Last Call: A reunion for Jeffrey's staff as the Austin institution passes thetorch to innovative restauranteur Larry McGuire
They say to make a great restaurant, it takes a lot more than good food. Among the other key factors are a great atmosphere, a good wine and beverage list, consistency, and most importantly, a great staff.
Sunday night Jeffrey’s marked the end of its 36 year era under the ownership of Ron and Peggy Weiss and Jeffrey Weinberger by celebrating with the people who made the restaurant an Austin icon for so many years: their staff.
Of the nearly 200 past and present staff members who were invited, more than half of them crowded into the cozy neighborhood cottage space of the longtime fine dining restaurant for what would be the last event at Jeffrey’s before it shutters its doors for a few months and reopens in the fall with a complete remodel and under new ownership from celebrated Austin restauranteur, Larry McGuire. (Along with the entire team of McGuire Moorman Hospitality—Tom Moorman, Steve Werheimer, Jett Butler, Carla Work and Margaret Vera.) The tight-knit family of friends mixed and mingled for the festive evening sipping wine and savoring delicious bites from Larry McGuire.
Among the many guests were staff — both young and formerly young — brimming with stories of their days at the restaurant, including Johnny Guffy, a 32-year veteran Jeffrey’s waiter; Carlos Rivero, former Jeffrey’s waiter and current owner of El Chile, El Chilito, El Alma and FlatTop Burger Shop; and John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records and former 9-year Jeffrey’s waiter. (According to Kunz, his days at Jeffrey’s in the early 80s kept him afloat while his burgeoning record company, Waterloo, got on its feet.)
When Jeffrey's opened in 1975, it was a different time in the American culinary scene. Restaurants like Chez Panisse were turning heads with their attention towards quality, fine dining in a comfortable, homelike atmosphere.
Inspired by what Alice Waters began in 1971 and by a number of other fine dining restaurants throughout the country, Jeffrey’s arrival in Austin set a new standard for what was then more of a University town. Since that time, it has been lauded by numerous regional and national publications including awards for “Who’s Who In Food and Wine in Texas” by Texas Monthly in 2001 and countless awards for its wine list from Wine Spectator.
In 2002, Jeffrey's was inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame by Nation’s Restaurant News. Numerous highly regarded chefs got their start at Jeffrey’s including David Garrido (Garrido’s), Alma Alcocer-Thomas (El Alma) and Jessica Maher (Lenoir).
And while it has had its fair share of well known Austin regulars including Bill and Sally Wittliff, Becky Beaver, Lowell Liebermann, Bill Powers and the whole family of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Jeffrey’s has also been the “go-to” place where most longtime Austinites have dined more than a time of two for special occasions or for a cozy “catch up” drink with friends at the restaurant bar.
But as the old adage says, most “good things must come to an end.” Perhaps it’s just good luck that, while Jeffrey’s service under its original ownership is coming to an end, the name will still live on.
“Jeffrey’s has been a part of Austin for more than 36 years and a very important part of my life,” says Ron Weiss, who gave a final farewell toast to his family of staff for the last time. “But we were ready to move on and when Larry McGuire approached me about taking ownership of it, I felt like it was the right thing for all of us. He’s the only person in the world who would be right for this. He grew up in Austin and used to come to Jeffrey’s with his parents when he was just a boy. He really understands what we’re about and as he takes over the next chapter of the restaurant, I know he wants to maintain the integrity of what we’ve started and I couldn’t feel better about that.”
Weiss touts McGuire Moorman Hospitality (which includes Lamberts, Elizabeth Street Cafe and Perla's) as one of the most forward thinking and innovative restaurant groups in the country — and certainly in Austin.
“What they’re doing for restaurants in Austin is so important for the direction this city has taken with the culinary scene,” says Weiss. “It’s exactly like what restauranteurs like Danny Meyer have done in other great dining cities, and it’s vital that we have people like Larry looking out for how Austin evolves. Having Jeffrey’s as their fine dining component is a thrill for us."
“Jeffrey’s has been an Austin [fine dining] institution for my entire life, but it’s also been a comfortable neighborhood meeting place. We didn’t want to see that go. It’s been a very delicate project to take on, but we’ve worked closely with [the original founders] to try to maintain its spirit.” - New Owner Larry McGuire
“Jeffrey’s has been an Austin institution for my entire life,” says McGuire, whose Fresa’s Chicken opens this week and whose entrepreneurial mind is already stoking the flame for a couple of other ideas that we’ll see come to fruition before the end of the year. “But it’s also been a comfortable neighborhood meeting place. We didn’t want to see that go. It’s been a very delicate project to take on, but we’ve worked closely with Ron, Peggy and Jeff to try to maintain its spirit.”
And while there’s certainly a twinge of sadness among the original Jeffrey’s crew, for Weinberger and Ron and Peggy, it’s been nothing but a good ride.
“When we opened with one room, 12 tables and a blackboard menu, our daughter was a few weeks old,” says Peggy. “She now has a family of her own, and we all celebrated our three-year-old grandson's birthday in the Jeffrey's private dining room last month. Our son offices around the corner from the restaurant with Ron and remembers walking to Jeffrey's after school, to have the cooks prepare his afternoon snack.
“It’s been such a wonderful gift to have Jeffrey’s part of our lives for so long. We’ve had countless celebrations, good conversations, great food and wine, late nights, floods, fires, you name it — it’s all embedded in us. We have had seven governors in Texas since we opened and all have dined at Jeffrey’s as well as countless national restauranteurs, chefs and celebrities.”
The final farewell party among the whole cast of restaurant staff was festive and merry with many memories and stories shared among longtime friends throughout the evening. But we’ll let them tell you in their own words:
Emil Vogely, Jeffrey’s first chef
I was the original Chef at Jeffrey’s from opening to about 1980. This was a really exciting time in Austin for restaurants and the real formative years for Jeffrey’s. We went from small bistro to being named one of the top 10 restaurants in Texas by Texas Monthly. Business jumped from 60 covers a night to 160 covers in the span of two days.
There are a lot of stories to share about Jeffrey’s. From Needless to say this is only the tip of the iceberg, from “Coon-ass Gumbo” cook-offs to smoking pot in front of Lady Bird Johnson’s Secret Service detail, we share a lot of great memories. This one is only the tip of the iceberg:
At one point, to give me a night off, we started having guest chefs on Sunday nights. One of these nights we had Martha Shulman, who was a local vegetarian chef with a popular Austin supper club that was usually hosted in her home. (Hosting this at a restaurant was something new for her.) They started their prep at about ten in the morning, and around four o’clock that afternoon Jeff(rey) called me up and asked if I could come by the restaurant. He sounded a little nervous. When I arrived I found about 15 helpers in the kitchen and every pot and pan either dirty or full of something. It was a disaster. I tried to help as best I could, but it was chaos.
When we were about fifteen minutes from opening, the kitchen looked even worse then it did at four o’clock. More people, more dirty pots, chaos squared. Jeff and I were standing there helpless and a look of regret came over his face. Just then Martha came up to us and while we were expecting some encouraging words from her about how it was all going to be alright, she uttered a phrase that became our “catch phrase” for being totally “in the weeds.” She looked at us, smiled, and said “I’ll be right back, I’m going to go home now and change clothes.”
She returned about a half hour later in her party dress and somehow Jeffrey’s survived. I went home, but for years afterward whenever things got just a little too crazy, Jeff and I would look at each other and say, “going home to change clothes,” and we knew, somehow, it would all be OK.
Marilyn Sher, Pastry Chef
I was there throughout the tenures of five chefs including Emil Vogely, Raymond Tatum, Ron Estell and James Taylor. Ron, Peggy and Jeff graciously acknowledge me as the first official dessert chef. I had no formal training, but when they were looking for someone to make desserts it was my good fortune that they were fine with letting me experiment and basically do whatever I thought best.
I played with different flavors of roll cakes—strawberry, mocha and peach melba were favorites — Ile Flottante (meringue in crème anglaise), all manner of tarts, New York Cheesecake, Julia Child’s classic Mousseline au Chocolat, Diana Kennedy’s classic flan, Le Succes (layers of almond meringue covered in dark chocolate ganache), and chocolate intemperance, which became Jeffrey’s signature dessert.
Whenever my husband and I would go to Jeffrey’s for dinner, people would inevitably point and stare, sometimes even slipping me notes asking why couldn’t I please make the Le Succes in the middle of the summer? Well, it might have had something to do with the fact that the Jeffrey’s kitchen was at that time basically a back porch with no air conditioning. The seven page recipe in Volume 2 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was one of the most divine, but labor-intensive concoctions of baked meringues, homemade praline powder and Swiss buttercream. But it was not well suited to make during a Texas summer. I was icing cakes in the walk-in. Those were the days.
I was there long enough ago that I remember when they hired Johnny Guffy as part of the wait staff. He was in fine form from the very beginning—and to this day is one of the most requested servers at the restaurant. Once a customer asked him to describe the “Fresh Fruit Tart.” With a mischievous roll of his eyes, he told them it was made by a little tart and served by a fresh fruit!
Johnny Guffey, Wait Staff
I’ve worked at Jeffrey’s for 32 years, and there aren’t many pro-waiters in Austin with a record like that. It's been a great career and the hundreds of of wonderful people who I have gotten to know is the best part of it for sure.
I have people that were coming here in their booster seats and not their bringing their children. I’ve served John F. Kennedy Jr, Laura Bush, Lady Bird Johnson, Liz Carpenter, Sandra Bullock, Gina Davis and have seen everything from engagements and anniversaries to divorces, business deals and everything in between. It’s like having dinner parties every night only I don’t have to wash dishes or cook. I hope to continue on the great tradition of Jeffrey's when it reopens with the new owners.
Bonnie Lynch, Wait Staff
My 10 years at Jeffrey’s were formative in further developing my already keen interest in food and wine and shared with an exceptionally fun environment and staff. Often people form lifetime friendships in college. Jeffrey's gave me lifetime friends whom I still gather with around great food, wine and conversations. The food was always so thoughtful and skillfully prepared that we have renamed our little reunion "pot lucks," "Fortune du Pot," to add a little French elegance to them.
While on staff there, Peggy, Ron and Jeffrey allowed me and other staff to use the restaurant once a year for an art exhibit. It was an annual December event on a Sunday night and we would transform the entire restaurant into a gallery. Over time, it really gained quite an attendance with numbers reaching more than 300 people.
Keep in tune to CultureMap for updates on Jeffrey's new era.