Many Halves Make a Whole
On a Sunday morning in late April, Matthew Bolick bustled around the garden of Better Half, a former Enterprise Rent-A-Car turned Austin's hottest new restaurant. Along with his team, Bolick cleaned tables, chatted with families, and ran orders from the inside kitchen. After dropping off a country biscuit sandwich and a plate of savory churros to one table, a woman turned to the rest of the her party, leaned in and said, "You know, he owns this place."
Since opening in late February, Bolick and co-owners Grady Wright and Matt Wright have been constant fixtures at the new West Fifth spot. As longtime patrons of their first concept, Wright Bros. Brew & Brew, can attest, it's a common site to catch one of them behind the bar pulling espresso shots or sitting at a high-top toiling away on a spreadsheet. Over the past five years, the shop has attracted loyal regulars who return thanks to the inviting staff and the shop's reputation for investing in the creative community. (Oh, and the coffee and beer are pretty good, too.)
Despite being in a city where big-name restaurant groups and a handful of chefs dominate the entire food scene, the trio's brand of Southern hospitality meets Austin cool quietly turned their east side coffee shop into one of the city's most popular spots. Now, that same ethos is turning Better Half from buzzy new hot spot into one of Austin's most important restaurants.
Like most things, in order to see where we're going, we have to take a look back. For the Wright brothers and Bolick, the story begins at Frank, Daniel Northcutt's beloved hot dog shop and cafe. While working as a barista at Frank, Bolick met Matt and Grady, who were working in the tech and construction industries, respectively.
"I would be working at Frank and they would come in," said Bolick, who noted they were introduced by Geoff Peveto, co-owner of Frank, and founder of Decoder Ring, the Austin design firm behind the Frank brand, among others.
Over coffees, the three would muse about potentially collaborating on a new venture. "Oddly organic," Bolick said of the partnership. "Matt and Grady and I realized that I’m the dude that wants to come up with the name and the concept, Grady is logistics, and Matt can do facts and numbers."
A few years after they first floated around the idea to open a brewpub, the team opened Brew & Brew in 2013 in the former Progress Coffee space. Though renovations wouldn't be nearly as extensive as what would later be required at Better Half, the three co-founders placed particular importance on creating a warm atmosphere, including building the bar at waist-height as a way to foster conversation between barista and patron.
Over the years, Brew & Brew became a community space, a venue for everything from pop-ups to beer tastings to parties. "Brew & Brew became a neighborhood coffee hub with die-hard regulars," said Bolick. "[But] we needed to do something. I think we got the itch."
With a rough concept in mind, the three contacted a commercial real estate agent. After looking at properties in neighborhoods like Oak Hill, their agent showed them a former Enterprise Rent-A-Car shop on West Fifth Street, less than two miles west of the Brew & Brew's East Fifth locale. Though Bolick said it was hard to imagine the space as a restaurant, the co-owners agreed to the property after seeing the expansive hangar on the property, a space they're currently in the process of turning into Hold Out Brewing to open in late 2018 or early 2019.
Once the lease was signed, the three set about trying to find an architect to help turn their vision into a reality. They reached out to Austin-based architectural photographer Casey Dunn for his recommendations. (“Why not go to the dude that sees it every day?” mused Bolick.) Dunn returned with a few names, including Jamie Chioco of Chioco Design. As a Brew & Brew regular, Chioco already had a sense of the Wright/Bolick aesthetic. “We all had a lot of opinions, but he had been coming to Brew and Brew and he understood us," Bolick said. "We got along and made a lot of sense."
Along with opinions, the crew was armed with something else: a Pinterest board. Inspired by their native Texas, the Wrights and Bolick began to add the personal touches throughout the space, while also tapping local creatives to help suss out their vision. Grady asked that chicken-fried steak, a staple of his San Antonio childhood, be added to the menu, while Bolick asked for hat racks at each table after eating in a diner in his hometown of Fort Worth with Mohawk co-owner James Moody. After watching Moody place his hat on a nearby stand, Bolick thought, "Yeah, that is tight.”
To develop the interiors, the team hired Lillianne Steckel, an Austin interior designer who worked on Flat Track Coffee, which Bolick also co-owns. Though bright, airy, and thoroughly modern in feel, Better Half isn't without whimsical touches such as Austin-based artist Will Bryant's colorful graphic bathrooms and the handpainted signage courtesy of locals Joe Swec and James Bickerstaff.
Perhaps the most interesting pairing, however, came from Austin-based designer Lauren Dickens, who designed the Better Half branding. "She came in … and she [just got] it. She gave us a rad presentation and we all got the warm and fuzzies," said Bolick.
Her unique styling is seen throughout the space, from the wishbone crackin' coffee cups to the handpainted best friends forever-inspired espresso machines to the neon Better Half sign that now blinks high over Old West Austin. (Dickens is also designing the branding for Hold Out, which you can sneak a peek of on her Instagram.)
Luckily for diners, the food and beverage offerings are as beautiful as the environment. Executive chef Rich Riembolt, who most recently served as sous chef of Jeffrey's and chef de cuisine at Josephine House, crafted "early" and "late" menus filled with innovative yet approachable Southern-inspired fare such as biscuit sandwiches, green and grain bowls, pickle-brined fried chicken, and, of course, chicken-fried steak.
The coffee program is, naturally, the heart of the space (both figuratively and literally considering Better Half serves Heart Coffee Roasters). Cocktails are available on draft and made-to-order; wine lists are curated, but smart; and the beer list is as mighty as one would expect from the team behind the Brew & Brew.
Like many new Austin eateries, Better Half as soared to the top of best new restaurant lists and popped up on the most "influential" of Instagram feeds, and rightfully so. But that's not what makes it interesting. In a city where chefs are one named (Bryce, Tyson, Franklin) and servers come to the table armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of every ingredient in every dish, Better Half is a collaboration of some of the best creatives across industries who have come together to create a uniquely Austin space. Its different approach makes Better Half feel, well, different.
Though humble, it's something Bolick understands is unique about the team's second venture. "Opening a restaurant is fine, but doing it with creative people is magic," he said. "The only reason this worked are the people we worked with."