Downtown restaurant Parkside, the lone culinary beacon in the midst of Dirty Sixth, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this week. The idea of higher-end food in Austin’s famous drinking district was even more outlandish in 2008, back when the area was home to mainly bars and greasy slices as opposed to the fancy hotels and restaurants that dot the landscape today. Yet, Parkside has not only thrived in its unconventional space, it has been doing so for ten years strong.
“We always talk about Parkside as the original dinner and a show because of where it is,” explained chef/owner Shawn Cirkiel, referring to its prime Sixth Street people-watching. The restaurant’s entryway lighting, designed by local architect Michael Hsu, was constructed with the idea of “moths to a flame,” meant to attract people of all sorts to the happening gastropub.
“Parkside was trying to give downtown and Sixth Street and Austin a sense of place, and now it’s become that sense of place,” said Cirkiel.
The Man at the Helm
An Austin native, Cirkiel grew up on a farm and started working in his parents’ vegetarian restaurant up in Kansas City as a teenager. His mother’s family was from Arkansas, where he picked fresh blueberries and watched his blind grandmother bake biscuits in her wood-burning stove. (“I remember when they got a natural gas stove in 1986,” he added.)
In contrast, his father grew up in public housing in the Bronx, called Parkside Projects (where the restaurant group gets its name). When Cirkiel visited his father’s hometown, they would explore the restaurants found in the city’s vibrant neighborhoods in Koreatown, Little Italy, and Chinese. The combination of the Arkansas farm and New York diversity shaped his culinary philosophy. “It’s so surreal, such different experiences,” he explained, “but it’s ultimately how I came to think of food.”
Despite working in Austin restaurants like Hyde Park Grill from a young age, Cirkiel didn’t realize he could make a career in the culinary arts until a visiting chef at now-long-shuttered restaurant Martin Brothers’ Cafe pointed out his talent. He traveled to upstate New York and threw himself into the Culinary Institute of America, where he volunteered to help the instructors even though it meant he took each class twice.
Cirkiel’s dedication was rewarded as he worked his way up to lauded restaurants like Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley and now-shuttered Jean-Luc’s Bistro in Austin. However, when it came time to venture out on his own, he was looking something less stuffy. “I wanted a space and experience that was interesting, loud, and fun without being formal,” Cirkiel said.
The Beginning of Parkside
Downtown Austin was a very different place when Parkside opened in 2008. Aside from old-school standbys like Chez Nous and Las Manitas, and chain steakhouses like the now-shuttered Sullivan’s, downtown Austin (and Sixth Street in particular) was mostly home to bars. “There was a point where we were the only restaurant down here, which is crazy,” said Cirkiel.
Parkside quickly made a splash on the scene. The restaurant went out on a limb with its menu, proving ultimately it was ahead of the trends. Fish crudo and oysters were unusual in a period where raw bars were limited to sushi restaurants like Uchi at the time. However, Cirkiel, who does have a stint at the Tyson Cole-helmed restaurant under his belt, was undeterred. Those dishes became some of the restaurant’s signatures. Sparkling wine also proved popular, so much so that the restaurant went through 52 cases each of prosecco and cava.
Cirkiel was also a proponent of farm-to-table dining before the concept became ubiquitous. “We buy from ranches, we buy from farms directly,” he said, “because that’s how you’re supposed to operate, and that’s just how we’ve always been.”
However, some ideas were a bit too ahead of their time. When the restaurant opened, they opted to forgo wine glasses for regular juice ones. “Everybody freaked out,” Cirkiel recalled. “We had to add wine glasses. And of course, now everyone has juice cups.”
A Legacy of Chefs
Cirkiel often wears some sort of bright pink apparel to work to ensure his staff has “fun.” There is obvious pride whenever he talked about his past and present staff, speaking reverently of the mark they left on Parkside’s menus.
Notable Parkside alums include Callie Speer (lauded chef and owner of Holy Roller), chefs Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley (who now own Foreign & Domestic), Sterling Ridings (former executive chef at Uchiko and of forthcoming restaurant Guild), and Paul Ozbirn (an advanced sommelier at the helm of wine restaurant Vino Vino).
Cirkiel barely mentioned his own stellar resume, in favor of bragging about his employees. “Everybody, including front of the house, adds a lot to Parkside,” Cirkiel said, “but then they also take and grow, too. You can see a lineage.”
Cirkiel also ensures that members of his restaurant family are taken care of. “We gave all of our employees healthcare, everyone from the dishwashers, to the prep cooks, to the servers, bartenders,” he said. “It’s how you’re supposed to do it. Why would it be any other way?”
The current head chef at Parkside is Victor Sandoval, formerly of Smoke in Dallas. Cirkiel sees him as “continuing with the style and expectations of the restaurant, and slowly adding in his own takes on local ingredients.”
The Future of Parkside
What started with one restaurant on Sixth Street has morphed into quite the Austin empire. Parkside Projects also operates The Backspace, Olive & June, Bullfight, Jugo, and event spaces 800 Congress and now 7co (which took over the LaV address on East 7th). With so many other culinary ventures, what does Cirkiel see in store for his first project?
“A lot more amazing people coming through here, I hope,” he said. The restaurant is already working on an outpost within the Austin Bergstrom-International Airport, with a shorter menu.
To commemorate the Parkside’s ten-year anniversary, it’s hosting ten days of specials and food festivities, like resurrected drink favorites (the Strawberry Sunshine), dish specials (look for Cirkiel’s favorite fluke with lemon, almonds, and chives), oysters and champagne the restaurant has become famous for, and of course, a thematically appropriate cake.