For those on the nostalgic side, the closing of Hickory Street Bar and Grill last fall was a sad farewell, marking the end to nearly thirty years of service. For the practical set, it further narrowed lunch options in the downtown area. And for Brendan Puthoff (of Barcelona and Third Base), Mason Wheeless and Nate Howry, it served up a golden opportunity to reinvent the restaurant and incorporate an Austin-hearted concept.
Not wanting the space to remain vacant, and having an established relationship with Puthoff as his tenant with Third Base, the property manager approached him about the space.
“There wasn’t a lot of notice given,” explains Wheeless. “It was kind of a last second thing.” Regardless of the short notice, the timing was perfect for Wheeless and Howry. “I was kind of looking for something else to do,” says Wheeless. “Nate and I had been General Managers for Brendan at Third Base, and he approached us about this.”
Similarly, Howry was in transition and ready for the opportunity. “I was on my way out of working the bar scene,” he says. “It seemed like a perfect fit.”
Before the partners could focus on the food, changes needed to be made to the interior. “When we came in, it was a bit disheveled,” explains Wheeless. “It just wasn’t taken care of. We wanted to simplify the space, highlight the ceilings, and keep the old brick wall.” The result, with exposed brick, concrete floors and simple styling, is a welcoming, unpretentious interior that artfully blends modern updates with the existing history of the space.
"With really great, high-quality ingredients, where we don’t have to add a lot of spices or drown anything in sauce, the food speaks for itself.”
But let’s get to the good part — the food. Downtown, and particularly the area around the Capitol and Congress Avenue, is notoriously devoid of fresh, wallet-friendly options at lunch time. Just because one can eat Chipotle for lunch Monday through Friday doesn’t mean it has to be that way. In keeping with the Austinite spirit, Hickory Street keeps locally-sourced.
“As much as possible, we wanted to bring really fresh local food to downtown Austin,” says Wheeless. “Obviously, it’s not possible to do it entirely locally, but we wanted to source as much as possible from local farms and vendors. With really great, high-quality ingredients, where we don’t have to add a lot of spices or drown anything in sauce, the food speaks for itself.”
Some of their local ingredient sources include Phoenix Farms, Schlapper Gardens, Richardson Farm, Veldhuizen Family Farms, Pure Luck and many others.
Menu highlights include a fresh and filling carrot quinoa salad with a bright citrus flavor, mini bison burgers (an homage to the popular burgers of Hickory Street’s predecessor) loaded with sweet caramelized onions and smoky cheddar, a mouthwatering crispy-on-the-outside-and-juicy-on-the-inside gluten-free fried chicken and — don’t drool on anything, now — a short rib mac and cheese with sharp cheddar and parmesan cream sauce.
Hickory Street doesn’t just go local with ingredients, it goes local with its entire concept by going green and getting involved. In cooperation with Arthouse at the Jones Center, Hickory Street is exploring the possibility of a mural creation on the exterior wall (along 8th Street) by high school students from the Austin community.
“The opportunity to be involved with the community is something we are very proud of,” Wheeless says. Additionally, Hickory Street has begun the process of pursuing a Green Restaurant certification. “All the stuff we are using for ‘throwaways’ is earth-friendly, compostable stuff,” Howry explains. “And we have already implemented recycling and composting. It’s something that we were already doing at our homes. We want to take care of our environment and community.”
Hickory Street is open 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., with breakfast hours coming soon.