You can tell the old customers from the new ones the minute they walk in. The new ones seem a little hesitant as they wait to be shown to one of the four revamped rooms, gazing with open curiosity at the storied restaurant that was, in its heyday, the undisputed king of Austin dining. The old-timers—the ones who’ve been coming here since Jeffrey’s began as a little French bistro in the funky Clarksville neighborhood in 1975—march in like they own the joint. They sidle down the hall and poke their noses into each room, sizing up the overhaul the way they would inspect a dear friend who’s been away and returned with a face-lift and a husband half her age.
Jeffrey’s is back. Thirty-eight years after it opened it has reclaimed a place at the highest tier of the Austin dining scene. The menu—fancy steakhouse with a smattering of global dishes—all but guarantees an upscale customer base. So does a luxe redo that took the building down to its bare brick walls. The new look evokes a West Austin club, its custom paneling and eighteenth-century bird lithographs accented with vintage Italian light fixtures and fifties-era Nakashima chairs, all topped off with a deliberate touch of The Royal Tenenbaums (e.g., parking valets wearing pink seersucker shorts, which has already caused some eye rolling).
It’s a far cry from the simple bistro that opened at the very time Austin was transitioning from hippie to high-tech. The whole-wheat-and-T-shirts baby boomers were growing up and traveling the world on a shoestring. Two of those people were Ron and Peggy Weiss, who had lived in London for a couple of years, frequenting French cafes there and in Paris. Returning from abroad with grand ideas, they went in with a college friend, Jeffrey Weinberger, and turned a modest storefront into a restaurant. Word spread, and soon everybody was going for steak moutarde and chicken Mornay.
Ambitious menus under two successive chefs, Emil Vogely and Raymond Tatum, made Jeffrey’s a citywide sensation, the epitome of classy but laid-back Austin dining. George and Laura Bush became huge fans, and visiting celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and Julia Roberts invariably ended up here. In 1990 chef David Garrido introduced Southwestern cuisine to Austin, coincidentally creating what would become the restaurant’s signature appetizer: fried oysters on yuca chips with habanero-honey aioli. In 2005 Alma Alcocer-Thomas took the menu in a modern seasonal and international direction. But by then the glory days had faded. When in 2012 the Weisses and Weinberger had a chance to sell to a group that included 29-year-old local hot-shot restaurateur and chef Larry McGuire, they were thrilled.
On a cool Friday night in April, it’s a whole new world here. A friend and I are sitting at a banquette in the see-and-be-seen north room, wondering how such a proper, well-heeled crowd can make so much noise. Judging by the mood, these people are obviously having a fine old time. They are just as obviously not daunted by the prices, which for Austin are jaw-dropping. The heart of the main menu—under the direction of chef de cuisine Josh Hines and sous chef Sam Walters—is a dozen impeccably pedigreed steaks ranging from $45 to $90 each. Yes, you can dine at the new Jeffrey’s for less than $100, but you’ll feel like a piker.
We decided to start with—of course—the famous crispy oysters, a new edition served on parsnip chips bolstered by a parsnip purée and topped with a radish slice and grapefruit-celery slaw (pictured). The frying is spot-on, the purée heavenly. Not in the mood for red meat, my friend orders the pearly-white steamed Washington halibut, which we both agree is superb. But the accompanying fava beans, with accents of country ham and mint gremolata, are al dente (and at these prices, we’re not inclined to ignore even the tiniest flaw). I volunteer for steak duty, choosing the 28-day-aged Akaushi-Angus ribeye. Seldom have I seen a more gorgeous, beautifully cooked hunk of protein. And I must say, I enjoy every single bite. But at the risk of repeating myself, for $60 I expect to fall in love with this steak and possibly marry it. And that is just not happening. And then there are our side dishes, lemon-honey-glazed turnips that are bitter and sea-salt-and-caramel-roasted radicchio that is wonderful but so tough I have to use the steak knife.
A month later, another friend and I find ourselves at almost the same table, engrossed in a fantastic sashimi of baby yellowtail in truffle vinaigrette with white soy and glossy tonburi seeds. We alternate bites of the silky raw fish with spoonfuls of creamy potato-leek-parsnip soup, which is basically a modern vichyssoise, garnished with fennel fronds and bright pickled chard stems. Now, this is more like it. We pass our entrées back and forth. It’s hard to decide which is better, the skate filet with a celery root purée (though it’s all awash in brown butter) or the wood oven–roasted rack of lamb. We give the nod to the latter, which is boosted by a side of cannellini beans with house-made lamb sausage, a soft-cooked farm egg, and a cherry tomato jam.
I was pretty convinced that my second meal—though not perfect—would be hard to top. But a week later I had my most satisfying experience here yet: an utterly simple $28 grilled bistro steak with whipped potatoes. A friend and I ate in the bar, where we also sampled the drink menu (if you like tequila, check out the pale-green sotol cocktail, La Flaca). Our medium-rare tenderloin was the least-expensive beef option, but it hit the spot, and the chatty bar was just fun to be in. When we left, following a dessert of roasted peaches with subtly flavored tobacco ice cream, I had a flashback. I felt like I was back in the Jeffrey’s of long ago. The room didn’t look the same—it’s far more polished—but the old spirit was still there. Suddenly I was wistful. Austin’s all grown up now, and I wouldn’t turn back the clock, but it’s nice to remember the way things used to be. jeffreysofaustin.com