Melancholy is seldom the expected outcome when one receives a free cup of decent coffee first thing in the morning. But as Liz Lambert accepted hers, from the young female barista behind the counter at Jo’s, which Lambert founded twenty years ago, she said in a reflective voice, “It’s one of the saddest things for me. We named Jo’s after my mom.” And, she added, referring to the corporation that now owns the coffee shop, “Standard’s not doing enough to grow it, which also makes me sad, because I’d love to take it and grow it.” 

It was a cold winter morning, and Lambert and I were wandering on foot down South Congress Avenue, the once-desolate Austin thoroughfare that is now, thanks largely to Lambert, one of the city’s defining emblems. She and her brother, restaurateur Lou Lambert, opened the coffee stand in 2000, adjacent to her first hotel, the San José. It had been a while since I had visited South Congress, and the famed 57-year-old hotel entrepreneur offered to show me what I’d been missing out on. 

SoCo, as the developers term it, bears little resemblance to the white-punks-on-dope underbelly it was when I first started hanging out at the neighborhood’s Continental Club as a college student in 1979. There’s a profusion of casual high-dollar restaurants and boutique clothing stores that announce themselves as Texan in the most ironic ways. South Congress is increasingly replete with offices and posh apartments. Even in a time of pandemic, monied millennials crammed the sidewalks. 

Returning to a stretch where I’d once lived for roughly two decades was expected to elicit entangled sentiments. What I hadn’t considered was what it must feel like to be Lambert and to stroll through a world that was her creation and now is no longer hers.

Lambert is often referred to as Austin’s “queen of cool.” Though she’s understated in dress and manner, she hangs out with actress Connie Britton and musician Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent). With the myriad hotels she’s founded—three in Austin (all on or adjacent to South Congress) and one each in San Antonio, Marfa, and Baja California Sur—she has perfected an aesthetic that has proven irresistible to a clientele for whom being hip and successful are one and the same. 

Austin’s South Congress Avenue in October 1977.
Austin’s South Congress Avenue in October 1977. Scott Newton
The pool at Hotel Saint Cecilia, in Austin.
The pool at Hotel Saint Cecilia. In 2008, Lambert opened the twenty-room hotel in Austin, cementing her place as America’s newest superstar of what she calls “aspirational” lodging. Nick Simonite

You’d never know that several of Lambert’s properties have changed hands over the years, because the hospitality company she founded in 2006, Bunkhouse, has always managed the day-to-day operations of each. That began to change after Standard International acquired a majority stake in Bunkhouse in 2015 (Lambert retained varying percentages of her properties). For a time, the arrangement was mutually suitable. Standard CEO Amar Lalvani was generally supportive of Lambert’s creative vision. That Bunkhouse’s destiny was no longer officially in her hands didn’t seem especially significant.

Then, in 2017, Lalvani took a $58 million investment from the publicly traded Thai company Sansiri. As part of that transaction, Lalvani sold 35 percent—along with board control—of Standard International, which effectively gave Sansiri control over Bunkhouse. The problem, as someone familiar with the deal said, is that the parties wanted to scale everything up, with no clear plan for how to do so. Standard, the insider explained, had “bought a goose that was laying a single golden egg a year and decided it could lay three—and then, in turn, sold Bunkhouse to Sansiri, representing that it would lay six eggs a year without changing the goose’s diet, which proved to be frustrating to Sansiri.” (A source close to Standard called this analogy “dumb” and “incorrect.”) 

Lambert made no secret of her unhappiness with what she saw as a haphazard push for rapid growth, nearly quitting at least once and, on another occasion, vowing to take her discontent to the media (Lambert disputes the latter claim). By the spring of 2019, Lambert began to discuss the possibility of buying Bunkhouse herself. Hampering this effort was the fact that, according to Lambert and two others involved in the transaction, Sansiri had grossly overvalued Bunkhouse, with a price tag exceeding $30 million. By September, she had succeeded in finding investors—but then, at the very end of the ninety-day offer window, reversed herself, declaring her desire to stay on. Lalvani rejected that idea in an email dated September 17, 2019. The next day, a board member spelled it out for Lambert even more clearly: she had been fired. Lalvani confirmed this message the day before Lambert’s fifty-fifth birthday, telling her on the phone that she had become “an unmanageable employee.”

In response to my interview request, Lalvani offered this statement: “While Liz’s version of the situation, and characterization of me personally, fits her narrative, it also omits the many actions she took that made her separation unavoidable. It’s an unfortunate outcome as it was never our desire to build Bunkhouse without Liz.” 

At the time of Lambert’s firing, Bunkhouse offered no official explanation. Even had it offered a reason for her sudden termination, the act would still have struck Lambert’s many devotees—and even those detractors who find her to be capricious and a control freak—as cognitively dissonant, as if Big Brother & the Holding Company had decided one day that they would somehow be better off without Janis Joplin as their singer. 

As Christian Strobel, the former president of Bunkhouse, would tell me, “I think what makes Liz special is that she is unmanageable. People as creative as she is generally are not docile employees waiting for direction. I think the assumption that she was once manageable, or that she told Standard she would be manageable, is ridiculous. She does care about the business, how it’s run, and cares immensely about the team. She also tries to satisfy investors, at least to a degree. What she brings to the table is something so unique and special that you have to see it as lightning in a bottle that needs to be channeled, not managed.”

Fifteen months after her firing, it was evident that Lambert was still stung by the experience. Yet whether by habit, defiance, or abiding affection, she kept an office in the same building on South Congress, one floor below Bunkhouse.

After walking northward from Jo’s—past the usual tourists posing in front of the Instagram-iconic “I Love You So Much” wall a girlfriend spray-painted for Lambert years ago—she led me into the lobby of the Austin Motel. This small masterpiece of motor-court cheesiness (known best for its phallus-shaped welcome sign) was acquired by Bunkhouse in 2017. Citing the brazenly garish wallpaper in the guest rooms as well as the vibrators for sale in the gift shop, she proclaimed it “the most gay hotel we’ve ever done.” Meanwhile, the staff grinned at her awkwardly. Was she still their boss, and if not, what was she doing here? 

“Get up early, do your fair share, get out and push the wagon, and if you can’t remove a stump, plow behind it.”

With her I’ll-get-there-when-I-get-there West Texas gait, Lambert then crossed South Congress and exchanged waves with a couple of employees standing outside the Hotel Magdalena. The latest Lambert project recently opened its doors, albeit a year after she had ceased to be a part of it. It was still missing a few finishing touches, she told me, adding, “The team doesn’t want me to go in there yet.” This was a nod to Lambert’s obsessive attention to detail but also to the strange, phantom-leg connection that both former creative director and staff still felt.

We settled in for cheese omelets around the corner at the Hotel Saint Cecilia, a twenty-room urban enclave canopied by immense oak trees that she’d opened in 2008 with considerable fanfare, cementing her place as America’s newest superstar of what she calls “aspirational” lodging. (She dislikes the term “boutique hotel.”) “Now, this place, I’m really happy to still be in ownership,” she said, referring to her roughly 10 percent stake in the hotel. But as we talked, I noticed her eyes registering flickers of displeasure over some detail that was altogether invisible to me. Lambert was now a mere investor in the Saint Cecilia, no longer its creative operator. “It’s weird,” she said, “because I can’t tell them what to do.”

Though this tour had been for my benefit, I could see that Lambert was still appraising her legacy—partly with the sense of loss that comes out of any severed relationship, but also as a way of deciding what comes next. As crossroads go, hers was not what one would describe as forlorn. It had been just over a year since she had been fired from Bunkhouse. Some ten days after she got that call, Lambert and her wife, Erin, celebrated the first birthday of their first child, Lyndon—named after a brother of Lambert’s who died of AIDS-related complications two decades earlier. She spent 2020 enjoying parenthood and building a new home in West Austin while the pandemic ravaged the hospitality industry, of which she was now only nominally a part. As the seventh-generation progeny of a Texas cattle-ranching dynasty, Lambert could afford to bide her time. 

The pool at Hotel San Cristóbal in Todos Santos, Mexico.
The pool at Hotel San Cristóbal, in Todos Santos, Mexico. The luxury resort was founded by Bunkhouse in 2017. Nick Simonite
The all day bar Paradise Lounge at Hotel Saint Vincent in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The all-day bar Paradise Lounge, at the Hotel Saint Vincent, in New Orleans. Douglas Friedman

In fact, 2020 was not an idle year for her at all. Lambert, Erin, and their baby shuttled between Austin, the family ranch outside Marfa, and the beachside compound she shared with her brother Lou in Baja California Sur. While spending months disentangling herself from Sansiri/Standard/Bunkhouse, she worked on a hospitality design business called Lambert McGuire that she’d formed with Austin restaurant savant Larry McGuire. That partnership led to her joining the hospitality group that McGuire shares with Tom Moorman. Their opening gambit was the Hotel Saint Vincent, a former nineteenth-century Catholic orphanage in New Orleans’s lower Garden District that launched in June. 

I should mention that I’ve known Lambert for more than twenty years—not very well, and certainly not with any discerning perspective. When we first crossed paths, sometime in the mid- to late nineties, at a downtown Austin bar called Club de Ville (that sadly no longer exists), she was with her then girlfriend and a few fancy friends that included a successful screenwriter, and they were loudly rallying themselves for a concert later that night. Lambert, possessing a round and amiable face that masked highly attentive eyes, was manifestly the leader of the pack. She was funny without being jokey, obviously (but not obnoxiously) well read, and comfortable letting others have the stage until she had something she wanted to say, at which time everyone fell silent. She had just taken over a droopy motel called the San José, on the south side of town. I didn’t give the news much thought. 

It would’ve been hilarious to imagine that moment as one when I should have started paying serious attention to Lambert. It would have been even odder to pinpoint it as the moment when we would have to start rethinking how we regard Austin and Marfa and, for that matter, the whole circle-squaring of liberal consciousness with growth-crazed capitalism. But, anyway, here we are. 

Today Lambert is, forthrightly, a mythic hard-charging West Texas lesbian pro-growth lib-backing motorcycle-riding unbounded dreamer—distinctly from these parts, even if, thanks to her, you don’t recognize some of these parts anymore. And as Lambert and I strolled through this terra incognita of South Austin, I could now see that our survey of her former empire amounted to a kind of farewell tour—that something inside her was saying a few fond last words, then drawing the curtains and closing the door behind her.

Lambert on her motorcycle.
Liz Lambert on her 1971 Triumph Trail Blazer motorcycle.Photograph by Nick Simonite

Growing up in this state, you learn not to ask a West Texas rancher how many acres or head of cattle they own. Still, at some point during my years of visiting the Big Bend it became apparent that impossible stretches of what I was gazing at in the region—near Fort Davis, Balmorhea, and Marathon—were the property of Lambert’s family. Or, as Lambert’s cousin Bobby McKnight, the overseer of the cattle business, would one day put it to me of his drives between and across the family ranches, “Yep, we get a lot of windshield time.”

The family does not advertise itself as West Texas royalty. And, indeed, the first of them I briefly met was Lou Lambert, Liz’s older brother, who at the time was doing the cooking at Reata, Alpine’s self-styled “cowboy cuisine” restaurant. That Lou would one day develop his own dining mini-empire—including Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, in Austin, and, most recently, the Roy Pope Grocery and Paris Coffee Shop, both in Fort Worth—was anything but inevitable. I didn’t know that their mother, Joann McKnight Lambert, descended from a lineage whose first Texas land grant was issued by Stephen F. Austin in 1824. I didn’t know that her ancestors had spent the next century migrating across the state—Dallas, Mason, San Angelo, Carrizo Springs, Sterling City—before seizing upon superior grama grassland in Odessa and establishing a headquarters there. I knew nothing about the patriarch Ewell McKnight, Joann’s father and the Crane County commissioner and a local investor, who wore a short-brimmed hat and often did his deals with a handshake. Had I known all this, but only this, about the McKnight clan, then I would’ve figured Lou was just slumming it in the Reata kitchen for a summer, more or less in the same manner that his sister Liz was just flushing some of the family money down the toilet of a South Congress hotel.

The missing piece of the puzzle, hidden in plain sight, was that such dynasties do not spring up overnight. Then and now, cattle ranching—the management of animals but also of an outdoor environment, all while competing in a global food marketplace—is not a short path to prosperity. The McKnight progeny were all raised to heed a work ethic that Bobby McKnight describes as “Get up early, do your fair share, get out and push the wagon, and if you can’t remove a stump, plow behind it.” With that came privilege, of course. No one in Lambert’s family was going to starve. No one was going to struggle to pay the bills. But the West Texas version of noblesse oblige that accompanied their upbringing was, as Lou Lambert puts it, “You will be productive. You will be a part of your community. Do that, and we’ll support you. Whatever path you take is up to you. But you are gonna do something.

Lambert in the Big Bend in the late eighties.
Lambert in the Big Bend in the late eighties. Courtesy of Liz Lambert
Members of Lambert’s family, including her mom, Joann (far left), and her grandfather Ewell (far right), at their Crane County ranch in about 1969.
Members of Lambert’s family, including her mom, Joann (far left), and her grandfather Ewell (far right), at their Crane County ranch in about 1969. Courtesy of Liz Lambert

The “something” that Liz Lambert would do was not prefigured by anything that took place in the first thirty years of her life, other than the preternatural self-assuredness that accompanied her from infancy. The youngest and the only daughter of four children, she wasted little time staking out contrarian turf in her hometown of Odessa: Upon learning that one of her brother Lou’s show calves was being served for dinner one night, she declared herself a vegetarian. She wrote her high school senior thesis on Bob Dylan. She followed in her parents’ footsteps by attending TCU and becoming Pi Beta Phi pledge class president, but she didn’t stick with the debutante life—though, she would later joke, “I actually did like the sorority a lot, maybe not oddly.”

She came out soon after transferring to the University of Texas at Austin in 1983. Lambert took one look around the city and its unmanicured early eighties alt vibe—Barton Springs, Mad Dog & Beans, Les Amis, Liberty Lunch, no one giving much of a crap about money—and pronounced herself an Austinite. She majored in humanities with a concentration in poetry, shared a house with members of the lesbian folk band Two Nice Girls, and took a summer internship at Texas Monthly. While running a poetry series at a local club called Chameleons, Lambert met the writer Marion Winik. “I was an instant victim of her charisma,” Winik told me. “I remember saying something the first night we hung out: ‘Okay, now we have to be friends forever.’ But it was frustrating because she often came with a huge entourage. She’d pull up in her car, and three cars would pull up right behind.”

Practical advice from family members steered Lambert to UT School of Law. After getting her law degree, she moved to New York and spent the next three and a half years in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, with a starting salary of $29,000, trying street-crime cases and serving as an unofficial liaison to the city’s gay community, while her girlfriend, also a lawyer, worked in Harlem, helping Black and Latino people afflicted with AIDS. By 1994, Lambert had fulfilled her three-year commitment to the DA’s office. Maybe she would stick around. Maybe she would move to San Francisco. 

Instead, on a snowy Manhattan day in March, Lambert flew to visit friends in Austin, borrowed a pickup truck, and took a drive down Congress Avenue. And there, like her ranching forebears, she discovered greener pastures.

Jo's Coffee on South Congress Avenue in Austin.
Jo’s Coffee, on South Congress Avenue in Austin. Jo’s, which Lambert founded twenty years ago, was named after her mom.Dave G. Houser/Alamy

The sound you hear,” sighed Steve Wertheimer, owner of the now-legendary music joint Continental Club, as he gestured outward toward South Congress, “is the sound of its soul being sucked out.”

We were sitting outside Jo’s, two crusty sixty-somethings performing the time-honored Austin rite of bitching about how much better things used to be before the next asshole showed up right after we did. If we exerted our collective hindsight, we could almost see the Last Picture Show–like landscape of South Congress back when Wertheimer purchased the Continental in 1987: a loan insurance company, a carpeting store, the original Schlotzky’s—that was about it. Though the strip’s many restaurants are homegrown, the street otherwise bears telltale emblems of overgrown Sunbelt cities everywhere: an Equinox gym, a Madewell men’s clothing store, even a Soho House. When I mentioned that the accounting firm Deloitte was opening an office on South Congress, Wertheimer replied that he wasn’t aware of that, but he didn’t sound surprised.

“I’ve said it many times: South Congress had been the last vestige of the Austin I saw when I first came here in 1976,” he said. “I mean, the club gets busier every year. It’s just—I don’t know. The clientele has changed.”

It wasn’t clear to me who Wertheimer was blaming, if anyone. Certainly not his friend Liz, who upon returning from New York would sit at the bar of the Continental with Wertheimer on weeknights, watching the occasional addict or sex worker disappear into the seedy 24-room motel across the street. When the day came in 1995 that Lambert wondered aloud whether she should just go ahead and buy the San José, Wertheimer saw nothing but upside. One of the hotel owners occasionally stormed across the street to complain about the loud music. If there was trouble inside the club, it usually involved one of the hotel guests. In Lambert, who was at that point languishing in the state attorney general’s office, Wertheimer—a former CPA—saw a kindred spirit, “someone who couldn’t stand her job and wanted an opportunity to do something she actually loved.” He gave Lambert his full blessing, asking only that she not acquire a liquor license, which might impinge on the Continental’s bar business.

What ensued is now one of Austin’s most widely told success stories. Lambert’s mother cosigned a $550,000 loan. Lambert purchased the San José from its owners and, lacking any meaningful experience in the hospitality industry, set out to reinvent the place. She also worked the front desk, and in so doing became acquainted with the hotel’s inhabitants, all of whom would be forced to move out once Lambert’s renovation was done.

As it turned out, the frustrated poet found her artistic calling in architectural design.

Her dreams of empire were nonexistent at that point. Not unlike Frances Mayes’s renovating of a ruined Tuscan villa as a way of reimagining her own life (which the novelist chronicled in her memoir Under the Tuscan Sun), Lambert’s only real goal was to find a vessel worthy of pouring herself into. As it turned out, the frustrated poet found her artistic calling in architectural design. Intuiting what Austin’s downscale-upscale sensibility was fast becoming, Lambert—in collaboration with the designer R L Fletcher and the famed San Antonio–based architecture firm Lake Flato, and in frequent consultation with hotelier Chip Conley—invented her aesthetic on the fly, all loblolly pine furniture and concrete floors, a kind of Texanized feng shui driven in part by her interest in minimalist artists like Donald Judd but also by her paltry operating budget. She raised additional renovation funds from people she knew, the smartest among them putting in all they had to spare and, as one investor put it, “ending up making a f— ton of money.” (The less smart, like yours truly, thumbed through Lambert’s prospectus and then deep-sixed it.)

Five years went into the remaking of the San José. Her inability to get a bank loan for it was a major obstacle, though some of that time was also lost to delays that would provoke empathy from anyone familiar with the banality of home improvement, as when the recycled loblolly planks she purchased turned out to be fatally riddled with nails. But the pace was governed, above all, by Lambert’s exacting insistence on building a hotel that would feel both familiar and sui generis. Eschewing the general practice of contracting out the furnishing work to a chain, as many hotels do, Lambert kept every detail localized, from the musical ambience (by Leanne Flask, of Austin-based Orchid Music Design) to the iron toilet paper hooks (by Marfa craftsman Jamey Garza).  

The made-over Hotel San José officially opened on March 4, 2000. A few other things were happening in the Austin area at the time. Dell-ionnaires, for one. South by Southwest, for another. Overnight, it seemed, the Gay Place had developed both an appetite for money and a talent for making and spending it. Timing favored Lambert. Still, the bet she placed—that anyone with a credit card would have the slightest interest in spending a few nights behind concrete walls on South Congress as opposed to, say, the Four Seasons on Town Lake—still seemed dubious at the time. Then one day Patti Smith walked into the lobby of the San José with a guitar over her shoulder. Then Annie Leibovitz decided that she wanted some shots of Lucinda Williams in an unmade bed in the San José. Then David Byrne came to play in the courtyard. All of a sudden, the only place where Austinites wanted to be was poolside at Lambert’s hotel, basking in the reflected grooviness of whichever reigning hipster was in town.

“What a good hotel does is change a neighborhood,” she would later tell me. What remained to be seen was how the hotel would change the hotelier. Lambert decided, “I didn’t really want to run a business. What I really enjoyed was the process, the creativity, and the maintenance of all this, the management of keeping it alive and well and meaningful.” 

Hotel Saint Cecilia, in Austin.
The lounge area at the Hotel Saint Cecilia, in Austin.Nick Simonite

She formed the management group Bunkhouse, so named after the guest cabin on her family’s ranch just north of Marfa. Then came the Hotel Saint Cecilia and its guests-only dining room, positioning itself as one of the most expensive hotels in Texas from the time of its opening—at the height of the financial bust in December 2008. Asking big bucks for a night on a cul-de-sac just off li’l South Congress during the Great Recession? Why not? Pearl Jam, Beck, and Radiohead each swooped down and claimed every room. Well-heeled visitors to the city took notice. So did commercial realtors.

Proof that Lambert had a hunch that all this was headed somewhere was that she filmed many of her early days renovating the San José. The resulting documentary, Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San José, debuted at SXSW Film Festival earlier this year. 

What’s striking about this visualized narrative of how Lambert became an Austin icon is that it’s not especially happy. Most of the footage captures the San José’s unfortunate residents as they tell their tales to Lambert months or weeks before she gives them the boot. A more encompassing feeling of loss accompanies the panorama of South Congress in its post–“Keep Austin Weird” state of encroaching homogeneity. At times, Lambert seems at pains to comprehend the forces she helped unleash. Notably, neither in the film nor in real life does she ever refer to the street by the obnoxious marketing moniker SoCo.

At the very end of the documentary, the punch line is revealed: its protagonist was no longer the owner of the San José. Evictress had been evicted. Or, as she characterized it in West Texas–speak, “big cattleman is running the little cattleman out.”

I arose one Friday morning and swung open the door of the purple-colored trailer where I’d spent the night, in the scrubby former horse pasture now known as El Cosmico, the Lambert “hotel” situated on the southern edge of Marfa. Other trailers of varying colors were arrayed nearby, as if dropped from a great height onto the precise bull’s-eye of Nowheresville. Though it was well below freezing, a few hardy young souls had spent the night in the complex’s tents. I gave brief thought to shutting the trailer door and going back to sleep.

Instead, I shucked the cotton kimono robe with brightly colored vertical stripes I’d procured from the front desk, since it made me look like a candy cane on acid, and put on heavy clothes. Snaking my way through the fifteen-acre lot that Lambert bought on a whim in 2005 and then opened as a campground four years later, past trailers that have hosted eminences ranging from Beyoncé to Karl Rove, and with my back to the outdoor tutorial area where Mark Ruffalo and others have taken welding classes, I eventually found Lambert and a couple of her coworkers standing outside the manager’s office. They were mulling over a shipment of luxury safari tents, freshly arrived from South Africa. These would supplement the trailers, tepees, pup tents, and yurts already in the lot. “We’re going to do a big upgrade here,” Lambert told me, meaning that there would be a large pool and, down the line, a restaurant. 

It originally occurred to me that seeing Lambert returning to her West Texas roots would prove revealing. It was, but not in the hey-there’s-that-inner-cowgirl way I’d expected. Being inextricably linked to the rising faux-hipdom of Austin—the city’s queen of cool, even as the cool is arguably running out—implies a kind of vampire-like marketing soullessness. In Marfa, I came to see that Lambert’s genius wasn’t realizing that “a good hotel can change a neighborhood.” Instead, it was her recognition of the converse—that a neighborhood can change the concept of a hotel—and then capitalizing on it accordingly.

Lambert in front of one of the trailers at El Cosmico in Marfa.
Lambert in front of one of the trailers at El Cosmico, in Marfa.Photograph by Nick Simonite

“See, it’s tough to make business work in Marfa,” she explained as we stepped away from the South African cargo and strolled through the park. “Some weekends, there’s two thousand people here. And some weekends, there’s crickets. So how do you contract and expand? If you staff up and get ready for three hundred people being in town and instead there’s nobody, you’re screwed. So is there a model for when there’s an art thing in town and all these people from New York and Los Angeles are here wanting to spend money—is there a way to catch those dollars but then, when it’s like today, seventeen freaking degrees, is there a way to tuck back in?”

Answering her own question, Lambert continued: “Camping is the way. Adventure travel is super on the map. I just haven’t been able to figure out a way to monetize it. So that’s what we’ve been experimenting with at El Cosmico. If you can make your hotel come to where the demand is, it changes the model completely. Also, for me”—and now the pace was quickening in her voice—“it feeds me. Because I want a food and wine festival. I want a music festival. I want arts and crafts. Do you remember the Whole Earth Catalog? Their tagline was ‘Access to Tools.’ I think now, more than ever, people learning to be more self-reliant is super interesting. Can you home-brew beer, do leatherworking, weld—whatever. And community is another thing. Having a place where you put down your phones and are disengaged and you’re out there—it’s what they see in the movies in European cities, the myth of the American West, the unfolding roads. You can see the Milky Way out here. It feels like a place to come together and let everything else go.”

It’s still a trailer park, was the obvious buzzkill riposte. But that would have been the voice of the genius who thought investing in a hotel on South Congress was a fool’s errand. Yet again, Lambert was assigning herself a ridiculous challenge. That El Cosmico isn’t for everybody—including the top brass at Sansiri, who Lambert heard had made fun of it and Marfa—misses the point. The point is, who knew that a semi-upscale trailer park in the middle of the desert was for anybody? And the answer is, the same person who’s now dreaming of taking the communal-camping concept to upstate New York, California’s Central Coast, and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, that’s who. 

I shucked the cotton kimono robe with brightly colored vertical stripes I’d procured from the front desk, since it made me look like a candy cane on acid.

We hopped into Lambert’s SUV and fetched to-go cappuccinos from Do Your Thing Coffee. Backtracking southward, Lambert drove to the house of a friend, the transplanted Austin surrealist artist Julie Speed, who had samples from her Purgatory of Nuns series (in which otherwise stoic nuns are bedeviled by serpents, buzzards, and the like) that would be used for Lambert’s new hotel in New Orleans, the Saint Vincent. Driving back into town, we came upon a large family of javelina skittering through the mostly vacant streets. Delighted, Lambert whipped out her iPhone and filmed the procession so that she could show it to her two-year-old son, Lyndon, back home in Austin.

After checking in with a local mechanic to see if he could fix her busted 1971 Triumph Trail Blazer motorcycle, Lambert then asked me if I would mind a brief detour to the family ranch north of Marfa. Since the next day’s forecast called for snow, this would be her last chance to make sure that the bunkhouse was in order before friends—Hollywood celebrities; I’m not allowed to say who—would be coming to stay for a few days. 

We took Highway 17, the last stucco houses disappearing into flatlands, with the Davis Mountains looming off in the distance. Eventually, Lambert turned off and crossed an unmarked cattle guard leading to a dirt road. Two miles down was the small, one-story guest lodge, beneath a hill where several javelina were helping themselves to the stock tank. The building was warm inside, replete with vinyl records and paintings, and had no Wi-Fi. Lambert checked in the kitchen to make sure there was coffee. I noticed a small field mouse scurrying behind a chair and decided not to say anything.

Hearing the grinding wheels of an approaching truck, Lambert ventured back outside. It was her cousin Bobby McKnight making his usual rounds. A pensive, straight-backed 61-year-old with unconscionable Marlboro Man good looks, McKnight had called me before my trip to Marfa to inform me that he wished not to be interviewed. But now he dispensed with that preference, and for the next half hour we talked about the science of cattle ranching before easing into family history and then, his enthusiasm growing, his cousin’s success. “She made South Austin,” McKnight said matter-of-factly. “Someone had to take the leap. Liz had the vision, and, well, I never doubted her.”

“Bobby, you’ve got to come to Todos Santos,” Lambert said, referring to the town where she and her brother Lou had constructed a beachside family compound in Baja California Sur, a few miles from the Hotel San Cristóbal, a luxury resort founded by Bunkhouse in 2017. With mock exasperation, she added, “You’re always saying, ‘When things slow down . . .’ ”

Somewhat abashed, McKnight allowed, “If it rains in the summer before our fall roundup, I might could slip away.”

Laughing, Lambert said to me, “I remember my mother, before dementia set in, she said one time, ‘All my life, we’ve been talking about the weather.’ ”

“I’ve got some old family letters, turn of the century,” her cousin said. “And they all start out with ‘How’s the weather?’ ” Through a thin smile, McKnight concluded, “When you think about it, the weather is our life.”

Through a thin smile, Bobby McKnight concluded, “When you think about it, the weather is our life.”

Ruminating over her cousin’s observation on the drive back to Marfa, I wondered if it was applicable to Lambert. Yes, she was obsessed with the elemental vagaries of consumerism: What were affluent hipsters searching for? That said, harnessing those urges wasn’t a feat of hydroelectric engineering. Lambert was supplying the answers before the consumer did. Her astuteness, which Bunkhouse might or might not be able to replicate without her, lies in the details—a banality that nonetheless rang true as I recalled our dinner together in Austin a couple of nights earlier.

We were at Jeffrey’s, the venerated West Austin restaurant that Larry McGuire, Lambert’s new business partner, had purchased a decade earlier, at the age of 28. McGuire was with us that evening. Though 18 years younger than her, the broad-shouldered and dark-haired restaurateur (whose portfolio includes Clark’s, Elizabeth Street Café, Perla’s, and Lamberts, in co-ownership with Lou) has already done for the city’s dining scene what Lambert has for its hotel industry. (For better and for worse; as with the San José and Saint Cecilia, McGuire’s restaurants combine a relaxed and convivial atmosphere with notably splurge-y prices.) As a teenager growing up in Travis Heights, McGuire used to cruise his bike down South Congress in languid, sweeping S’s. Then, one day in 2000, the San José reopened under new ownership, and the owner’s brother Lou asked the neighborhood kid if he’d like to help out with the grilling on Tuesday steak nights. McGuire’s association with the Lamberts ebbed and flowed through the next two decades. Now they were thoroughly conjoined.

I mentioned to them that the bar at Jeffrey’s used to be my second home in an earlier era, when I was reporting criminal justice stories as a staff writer at Texas Monthly and had fallen into a demimonde that included a few criminal lawyers who always carried a lot of cash. Lambert cackled at the details, but she lit on a larger premise. “See, this is how you think of Jeffrey’s,” she said. “This restaurant is a story. This wineglass. The food.”

Warming to the construct, McGuire chimed in: “I can say this is a place where you want to celebrate with your friends on a Friday night. What we’ve done is realize the fantasy of what a luxury dining spot should be.”

“You call it luxury—I call it aspirational,” Lambert gently admonished. “We all tell stories. And for people to complete their full immersion, you need to see it, smell it, even hear it. You go to Hotel Saint Cecilia at night—there’s nag champa burning. That’s the hippie smell, bringing you into another era.”

“Does that mean each of your hotels has a different music soundtrack?” I asked.

“Oh, a hundred percent,” she replied. “In your mind, you hear the soundtrack of a place before you even build it.” Lambert went on to describe her interactions with a music design firm when she founded the Saint Cecilia—how she told them to think seventies-era Rolling Stones, and then, when the proposed soundtrack came back, Lambert edited it: Sounds good, but no Sonny & Cher. Lambert proceeded to describe the tactile part of Saint Cecilia’s story—namely, the triple-sheeted Italian linens.

“It’s the story you’re going to tell,” she concluded. But, she added, “if you start to target your customer? Then you find yourself playing to the lowest common denominator. You’d never get any of this done.”

“We’re playing to the aspirational,” McGuire agreed. “We want the city to be more delicious.”

“And to show people something they’d never discovered before,” said Lambert.

Lambert with her son Lyndon in Austin.
Lambert with her son, Lyndon, in Austin.Photograph by Nick Simonite

I reached Lambert by phone on a Tuesday morning in April, while she was driving from Austin to New Orleans in a car that was so packed “you couldn’t fit another pencil in here, as my mother would say.” By which she meant candelabras, a couple of tarnished silver punch bowls, and bolts of upholstery that would cover the chairs she had imported from Ireland, which were due to arrive at the port any day now. It was six weeks before the opening of the Hotel Saint Vincent. For the duration of that period, Lambert would be living in New Orleans to supervise the final details at close range.

In a sense, she told me, the Saint Vincent marked a return to her maiden voyage in the hospitality business. As with the San José, she and her partners would be owners of the new hotel—and after cutting a $600,000 check to her former company Bunkhouse, she, McGuire, and Moorman would also be managing the hotel and its two restaurants entirely on their own. While navigating her SUV eastward on Highway 71, Lambert ticked off other new projects. They had recently taken on an Aspen hotel, the Mountain Chalet. A hotel in the Bahamas was in the design stage. Possibly she would be doing more in Baja California Sur. There were a few other embryonic notions she couldn’t discuss till she and her investors had nailed down the specifics. As always, Lambert was catering to a particular clientele—herself, along with those in her affluent rat pack—and intended to roll things out at a pace that would permit her to supervise the details.

“Are you done with Texas?” I asked.

“Never!” she insisted. “I mean, of course not. This is home for all of us. I can’t wait to try something new.” But, she added, “I think the question is, how do you create a long-lasting place? A place that actually gets better over time, instead of something you just get to scale and then sell off, like what I imagine Standard is doing.”

A lamenting tone had begun to creep into her voice. Just as suddenly, she exclaimed: “Oh my God! A herd of zebras!”

“What? Where the hell are you?” I asked.

“Outside of La Grange—wait! There’s a herd of buffalo! No s—! Wow, how crazy.” And, like that, Liz Lambert had levitated to someplace new and unexpected, which was exactly where she has always wanted to be.

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Return of Liz Lambert.” Subscribe today.