The Grey Market, a restaurant, market, and shop from Savannah business partners and co-founders, the lauded chef Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano, made its Texas debut on March 11. It’s the first of two restaurants from Bailey and Morisano set for downtown’s the Thompson Austin hotel at 501 Brazos Street.
The Grey Market works in two ways: It’s a casual restaurant in the vein of classic Southern lunch counters. It’s also a New York City-style bodega with retail goods, frozen foods, pantry items, wines, beers, coffee, and grab-and-go sandwiches. “It’s meant to be there for that urban environment that’s both residential and work,” Morisano says, from morning coffees to evening dinners.
Opening a new restaurant in a new-to-them city was a challenge for the duo. First, there were delays due to the pandemic and subsequent staffing and supply chain issues. They were also starting fresh with unfamiliar systems to navigate after finding success in Georgia. Bailey and Morisano opened the Grey in 2014 in Savannah, and Eater named it the best restaurant of 2017. A year later, Bailey won a James Beard Award in the best chef: Southeast category, and she’s a finalist in the outstanding chef category in year’s awards.
“Building something from scratch in these times is like an additional layer of challenge,” says Morisano.
To help Bailey and Morisano maneuver the Austin restaurant scene, they hired two longtime local chefs to help helm the two restaurants: chef de cuisine Kristine Kittrell, formerly of Weather Up and Jeffrey’s, and executive pastry chef Natalie Gazaui, previously at Comedor and Fonda San Miguel.
The Grey Market’s hiring process emphasizes relationships first, according to Morisano, and then whether the person can cook or bake. When they met with Kittrell and Gazaui, “we just immediately clicked on a person-level,” he says, “and then you start to figure out if you can work together from a food point of view.”
When Bailey asked Kittrell why she wanted to join the restaurant, her response was a Star Trek analogy: “We can’t all be Captain Kirk, and I’m happy to be Spock.” She adds: “They’re just the most genuine, honest, forthright people, and the product stands for itself. We think similarly about food, so it’s been pretty harmonious.”
The menu is rooted in Savannah’s historic East Coast port city status, which means Southern food with European and West African ingredients, like berbere spices, coriander, and peppers. And, because of the Austin setting, there are Texas touches.
To build the Austin menu, the team started with dishes that worked well in Savannah. “We went to take all the great heavy-hitters and use things that were tried-and-true that we knew would resonate with the Austin crowd,” Kittrell says. The popular fish and grits are made with blackened Gulf redfish served over Texas-sourced grits with some gravy consisting of potlikker and redfish bone stock. The vegan braised greens have also been a hit. “There’s no bitterness left in it,” she says. “They’re really lovely.”
Another centerpiece of the menu is the Sunday fried chicken meal. “Because fried chicken is an iconic Southern dish, I wanted to make sure that we were going to bring it to our guests the right way,” Bailey says. “We wanted to bring the idea of having fried chicken back as a celebratory dish and have it on a day when you would celebrate, which is usually Sunday.” The meal consists of five fried chicken pieces made with blackening spices, paprika, and apple cider vinegar, served with Pullman bread and bread and butter pickles.
Bailey is “still learning” about the Texas growing seasons, she says. Take tomatoes. Recently, Kittrell suggested adding tomatoes to a dish, but Bailey didn’t think it was a good idea until she learned that Texas’s tomato season begins in May, rather than in June as it does in Savannah. “We’re going to start iterating some local fare and manage locals’ expectations,” Bailey says. “Ultimately, we want to be a local restaurant, market, and business. So pulling in some of these local familiar ingredients that people see and understand, it’s going to get them to understand us and our food a little bit better.”
Bailey and Morisano were initially nervous about working with a hotel, a first for the duo. “That probably gave us the most anxiety because it’s always been Mashama and me and the team,” says Morisano, “and to be in this environment where you’re so codependent on another group that you don’t know, that created a lot of anxiety.” Those worries were put to rest as they worked with the hotel’s managing director, Nate Hardesty, and the rest of the Thompson Austin team. “They want us to be successful,” says Bailey. “They are really empathetic to the situation of just not being fully open. [It’s] really a team environment.” The restaurants are operating room service as well.
As for customers, Morisano and Bailey want them to feel like the Grey Market is there to fulfill their needs. “I hope they feel like they’ve walked into a local business that cares about being part of the community,” says Morisano. “That’s what the Grey Market is meant to be: service [to] this community.”
Bailey agrees. “I want them to feel like they found something good, new, and sustainable that they want to come back and have over and over again,” she says “Just being a part of the community is important, and also making a lasting impression is important.”
Bailey and Morisano aren’t done with Austin yet. Also coming to the Thompson Austin is their second-ever Texas restaurant, the Diner Bar, set to open soon. The hotel already features a poolside bar and restaurant, Wax Myrtle’s, the first Austin project from Chicago hospitality group Land and Sea Dept., which opened in February; and the Coffee Bar, found at its attached casual hotel sibling, Tommie Austin.
Grey Market’s hours are from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. There is full service available at the counter, and counter-service for other seating areas and takeout orders.