Thirty-year-old Larry McGuire, Austin’s most prolific high-quality restaurateur, sits down to lunch at his newest restaurant, Josephine House in the capital’s central Clarksville neighborhood. With impeccably clean hands, he straightens his Rag & Bone shawl collar cardigan before placing a crisp napkin into his lap. Josephine House opened last month, and its dining room, with white-washed wood-paneled walls and marble counters, is already packed with neighbors and food aficionados.
If McGuire is anxious about his restaurant’s reception, he doesn’t show it. He glances occasionally at a waiter delivering fresh salads—red grapefruit, orange, and avocado in one hand; roasted pears with Texas honey in the other—and at the eager diners. But after opening six restaurants in six years, he wholeheartedly trusts his enterprise, McGuire Moorman Hospitality, now a $25-million-dollar company with more than 400 employees.
McGuire has wanted to work in the food industry since he was a teen growing up in Austin’s Travis Heights. “He was determined,” says Lou Lambert, chef and author of Big Ranch, Big City. “At sixteen he walked into Liberty Pie, [Lambert’s first restaurant], and said, ‘I want a job. I want to cook.’” At 24, McGuire and Lambert co-opened Lamberts Downtown Barbecue in Austin’s now booming 2nd Street District, which is also home of the Moody Theater and the W Hotel. With a concept—fancy barbecue—Lamberts was one of a handful of places that started a restaurant revolution in Austin, incorporating great design, excellent service, and food that joined Austin’s music and art scenes in luring visitors from the east and west coasts.
It was there that McGuire began to develop a team—mostly hip young adults who look like they’d just as easily fit in at a successful Silicon Valley startup. Tom Moorman, who was a stagiaire at Montreal’s Toqué! restaurant before becoming a head chef in Lamberts kitchen, is McGuire’s partner. (Moorman is less well-known than McGuire and likes it that way.) Both Joe Holm, now McGuire and Moorman’s project manager and designer, as well as Ryan Smith, the creative director, started as waiters as Lamberts.
The five restaurants that McGuire subsequently opened throughout central Austin were inspired by their respective neighborhoods and have spurred their growth. Each has its a distinct concept, cuisine and atmosphere, but they share a laid-back sophistication.
Elizabeth Street Café in South Austin, for example, takes everyday French and Vietnamese foods — pho, Bánh mì, croissants, and macarons—and elevates them with stylish packaging. The restaurant has turquoise leather stools and playful floral wallpaper; tables are topped with vintage silverware and colorful Chinese soup spoons. At Clark’s Oyster Bar, a East Coast-influenced seafood restaurant, a clean-lined nautical theme plays out through details like original shiplap walls, waiters in Sperry Topsiders, and a striped yellow awning printed with the restaurant’s geographical coordinates.
McGuire has the last word on every decision. “The mark of a good restaurateur is someone who understands the individual pieces of a restaurant, from the service to the food, uniforms, and music, and appreciates how they interrelate,” Lambert said. “Larry has that gift.”
Today, McGuire Moorman is working on the second part of Josephine House, the restaurant Jeffrey’s, which will open in April. “This is Larry’s baby,” Moorman says. “It has special meaning to him since he grew up here.”
Jeffrey’s originally opened in 1975 under Jeffrey Weinberger and Ron and Peggy Weiss (they are still co-owners of the project) and is steeped in Austin history. It has been host to celebrities and politicians, including Laura and George Bush, who liked it so much that a Jeffrey’s branch opened at the Watergate when Bush was president. (It has since closed.)
The new Jeffrey’s will not be politically inclined, but it will continue as a fine dining venue, updated.
It has not always been easy to work on a project that is so close to the city’s heart. “Everyone asks me if we’re bringing back the fried oysters [a longtime menu favorite] and Johnny Guffey,” a veteran waiter, McGuire said. “Guffey is coming back, but the oysters are still under consideration.”
The new concept will honor the old Jeffrey’s, though substantial changes have been made. The Austin architectural firm Clayton & Little gutted most of the building; the new interior will include polished plaster walls and local sycamore paneling by Austin-based Vintage Materials. Music played on records, beverage carts wheeling martinis and waiters dressed in silky smoking jackets, and oxford lace-up shoes are also a part of the master plan. “Think The Great Gatsby meets The Royal Tenenbaums,” said Smith, the creative director. Otherwise, décor will be toned down to let plates like wood-grilled lobster thermidor and dry-aged Texas beef shine, as brightly as the new neon sign on the building’s exterior.
Change may be inevitable, but it can be graceful, something that McGuire is trying to demonstrate one plate of oysters, one Nakashima chair and one seersucker suit at a time.