Taking a Bite Out of Austin

Within a decade, Larry McGuire has opened seven restaurants in the Texas capital, serving pulled pork, banh mi, a $155 porterhouse, and now bottles of 1989 Domaine du Viking Vouvray. He’s effectively redefined the eating scene, but can the city swallow it?

Austin is the fastest growing city in the United States. This is apparent to anyone who’s ever been at a standstill in the southbound lanes of Interstate 35 headed into downtown, with nothing to do but stare up at the ten skyscrapers that have been built since 2008. Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the condo towers and urban growth the formerly cool little college town has experienced since right around the time Matthew McConaughey became famous. Austin was once a simple bastion of liberalism, barbecue, live music, and burnt-orange Hook ’em Horns flags, peacefully coexisting right where the Colorado River becomes Lady Bird Lake.

But about 250,000 people have moved there in the past 15 years, bringing the population to just over 900,000. Then there’s the more than 300,000 who descend upon Austin each March for the South by Southwest music-tech-film festival. And some of them stay—Facebook and Google now have offices downtown. All over the Texas capital there are signs, graffiti, and bumper stickers begging: KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD.

Austin restaurateur and chef Larry McGuire—whose seventh restaurant, a wine bar called June’s All Day, opens in July—is begging too. “It’s a hard time for Austin right now,” the 33-year-old graduate of Austin High School says. “It’s struggling with its identity. People are very protective of how it used to be. But it’s a new city today,” he explains. “Believe me, there are things I hate to see. People capitalizing on Austin’s cool factor. Like a Warby Parker on South Congress.”

McGuire pauses. He knows what people say about him. That he’s capitalizing as well. That even he, a born-and-raised Austinite, somehow embodies the antithesis of the weird Austin. Because of his wide-ranging empire of restaurants that offer $43 Nova Scotia lobster bucatini and pulled-pork lunch plates with two sides, all served by waiters who may have been extras on Friday Night Lights. And because he’s the guy who tried to set a dress code—a dress code! In Austin!—at the one with the lobster. “I hope people don’t think I’m trying to make money off Austin’s cool factor too,” he says.

Some do. And, to be sure, McGuire is making money. (He helped bring the $15 cocktail to Austin.) He’s also been making a name for himself—and Austin—in the national food scene, like when his restaurant Jeffrey’s was listed among Bon Appétit’s ten best in 2013.

Larry put Austin on the map, foodwise,” says hotelier Liz Lambert, who has known McGuire since he worked for her brother Lou in his pizza restaurant when he was 16. Liz is credited with changing the landscape of the city’s South Congress strip—and adding even more cachet to the city—by opening the Hotel San José in 2000. “But more than putting us on the map,” Liz says, “Larry has given Austin the restaurants that a grown-up Austin needs. We can’t just live on tacos.”

Since 2006, McGuire and his company, McGuire Moorman Hospitality (with partner Thomas Moorman), have opened Lamberts (“fancy BBQ,” named for Liz’s brother Lou); Perla’s (oyster bar); Elizabeth Street Café (Vietnamese-French boulangerie); Clark’s (raw bar and burgers); Jeffrey’s (McGuire took over an Austin institution—the high-end New American was the site of the dress-code fracas); Josephine House (his casual answer to Jeffrey’s); and the new 65-seat wine bar, named for his sommelier, June Rodil. On the menu: a rotating selection of 65 to 70 wines by the bottle, including Huet Vouvray Pétillant Brut and Domaine de l’Écu Muscadet, and more than 30 wines by the glass. When asked why there is no place called Larry’s, McGuire is stumped: “I don’t know what that would be.”

MMH—which McGuire claims will have revenues that exceed $40 million this year (of the seven, Clark’s is the highest grosser per square foot)—has around 500 employees. At the top, that includes 15 principals, along with an architect, a master sommelier, and a creative director. “I consider us to be a luxury brand,” he declares. Which might be why he bought Austin specialty retailer By George last year. “There’s no other chef picking out Céline bags.”

Texas Monthly food editor and restaurant critic Patricia Sharpe has covered Austin for four decades, and has watched the city and its restaurant scene evolve. She says what McGuire is doing makes sense because it serves today’s Austin. “Larry is a host, really,” she says. “He wants to feed people well—but as part of the larger picture. He wants to orchestrate. It’s important to him that guests have a good time. He likes to control all the elements, not just the meal. And by the way,” she adds, “he certainly can cook.”

McGuire trained as a chef. After dropping out of the University of Texas in 2003, he went back to work for Lou Lambert, a former Wolfgang Puck apprentice, at a hotel outside Houston. At 24, McGuire went out on his own, debuting Lamberts. His slow-smoked barbecue—crispy wild-boar ribs, Black Angus short ribs—was a hit. Since then, he’s opened a new restaurant every few years. But McGuire agrees with Sharpe. His restaurants are cool-driven, not chef-driven. “We are about a layered experience,” he says. “The food almost becomes...it doesn’t become secondary, but...food is just food. And with us, it’s one-third of the equation.”

The other two-thirds? They play out over the two hours you’re with him. That’s the magic number: 120 minutes. “It takes two hours to eat a good meal, and I’m very aware that’s what I’m selling,” he says. “We want the hours to be exciting. The music is good. My waiters can tell you where to go after dinner.” That’s why McGuire hired that creative director. “He curates the playlists for each of the restaurants nightly and focuses on uniforms, which change seasonally.”

But in Austin, is it all a little too much? Liz Lambert admits her hometown is at a crossroads. “We’re in a tough spot,” she says. “Everything has become expensive. Even the tacos.” She brings up what has always made Austin special—and, if you will, weird: the people. “We can’t price out the creative class. If we’re not careful, we’re going to transform Austin. I don’t want to say this, but we’re going to become...Dallas.”

“When we started the company,” McGuire says, “we said, ‘Nothing is sacred, everything is open to being changed.’” But he knows that change in Austin is hard. Higher prices, fancy waiters, artisanal cocktails (they’re now $20). After all, this is a city that, on the day of our conversation, had just voted to kick Uber out of town. But maybe change is easier if it comes courtesy of a local. “You know what? ‘Keep Austin weird,’ that is sacred,” he says. “For me, that means keeping locals running Austin.”

The Details

Larry McGuire’s seven restaurants range widely, from Vietnamese to BBQ.

Clark’s Oyster Bar
Clark’s is as much about its oysters as its burgers and BLTs. 1200 W. Sixth St.; 512-297-2525; clarksoysterbar.com.

Elizabeth Street Café
A top lunch spot, it’s a Vietnamese café (spring rolls, bowls of pho) and a French bakery (croissants, macarons). 1501 S. First St.; 512-291-2881; elizabethstreetcafe.com.

His most upscale venture: dry-aged prime beef, caviar service, and a martini cart. 1204 W. Lynn St.; 512-477-5584; jeffreysofaustin.com.

Josephine House
Sister (and neighbor) to Jeffrey’s, with a seasonally driven menu; it’s great for brunch. 1601 Waterston Ave.; 512-477-5584; josephineofaustin.com.

June’s All Day
His newest, a 65-seat wine bar, serves more than 30 varieties by the glass. 1722 S. Congress Ave.; no phone.

His very first place serves slow-smoked BBQ and fried pie. 401 W. Second St.; 512-494-1500; lambertsaustin.com.

Gulf Coast–style seafood served on an umbrella-shaded patio. 1400 S. Congress Ave.; 512-291-7300; perlasaustin.com.

Image Credits: Brian Finke

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