Better Half, Eater Austin’s restaurant of the year, is perhaps the best embodiment of the all-day restaurant trend. In the morning, friends catch up over a cup of coffee at the bar while others focus on laptop screens and brush lingering crumbs from fried chicken biscuits off their booths. Around happy hour, the line to order may stretch to the door as coworkers crowd around standing tables to unwind with cocktails and the famous cauliflower tots. As the night goes on, couples show up with their dogs to share entrees and a bottle of wine on the patio. With its quippy signboard, approachable atmosphere, and thoughtful details, Better Half has proven to be a neighborhood mainstay.
It’s clear why: co-owner Matthew Bolick is passionate about service. He still describes his business partners, Matt and Grady Wright (yes, the actual brothers behind Wright Bros. Brew & Brew), by their coffee orders during his barista days at seemingly forever-shuttered restaurant Frank. He used to make left-handed Matt Wright’s latte art upside down so it would face him.
Bolick and the Wrights built up camaraderie at Frank. At the time, Bolick was “very ignorantly” considering opening his own place; he already co-owned coffee shop Flat Track. The brothers wanted to venture out on their own too, ditching their day jobs (Grady in construction and Matt in media) to focus on their passions of craft beer and coffee. The timing was perfect: They naturally sought to poach their friendly barista for Brew & Brew.
“They’re the Wright brothers and I’m the wrong brother,” Bolick jokes. Though he is the only member with hospitality experience, he says it wouldn’t have worked without the duo. “Otherwise I would spend all the money on something cool,” he says, “and then there would be no actual business, just, like, a van and a dirt bike.”
The trio opened Brew & Brew in East Austin in 2013. However, having three people on salary at a coffee shop and beer bar soon proved untenable. In 2015, the group started looking at spaces for something new, without any specific timeline in mind.
Bolick visited the Clarksville-adjacent West Fifth Street property that would eventually become Better Half in December 2016, and was immediately struck by the quonset hut out in back. At the time, it was set up as a “man cave,” with an electric drum set in the corner and AC/DC blasting when the group walked in. The team had been waiting for the perfect space to speak to them, and this was it.
The group excitedly discussed potential ideas for the space during the next several days (event space? music venue?) before ultimately deciding the hut was destined to be a brewpub: the forthcoming Hold Out Brewing. They started planning a menu of burgers and beer (“because everyone’s doing beer with pizza”). The fact that none of them knew anything about brewing was a minor detail (they have since engaged Brent Sapstead from Real Ale Brewing, whose beers will be on display at Better Half’s one-year anniversary this month).
Bolick and the Wrights then turned to the front building, which they wanted to function separately from the brewery, much like “the handshake” of the property. “We wanted it to feel Scandinavian, but very Texas,” Bolick says. “‘Desert’ in a way.”
Originally the group planned another coffee and cocktail joint, but as Bolick says, “The city was like, ‘No, you need to do food.’” Bolick brought over his friend Rich Reimbolt, who at the time was chef at Josephine House. Bolick explains the vision was “not tweezer food, but still chef-y enough that it’s exciting,” Thus, Better Half was born.
The two addresses at the property gave the team a unique opportunity. There’s a lot going on in one place: Hold Out serving beer and burgers, Better Half serving coffee, cocktails, wine, and slightly more upscale food, and the whole space tied together by an ample patio.
“It’s basically the entire gamut of culinary [spectrum],” says Bolick. “[The space] really allowed us to do a lot, maybe more than we ever probably should have bitten off, just three of us and a bunch of friends.”
Notably, the trio is not a restaurant group, nor do they even have an official name for their partnership. This comes with challenges: Without the supporting infrastructure of a group, they must build their restaurant teams from scratch every time, in a market that is, per Bolick, “very saturated with people trying to build shit and a lot of it isn’t very good.” He does praise Brandon Hunt of Via 313 (who is an investor in Better Half) and Larry McGuire of McGuire Moorman Hospitality, whose prolific work “makes us all feel like we’re standing still.”
In addition to Brew & Brew, Better Half, and Hold Out Brewing, the team is also busy with its recently opened downtown coffee and shots bar, Little Brother. Negotiations on the tiny space on Rainey Street actually started before Better Half was in the picture. “We knew that 367 square feet on Rainey street would probably be a good idea,” Bolick explains.
The team knew they wanted the new venture to be the “little brother” to their first bar, and from there, they thought about what it meant to be a little brother. The space grew into what Bolick calls “his dream room” as a teenager, complete with VHS tapes (of BMX stunts and movies like Predator), Bolick’s actual childhood television, sandwiches, music, and good whiskey.
The team is currently working on three ongoing projects. Hold Out is slated to open in the next few months. Bolick is consulting on the coffee program for the recently opened Uncle Nicky’s (“I’m really just trading a bar tab at Nickel City for helping them because they’re good friends,” he says). He also revealed the team is working on another Little Brother project, though no details are ready yet.
After that, Bolick says, the team plans to focus on existing projects, like making sure Brew & Brew is ready for the Saltillo development opening across the street, and making upgrades to Better Half. He’s also hoping for a chance to jump back behind the bar of each restaurant.
“That’s really why I’m in this,” he says. “I really love being able to provide a customer with something that they get really excited about. Or maybe they didn’t even know they’re going to get excited about.”
It all comes back to service for Bolick. “Let me make you the best possible thing I can make you,” he says, “and be super nice to you and welcome you into my space and just chat with you and hear about your day. That sort of stuff is why I’m in this industry.”