Clarksville institution Jeffrey's had a storied history when restauranteur Larry McGuire jumped at the chance to buy it. McGuire's group McGuire Moorman operates hyper-successful Austin restaurants like Perla's and Elizabeth Street Cafe, and Jeffrey's presented two new challenges at once: revamping an existing brand and updating traditional fine dining. Retaining Jeffrey's old-school charms while updating the restaurant has been McGuire's biggest challenge yet.
Executive chef Rebecca Meeker and McGuire discuss making fine dining fun in Austin, from pink seersucker valet uniforms to crispy oysters. Over the next year, they hope to transition Jeffrey's from a hyper-traditional fine dining venue to what Meeker calls "neighborhood fine dining." Read on for the challenges of preserving an institution, and what's next.
When did you decide to buy and revamp Jeffrey's?
Larry: I had heard through the grapevine that Jeffrey's was quietly for sale. As I dug into things, I found out the name was going to go away, and that the plan was to buy the land and building and find a new tenant. At that point I started talking to Ron and Peggy [Weiss, the former owners] about what they wanted to happen. I went to high school with their son. Jeffrey's, the Continental Club, Fonda San Miguel, all those classic venues should be preserved.
So from the start, you wanted to see Jeffrey's persist.
Larry: The idea of Jeffrey's more than anything. It hadn't had the best last few years. Chefs come and gone, and the interior hadn't been renovated. We saw an opportunity there to bring it back to life.
We were also interested in doing fine dining, the opposite of the small plates that are so popular. We saw it as a challenge, but as a long term big project.
Rebecca, how does revamping a well-known restaurant work on menu end of things?
Rebecca: We keep quality consistent, but change things up as often as we can seasonally. We try to keep signature dishes, like the crispy oysters. We're talking about bringing back chocolate temperance cake.
Larry: Everything that's not cool will be cool again.
Did you have any dishes you were excited about that flopped?
Rebecca: Lobster thermidor. It sold but we were never happy with it. It's hard to put gruyere cheese and breadcrumbs on seafood in 2014.
What have been challenges in balancing the menu between a $70 steak and more affordable dishes?
Rebecca: The $70 steaks are shareable, for one. I've had a lot of fun working with the three ranches we source from. I like figuring out the puzzle with dry age versus wet age, and the cuts.
Larry: It's a huge challenge to figure out the right amount of days to put on different steaks from different ranches. It is a super expensive process, and we went out on a limb with those prices. But it's not like we're serving the same steak that's $40 at Sullivan's. We're the only locally owned place in town focused on Texas beef.
How different is Jeffrey's from when you first envisioned?
Rebecca: It started out as a fine dining high end restaurant, and it's turned more into neighborhood fine dining. You can come and get caviar, and you can also get classic dishes like a souffle.
Larry: Whenever our group opens a restaurant, we get a lot of buzz in the media about how expensive we are. Here, people don't always order the most expensive steak. People split a hamburger at the bar.
This is the first time we've had to rebuild a brand, and that's been really challenging. Before we just started from scratch. We're trying to be really respectful about what Jeffrey's means to people.
How have you navigated between the needs of new versus old customers?
Larry: Music is a big thing. I had calls from angry customers that we were even playing music.
Rebecca: Everyone likes the souffles and the pastry. The martini cart. Old Jeffrey's and new Jeffrey's people love the bar. Happy hour is super popular.
Larry: I wish we had built more bar. It's an uphill battle to get people to have fun in a fine dining restaurant. In the bar people feel like they're getting the same quality of food but a more relaxed environment.
Why do you think Austinites are less comfortable with traditional fine dining?
McGuire: People don't want to feel uncomfortable or like they don't belong, like the restaurant is snooty. We're adapting our style of service so that the staff is more relaxed, to let people relax and let their hair down.
Even though we're putting our staff in uniform, I want them to rock it out in their own way. Those details create a baseline, an attention to detail we hope our customers can feel.
Rebecca: It's fun when we're all sitting around pre-shift, and everyone puts their costume on and starts service. People definitely play a role, and enjoy it. A cocktail waitress will be a little saucy. The valets will put their legs up and pick out cool shades.
What's difference opening your, say, sixth restaurant versus the first one?
Rebecca: Every one for me has been completely different, different sourcing, new products, new construction, new everything. I'm jealous of Larry who's worked with the same construction people building relationships in this town.
Larry: We've gotten better at it for sure. But restaurants don't want to make money; they want to lose money. They have to be forced to be successful. My favorite time is year two, year three. The major work is done and we didn't go out of business, so now is the time to make the kinds of changes that will help a restaurant last.
Staffing is huge, too. Over here we have all women leading these kitchens: Rebecca here, and Alex Manley at Josephine House. I find it refreshing to not have so much machismo around.
Rebecca, do you agree there's a different vibe in kitchens run by women?
Rebecca: I don't notice it, but I am a girl. I've worked with a lot of really great women chefs. Even when I was line cooking I worked with a lot of great girl line cooks. When I was eighteen years old, I worked at the Driskill with David Bull, and I came back for Congress.
I went to school in San Francisco and worked for Joel Robuchon in New York. I was opening one of his restaurants in Taiwan when David Bull asked if I wanted to come home. It was Christmas and there were no Christmas trees. He got me at a good time.
Bon Appetit named Jeffrey's one of the top ten new restaurants in the country. Did you expect that at all?
Larry: No. It was satisfying for us to know we're on the radar as an Austin restaurant group. Even getting considered for that stuff is really satisfying.
But awards ultimately don't matter. We have chefs like Rebecca and Alex next door and now June [Rodil, beverage director] who are committed to their craft, which is really what a fine dining restaurant should be. A place where pro's do what they do best. It's skinned in fancy stuff, but what people pay for is to see talented people work at their highest level of their profession.
· All Jeffrey's Coverage [EATX]