Few local restaurateurs draw as much attention as Larry McGuire of Perla's, Lambert's Downtown Barbecue, Clark's Oyster Bar, Elizabeth Street Cafe, Fresa's Chicken Al Carbon and, now, Jeffrey's.
With so much going on in his life, it's hard to keep up with what this young, not to mention handsome, restaurateur has up his sleeve. McGuire spoke with CultureMap about his most anticipated project (Jeffrey's), unexpected media attention and his plans to continue opening Austin-based restaurants.
CultureMap: What have you been up to lately?
Larry McGuire: We opened Clark's [Oyster Bar] in October, so I was frantically trying to get that finished, and it ran pretty close into the Jeffrey's project. I was trying to get it done as quick as possible so I could get out of the kitchen and get to work on finishing Jeffrey's design and construction. [As of December] It's been about six weeks in the kitchen at Clark's. My partner Tommy [Moorman] and I have been in the kitchen pretty much every day.
I've had to force myself out of there though to finish up Jeffrey's. Once we get closer to opening, we'll start hiring and figure out the opening plan. We need to get the china, glass, silverware and custom-made uniforms for the event. Basically, I've been getting all the details for Jeffrey's together.
CM: When I think of your daily life, I don't picture you working in the kitchen, simply because you have so many projects going on at once.
LM: Yeah, it's weird, but I'm still a line cook. I still enjoy that the most. The menu is always the first thing I think about when I'm doing a project, and then six to eight months later, the project is actually built.
We aren't the type of establishment that has a test kitchen and is testing out a ton of recipes. It's much more spur of the moment and how we feel. That's why Tom and I have to be there in the beginning stages. We're figuring out what goes on the plates day in and day out. Being in the kitchen is really like riding a bike for me. I've been line cooking ever since I was 18. It comes back so quickly.
CM: Last time we spoke, you had just announced you were taking on the Jeffrey's project. I think you said at the time that it was intimidating to come into something that was already an Austin establishment. Has that made this project more difficult for you?
LM: At first, it was definitely intimidating. I was there the night it closed, and I started wondering how I was going to gracefully transition this 36-year-old restaurant into something that is new and exciting that would attract a new customer base. The project has gotten a lot bigger than we thought it would be.
We didn't know the condition the building was in, and we really thought it was only going to be a renovation, but it needed so much more work than that. It closed in April, so it's been closed long enough that the transition has definitely gotten easier — almost like the city has had a fresh break from it.
This restaurant has so many great stories. So many restaurants open without a purpose or goal, and with Jeffrey's, this restaurant served a purpose over the years as a place people celebrated momentous occasions. It truly is an Austin hub that grew and evolved with the city. We're rebranding and trying to bring out that history through the restaurant design and menu. I think people are going to be really impressed with what we've done.
CM: The family that owned Jeffrey's before you is still pretty involved in the project, right?
LM: Yeah. We worked out a pretty good deal where they've stayed involved in the project. I've gotten to know [former owners] Ron and Peggy Weiss and have become close friends with them.
When I started, the celebrity chef thing was just beginning, and that was never what I wanted to do. Now it seems like that's what everybody wants you to do. I think people are shocked when you say you don't want to be on a cooking show or something like that.
We've been buying wine with Ron for a year and tasting wine once a week. Wine has always been his passion. Most people don't know that Jeffrey's had a great wine program. Working with them has been great, and I'm excited to see how involved they stay on a daily basis. They haven't made me feel pressured or anything like that — they're just excited to see the restaurant live on.
CM: How will the restaurant remain old Jeffrey's, and how will it be new Jeffrey's?
LM: More than anything, we've tried to keep the tone and feel the same. That restaurant definitely had a great feeling about it. That's what we've tried to recreate in our work. The dining rooms are set up in a similar manner. There are four dining rooms and a lot of little nooks and power tables.
Everybody was concerned about the bar; it was definitely the most used part of the restaurant in the last couple of years. The bar will stay in the same place and have the same basic setup.
The level of detail we're putting into this is better than anything we've ever done before. I think people are going to be surprised by the amount of detail and craftsmanship that is going into it.
CM: You said to Tribeza that Jeffrey's is your most exciting project thus far. Why is that?
LM: This one has the most anticipation from everybody. I've never gotten this much press before. Everyone is just so curious about it. The clientele is so unique as well — they're all interested in what's going to happen to that restaurant.
It's exciting to me because I know we're going to deliver something that people are really going to enjoy and be surprised by.
CM: Do you have an idea of when you guys will open?
LM: We'll start with lunch service sometime in late January or early February, and Jeffrey's will hopefully open for dinner hopefully by Valentine's Day.
CM: I know that you're typically pretty media-shy. Is that something you've grown more accustom to though?
LM: It's definitely something I've had to deal with as we continue to do more projects. Austin is a small town, and we now have six businesses. Naturally, people are going to be interested in what we do.
I don't want to do another Perla's. I don't want to do another Lambert's. I want those places to be special and exist on their own.
I never thought it was a good idea to base a restaurant on a celebrity chef, or to have one person be the head of any kind of business, really. Our goal has always been to build Austin institution restaurants, not restaurants that are trendy for three years and then fizzle out. Our whole business plan is to open restaurants like Vespaio and Guero's that are so well-respected.
I also don't want people to get sick of reading about us and what we do. I know there is the fatigue factor that can come into play. I do this because I love doing it. When I started, the celebrity chef thing was just beginning, and that was never what I wanted to do. Now it seems like that's what everybody wants you to do. I think people are shocked when you say you don't want to be on a cooking show or something like that.
We have a busy company to run with 350 employees, and that remains our top priority.
CM: How has opening restaurants changed for you through the years? You started with Lambert's six or seven years ago, right?
LM: For me, there are still so few openings in Austin. Restaurant openings are so anticipated here because there aren't that many exciting that come around. They truly become an event.
Eating out and dining has really become an important part of everyone's lives here. I feel like we have a responsibility to keep opening new and interesting restaurants because it's such a fun part of our culture, but the media side of it is weird. There's almost always these crazy competitive story lines around this group of restaurant people that are pretty tight-knit and close. It's not as dramatic as it is portrayed.
CM: Are there any restaurants or chefs in Austin you have a lot of admiration and respect for?
LM: The Uchi guys are so good at what they do. I think the sushi and the creativity is on a national level, and the back of the house ownership with Daryl Kunik, whom no one really ever talks about, is a great businessman. You never really have a bad experience at Uchi.
I eat at Vespaio all the time because it's in my neighborhood. Rene and Laura of La Condesa and now Sway are super talented and creative as well. I worked with them when I helped open La Condesa. They're smart, super clever, have a sense a humor, and it definitely comes through in the food.
Ned at Foreign & Domestic is cool and neighborly. I also love Justine's for the atmosphere that they have.
CM: Do you ever think of venturing outside of Austin to open restaurants? I know Uchi is in Houston. La Condesa is in Napa Valley. Is that something you ever think about, or do you want to concentrate your energy here?
LM: I think Austin is always going to be my base. I'm only 30 years old, and I'm at the first point right now where I don't have anything in the pipeline. It's kind of weird actually. It's like 'What am I going to do when Jeffrey's is up and running?' I'm an entrepreneurial person, and I've become so design-oriented. I've been spending a lot of time out in L.A. and I really like it out here.
I think part of the reason I don't want to do Dallas or Houston though is because people from those cities hold Austin in such high regard and love coming here. I feel like I want my places to be specific to Austin. I don't want to do another Perla's. I don't want to do another Lambert's. I want those places to be special and exist on their own. All of our restaurants are in a five-mile loop in Austin, and I prefer to keep it that way.