Launderette’s first year has been bursting with praise, especially within the past month. The restaurant was recognized by the James Beard Awards, making it onto the semifinalist list, not to mention last year’s restaurant of the year can from Eater. The team behind the neighborhood café: Rene Ortiz, Laura Sawicki, and Margaret Vera.
Eater caught up with the trio on the heels of the restaurant’s first anniversary about creating a space with no set culinary theme, serving the neighborhood, and how those famous birthday cake ice cream sandwiches came to be.
What made you decide to open Launderette
Margaret Vera: I’ve lived in this neighborhood since 1999, and I have coveted this space for years, and always wanted to see it reimagined, A friend of mine came to me and said, ‘As a neighbor, how would you feel if that property became a café?’ I was like, ‘How would you feel if I was the one that made that cafe?’ With Rene and Laura coming off of Sway and La Condesa, they really wanted to do something that wasn’t theme-y. We really wanted to build a neighborhood restaurant.
How was that very first day of Launderette?
Vera: I remember Rene bringing out this beautiful little fish. He set it down in front of me, and we both looked at it. We were still getting to know each other, and he goes, ‘It’s not right, is it?’ I was like, ‘No.’ He goes, ‘It needs to be a whole fish, doesn’t it?’ ‘Yeah.’ We had a certain idea of the feeling you would get when you came here: conviviality and accessible food.
How would you describe the essence of Launderette?
Rene Ortiz: It’s funny how they identify the restaurant, like modern Mediterranean. What defines a space? People. It’s what they think. It’s how they perceive every little part. It’s how they sit down, how they enter, how it all works. It’s just for them, that’s it.
Laura Sawicki: I remember when we first opened, I was taking a poll [and people said] ‘I feel comfortable,’ ‘I feel at home,’ ‘Inviting,’ ‘As if it had always existed.’ There was this timelessness to it. We just blended in as if we’d always been here.
What’s been the most surprising thing of the past year?
Vera: Last week was fun, getting named semifinalist and getting on Pat Sharpe’s list for the year, because when you first open, you get picked up, but a year into that…
Sawicki: …to still have relevance and importance on that forefront is exciting.
How did you guys develop the menu?
Ortiz: It’s based on sections. The hardest part is the snacky bits, because what’s a snacky bit? What defines them? Is it something that you pick up with your hands? Do you share it with a fork? Slathering? That gamut of food world—what is in that bubble?
Sawicki: Margaret and I do this motion [pantomiming picking something up and slathering] that’s a snacky bit. If it’s vegetable-based, then it’s a vegetable.
Ortiz: This is the hardest concept I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t understand how to make food for a restaurant that doesn’t have that umbrella: Mexican, Thai, Indo, and you just go and you knock it out.
Sawicki: The world is our oyster.
Ortiz: What’s this restaurant? It’s a restaurant about nothing, like a Seinfeld episode. Trying to get out of that mindset took a little bit of time, but there’s a flow. I’ve had such a wonderful time last month and this month being able to think clearly on how I want the food to be, just how things can be streamlined but also extremely flavorful.
We're one year in ! Today we're celebrating all of our guests and our amazing staff for such a great first year! We're also raising our glasses to our team and our very own Laura Sawicki on being named 2016 James Beard Award semi-finalists for Best New Restaurant and Outstanding Pastry Chef. #launderetteatx
Let’s talk about Laura’s now-iconic desserts.
Sawicki: The birthday sammie has become an Instagram sensation. I have no idea it was going to happen. With the way that I designed the menus in the other restaurants, there was always the dessert: the boca negra, the dulce de leche, the banana split. I just wanted to make food in the same way that he talked about for the savory: We just wanted to make food that people could enjoy. So I was going to work away from that and have an ever-evolving menu. All of a sudden, I’ve created these very iconic dishes again. It’s literally an institution in its own one and a half by two inch square. But it’s really fun and it’s for kids of all ages so we all get to enjoy it.
How did the lunchtime Girl Scout cookies come about?
Sawicki: We got letters from the Girl Scouts of America wanting to work with us. Margaret and I were talking about the dessert menu, ‘Who eats lunch dessert?’ People want to eat a cookie. The samoa for me is such an iconic part of my childhood. It hit on so many different notes. How can I make this the most epic Girl Scout cookie ever?
What do you hope people come away with from their Launderette experience?
Vera: I really look forward to our customers really settling into their own.
Ortiz: They can rely on us for great hospitality, great experience, when they have guests in town, they can come to us.
Sawicki: It’s like Cheers: You walk in the door and you get to know the host, the managers. We had regulars within the first two weeks of opening and that was really a special response to what we’ve done.
Vera: It was never built to be a destination restaurant. When we make a [menu] change, it’s more about exploration, the journey, and having fun, both in the kitchen and at the table.
Are there any future changes to the restaurant?
Vera: We are rethinking the east patio because we didn’t plan a waiting area. We have new furniture coming to make it a little more comfortable. We have an awning system with a retractable roof on it.
What do you think of the current Austin dining scene and how does Launderette fit into the landscape?
Sawicki: It’s changing. We were just reading something about timelessness to the restaurant. That’s what we try to achieve here, too: a timelessness, something that can have longevity, as we continue to grow and to be important in peoples’ lives.
It was so different when we first moved to Austin. There was one Japanese restaurant, one Mexican restaurant; there was one of everything. You opened a new restaurant with a new aesthetic and its own identity. Now it’s become a large food community. The restaurants that open no longer need to fall into those parameters anymore.
Where do you want Launderette to be a year from now?
Ortiz: Continually inspiring what we do, staying strong with our hospitality, and making sure that our people are happy on both sides, within the company and its culture and outside in the world of what Austin is in Texas and nationally.