, I’ll look at it. I was thinking about doing a steakhouse or just doing my own thing over there. But then I met with Ron and Peggy, and we instantly hit it off. I was like, to me the most valuable thing about this whole thing is the name. The location’s awesome. The liquor license embedded in the neighborhood is not going to happen in Austin any more. So that neighborhood bar feel, it’s just got so many good things about it.
It's an Austin staple.
I grew up here. Hung out at Jeffrey’s forever. That’s where my mom would go on her birthdays and stuff. I was really interested in reviving the brand. There’s all these brands in Austin, like the Continental Club and Matt’s El Rancho and these institutions that I think are so important as we’re exploding. These other institutions and brands are what give Austin its backbone. Restaurants like Uchi and Perla’s, they could be anywhere. They’re cool, good restaurants. But there’s the other restaurants that people have worked there forever and people have been eating at forever. They’re regulars, you know? Those are really the restaurants that I’m interested in opening. The ones that are good from years, like, five to 12. That’s when restaurants are the coolest. They’ve established staff and the food is at a certain level and it’s consistent and it’s busy. Those are the kind of restaurants we’re trying to build, and Jeffrey’s has been that for a long time. It had kind of gone downhill, but it still has this mystique about it.
It has so many people who use it for so many different things. For some people it’s this West Austin high-end restaurant. For other people, they just walk there and get a drink and it’s kind of divey. For a lot of people in the neighborhood, they don’t want it to change. They like that it’s kind of quiet and run down and no one goes there any more. Old ladies play bridge there. It’s got all these weird things about it and to me that’s what makes it so dynamic and why I was so interested. Just the stories and the regulars and the presidents that have eaten there. They’ve been really discreet about a lot of things. They don’t tweet when celebrities come in. None of that shit.
So I just wanted to take this opportunity to bring it back to its glory and I’ve been itching to do fine dining. Because we’ve done all these kind of busy, casual restaurants where we do solid food, but the volume. We’re just doing so much volume at these places. It’s hard to even work in them, you know? Like Perla’s and Lamberts, they’re just hangouts. So I wanted to do something that was getting back to fine dining and the food that I want to cook.
Are you going to make significant changes to the structure itself?
It’s just a really neat design opportunity. We’re gutting it pretty much. It’s a 36-year-old restaurant that’s been worn out. So it’s time for an update. We’re going to really try to keep the same feel and pace to it and volume level, but just kind of bring it back to—it’s hard to describe what I’m seeing in my head. To me, Jeffrey’s is unstuffy fine dining. We’re going to try and make it maximum fun. A place to go celebrate a special occasion, a business deal, but not in a hoity-toity way. It’s more that the waiter is there to get you anything you could possibly want. Anything goes. Just have as much fun as possible type of place. It’s an awesome opportunity. The fabric of that neighborhood with all the beautiful old houses, I want it to be like you’re going to eat at your crazy rich friend’s gay unbelievable interior. It’s going to be a little bit outrageous. The best glassware, the best silverware, all that stuff.
What are your plans for the menu?
I’m not totally sure yet. We’re going to cook dinner party food. We want to do kind of a steakhouse element to it, because with all these steakhouses opening in town, they’re all kind of basically the same thing. We want to do a steakhouse that’s more showcasing the best beef that’s being produced in Texas. Because it’s starting to get back to people going from start to finish. For a long time, it was just this boxed beef, where feedlots bought cows, finished them off, then shipped them off somewhere else to be cut into quarters and then shipped back to Texas. It’s crazy. And now people are starting to get back to these, like, Peeler Farms chickens. Finishing their own beef, putting the right amount of fat on it. Putting the right amount of age on the carcasses. So showcase that.
And then I kind of want to do late 90’s Californian cuisine, like Wolfgang Puck-ish. Luxurious ingredients and a wood-burning oven and a wood burning grill. Lots of things coming out like whole roasts for two that are to share, that are cut tableside. Things like that. A whole fish that’s carved tableside. There’s going to be like, martini carts coming around and a cheese cart and soufflés baked to order. It’s gonna be pretty old school. That’s what we’re going for. Kind of an old school, full service restaurant with a great bar. Dining rooms that have different atmospheres and volume levels. We’re basically taking everything that we’ve learned so far and putting it into that place, design-wise and operations-wise.
Are you intimidated at all to be taking over such an Austin institution?
I’m usually pretty confident going into these projects that I’ve done enough research. Talked to enough people that I kind of know what people want. I’ve been eating in LA and San Francisco at old-school places. But yeah, so many people like it for so many reasons, I definitely just don’t want to fuck it up, you know? But we have a really neat team of people. Our architect is Emily Little, old school Austin. Our interior designer Mark Ashby that does great residential work. James David’s doing the landscape design. They all know the clientele. It’s all old Austin people. But part of the fun is new people need to go to Jeffrey’s. The clientele was literally kind of dying. It’s been open 36 years, it’s crazy.
To me, there’s not many places in Austin where there’s a mix of interesting age groups. You don’t see old people out that much. Everything’s just so young. To me, you go to big cities, you see people out having dinner. Enjoying other people’s company. And I think that’s really what Jeffrey’s could be. Because it’s away from downtown. It has its own valet. It’s quiet. People really feel comfortable there. So really we’re just trying to build the most comfortable restaurant possible for whoever. I want it to be less intimidating for people to go eat there than it is now. I feel like it’s this little West Austin club right now, and I don’t want it to be that. I just want it to be people who love a good dining experience, to be able to go do it in a beautiful place.
[Photo: JW Walthall/EATX]