I WAS SITTING AT MY DESK earlier this year wondering if anyone would notice if I left for lunch at ten-thirty when the phone rang. Cruelly torn from my reverie of cheese enchiladas, I picked up the receiver. On the line were Lisa and Emmett Fox, Austin chefs and restaurateurs, who had an offer that no food critic in her right mind could refuse: “We’re opening a new restaurant,” they said. “Wanna watch?” I asked them to hold for a minute while I cleared my calendar. And that is how I got to be—I was about to say “a fly on the wall,” but that seems an unfortunate metaphor—an embedded reporter chronicling the highs and lows of the eight-month gestation of Fino Restaurant, Patio, and Bar.
For three decades I’ve been looking on as fledgling dining establishments struggle to open—often behind schedule and hopelessly muddled—so I was prepared for Murphy’s Law to operate with a vengeance. But if anybody could survive the ordeal relatively unscathed, I thought, it was the Foxes, for the compelling reason that they had already opened one successful restaurant. At their five-year-old neighborhood place, Asti Trattoria, Emmett acts as paterfamilias to his staff and customers and Lisa takes care of business. A big bear of a man, Emmett graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York; Lisa, who is shyer than you would expect for someone so pretty, studied art at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But their experience isn’t limited to Asti. Emmett worked at chic Cafe Annie, in Houston, and was executive chef for a restaurant group in Austin that included the Granite Cafe. Lisa, whose specialty is pastry, was in demand for her lavish desserts at several tony places around town. Now that Asti was running smoothly, they couldn’t resist the lure of, well, having a second child.
By the time of our first meeting, in February, the two had already decided that their new baby would be Mediterranean. Casual but stylish, its menu would emphasize small plates meant for sharing. Wines would be important, especially interesting, affordable European ones. They even had a name picked out: Fino. The word refers to a type of dry Spanish sherry and also means “fine” in both Spanish and Italian—surely a good omen. And they had a location, which by coincidence was Emmett’s old stomping grounds, the now-defunct Granite Cafe. True, the interior needed an extreme makeover—it had last looked cool when Ronald Reagan was president—but otherwise, it was perfect: space for around a hundred, plenty of parking, and, sexiest of all, a covered patio. Another bonus: The landlord, Jim Holden, owner of the Live Oak Group real estate development company, was so tickled to have a major tenant back in the vacant space that he had agreed to pay for major improvements.
As for the rest of the money to support this addition to their family? After circulating a 32-page business proposal before Christmas, complete with a mouthwatering sample menu (lamb chops with couscous and feta, pistachio baklava with honey ice cream), the Foxes had ended up with eight investors: four of the five who had funded Asti, Lisa’s two brothers, her doctor, and her doctor’s mother. It took two months to raise $400,000, in shares of $50,000 and $25,000. Having acquired the money, they immediately started depleting it by hiring a project designer: Michael Hsu, a partner with prestigious Dick Clark Architecture. Low key, almost Zen-like, Michael, out of all the candidates they interviewed, had the most practical knowledge about restaurants. “He told us stuff like the restrooms and stove hood not being up to code,” Emmett said. And in going with Dick Clark’s firm, they got a package deal: Equally unflappable interior designer Kasey McCarty was assigned to the project. They were ready to go.
One cold winter afternoon, I sit down with the Foxes at Asti to play catch-up. The staff is preparing dinner, and I can see Emmett’s eyes following everything in the open kitchen. One of the big things I want to know is this: Did you or Michael come up with Fino’s look? “We talked in broad strokes,” says Lisa. “It was a feeling, more than details.” They envisioned the space as divided into two sections, a quieter dining side and a lively lounge side. But their specific mandates were few: Incorporate wood and the color orange into the plans, and don’t do anything too trendy. Wood and orange? I ask, baffled. They lend a warm, Mediterranean feel, Lisa says. And why nothing too modern? So the look won’t get dated. Michael’s solution has three key elements: a sleek, blond paneled bar in the middle of the room, an intricate wood screen behind the bar, and a floor-to-ceiling “wine wall” with built-in wood racks. As for orange, he’s leaving that up to Kasey. The three of us talk for a good hour, but when Emmett starts to jump up every two minutes, I figure I’ve worn out my welcome. On my way out the door, I call out one last question: “When are you opening?” “Mid-MAY,” they shout back, “if we’re lucky.”
FEBRUARY 23: It’s my first meeting with the Fino crew, and we’re all crowded around the groovy conference table at Dick Clark’s office.
The idea is to meet here every Tuesday at eleven to hash out details until the plans are final; once construction starts, we’ll meet at Fino. Lisa and Emmett I know, of course, and I feel like I’ve already met Michael and Kasey. Dick Clark is sitting in today (he likes to kid around and serves as a nice leavening agent); also on hand is Carey Dodson, a designer who’s assisting Michael. Here from Asti is Brian Stubbs, who with his mop of sandy hair resembles a tall, blond Beatle. He’s slated to become Fino’s manager. And representing the building end is Beth Selbe Lasita, the owner of Pinnacle Construction. Frankly, I’ve never met a contractor like Beth,