Larry McGuire on Fresa's, getting sick of food, and a new oyster bar
Tue May 1, 2012 12:19 pm

It's hard not to eat at a Larry McGuire project these days – even if it's by accident. The chef-turned-entrepreneur has his hand in a number of Austin's most popular restaurants, including Perla's, Lamberts, Elizabeth Street Café, and, most recently, Fresa's Chicken al Carbon. The young restauranteur sat down with TEXAS MONTHLY to talk about his upcoming projects (including Jeffrey's), his day-to-day life, and why he sometimes just wants fish and rice.

What is your day-to-day life like right now? You've taken on so many projects recently.

That's kind of a big thing for us right now is figuring out what kind of company we're going to be. I'm still figuring out what my days are really.

Do you go from restaurant to restaurant?

Yeah. I don't really have a big plan or a big vision of what we want to do. It's almost been real-estate driven. We've had these opportunities to take spaces, and we're always kicking around a concept. When we did Lamberts, we hadn't seen anyone doing barbecue in a new way. People were starting to get into sausage making and charcuterie. We were toying with that and we had both been cooking fine dining, so that's how Lamberts started. After being so meat-centric, that kind of led us to wanting to do a lighter restaurant like Perla's, and we've always been into Asian food, so that's how Elizabeth Street got started. Fresa's is almost like a P-Terry's concept. People say, "You guys borrow so much stuff," and I'm like, "Of course we do." We travel. We eat out. We see what people are doing, and we try to figure out what we need or are missing in Austin. At the end of the day, we're consumers. We wanted to make good handmade food that's fast and convenient when we came up with Fresa's. We don't have this big plan or vision of what we want this company to be. I'm still figuring out what I want to do. I don't really even consider myself a chef that much. I come from a food background, but I'm much more of an entrepreneur now.

I was going to ask you about that. How much time do you spend in the kitchen now?

At Lamberts, I probably spent a year and a half in the kitchen. I kept a line-cooking shift until we started Perla's. I gave up my Wednesday grill shift. I enjoy line cooking a lot though. I miss that aspect, but at each of these places we're trying to hire neat people. Each restaurant has its own team now. There isn't a whole lot of bouncing around anymore.

Do you get to a point where you feel like you can be hands off? With Perla's, for example?

I listen to customers, and I look at the business and the volume. That tells me whether we're being successful or not. We have a big group of investors and so many friends that are using the restaurant, and I always try to get people to be honest with me about their experiences. One of the interesting things about the growth is that there are two ways it can go: the growth can get to be where we are so hands off that the other places start suffering, but in our case, the employees see that we're doing other things and we're not complacent, and it makes them not complacent. They are excited about being a part of something that is bigger than just this one restaurant. My job is to keep this excitement going. I have to ask myself how Perla's stays interesting after three years if my personality isn't there or if I'm not in the kitchen. I don't want Perla's or Lamberts to ever lose their buzz or excitement, so I have to find people that bring that to work every day. It helps them that we're out there doing other things, like opening this drive-thru chicken shack.

Larry McGuire with Anthony Bourdain

How did Fresa's happen?

Fresa's happened organically. We hired Margaret to help open Elizabeth Street; she's a project manager that has a restaurant background and is really into graphic design. She needs to get most of the credit for this project. Her idea for the restaurant's name was Hugo's, for her son. I thought her idea of the food and the style of convienent all-natural fast food was going to be huge. We teamed up with her and did this. That's how we're able to do so many things. I get all the credit and press, but it's really this big team of people that makes it all happen.

Photo by Rebecca Fondren

You're a young entrepreneur. Do you ever have these days where you feel too young or like you're getting ahead of yourself?

Yeah, I have all those emotions. Every day. I think that's what makes us good at what we do. We're not just blindly going ahead. We have all those doubts. Our investors are constantly checking with us to make sure we're on the right track. This project is actually pretty simple compared to a restaurant like Lamberts or Perla's.

Would you ever do something like this in Houston or Dallas?

For us right now it's about quality of life and time. Tom and I have been working sixty, seventy-hour weeks for years now. Adding a commute into the mix doesn't sound very fun. I love Dallas and Houston and even San Antonio. We really like neighborhoods and old real estate, and Austin has that. We joke that we want to go to all our businesses in the same day, so from my house I usually hit Perla's in the morning, coffee at Elizabeth Street, stop by and say hi at Lamberts, and then I'm here or at another project we're working on.

What did you look to for menu inspiration at Fresa's?

This is really about the chicken. We're all reading about how gross chicken is nowadays. There is this huge movement of single producers and going back to farms. That's important to us. We want to do it in a practical way that people can afford. It's one thing to sell the best product, but if it's not approachable or affordable, there really is no point. Good food shouldn't just be for the wealthy. We wanted to do something that was this handmade feel in this mid-price point. We wanted to have big flavors and picnic-style food. We wanted to have a high-quality chicken, rice and beans, and fresh tortillas. The fresh tortillas are my favorite. The other stuff is guacamole, salads, sandwiches, just easy-going food.

Tell me about Jeffrey's. What are you planning to do with it?

Well there were two ways we could have done it. We could have gone in and gutted it or we would need to do a light remodel. Physically, there were some things that had to happen with the building. A wall was crumbling, so that had to be rebuilt. It's a thirty-six-year-old restaurant that's been around. I feel like I don't want to keep giving the same interview over and over again, but it was a complicated project that needed to be brought back to life basically. The Weiss Family has run that thing unbelievably well for a really long time. People have worked there forever. It's a neat restaurant. For a lot of people it's a big deal that it closed, but it had to happen.

Are you getting backlash from the project?

I've been to a bunch of neighborhood meetings. A lot of things that are great about Austin are the same things that make it hard to do things here, and it's this balance that has kept Austin local, and that's why chains can't survive here. It's challenging to do a project here at the same time. When a business has been open that long, the owners don't really own it anymore. It gets its own life. I was there on the last night and it was all regulars and generations of families. This woman got up to give a toast and she had celebrated every one of her husband's birthdays there for the last fifteen years. They could go anywhere they wanted, and they went to Jeffrey's. It's a haunt. It's a hangout. It doesn't look like Congress. It doesn't look like a fancy restaurant anymore, but to a lot of people, that's what is so great about it. That's the challenge for us. It's what people love about it. They don't want it to be fancy, or else it wouldn't be what it is. We're going to do our thing and hopefully people will like it.

How will you change it up?

The only thing that is staying about Jeffrey's is we're trying to duplicate the feel, the pace, and the volume. Other than that, every single thing is changing. We're trying to operate it in the same spirit.

It seems like you have opening restaurants down to a science. What's the formula?

It's definitely not a science. If it was a science, our restaurants wouldn't do so well. I think our restaurants do well because they are organic, and we are constantly working on them. Like at Lamberts, I don't like the chairs upstairs. I'm looking for a better chair! These are projects for us and extensions of our lives. I spend more time working and dealing with the restaurants than I do my own life. We have this luxury of doing exactly what we want to be doing. No part of me says I wish I was an architect, or wishes I was doing something else. This is what I was meant to do. We have an earnest want to please people.

Do you have any projects you are thinking about doing soon?

We have a small one that we're doing on West Sixth Street called Clark's Oyster Bar. It's going to kind of be a spinoff of Perla's. It's going to be more neighborhood-y.

Who do you look to for culinary inspiration in Austin?

I don't know. It's funny, I get really sick of food. I've been cooking since I was sixteen in a professional kitchen and thinking about food my whole life. I get a little burnt out on it. The importance people place on food amazes me. I like to eat food really simply. I want to eat super-simple, clean, healthy food. I'm interested in what Bryce is doing at Barley Swine and really pretty, neat food. I love eating at Uchi, but sometimes I'd rather just have fish on rice. Beautiful fish on rice. So, it's kind of difficult being in the business. Things that excite me are when people do one thing, but they do it super, super well. Those are the kinds of things I want to do as I move forward, like with Fresa's chicken and handmade tortillas.

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