Larry McGuire, Pioneer of the New Brand of Austin Cool
Austin entrepreneur Larry McGuire’s work on restaurants and other projects has sparked a new kind of cool in the capital city and beyond.
This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Leader of the New School.”
In a former recording studio tucked behind a row of storefronts on Austin’s South Congress Avenue, Larry McGuire pores over renderings of the first restaurant he and his business partner, Tom Moorman Jr., will open outside of Texas. The second outpost of Clark’s Oyster Bar, a sunny Austin lunch favorite, will open in Aspen, Colorado, next summer. For McGuire, the 35-year-old CEO and design visionary behind McGuire Moorman Hospitality, the Aspen launch is one piece of an ambitious slate of upcoming projects, and he’s buzzing over every detail, down to what kind of knit will work best for the waitstaff’s custom ski sweaters.
All around the tastefully spare workspace (white cinder-block walls, concrete floors, a single Turkish rug) inspiration boards provide a glimpse of upcoming projects, from high-rise-hotel restaurants to retail stores. An advance copy of a lush cookbook inspired by McGuire’s French-Vietnamese restaurant Elizabeth Street Café sits on his desk. While it’s not uncommon for successful restaurateurs to expand, McGuire Moorman is doing something a bit different. The company has taken its flair for creating perfect little worlds—the restaurant as set piece—and applied it to a widening array of industries.
To anyone who has followed McGuire’s rise over the past decade, this won’t come as a surprise. A native Austinite, he grew up in Travis Heights, the hilly enclave that abuts South Congress. He got his start as a restaurateur at age 24, when he and two friends (including Moorman) partnered with industry veteran Lou Lambert to open Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, a “fancy” take on Texas’s national cuisine. He did everything back then, from cooking to interior design to running QuickBooks. In 2009, McGuire and Moorman debuted Perla’s Oyster Bar, a beachy spot with a sprawling oak-shaded patio. Then, two years later, came Elizabeth Street, the restaurant that established MMH’s meticulous attention to detail. It was the first time the company had curated an art collection, designed its own uniforms (bright floral frocks that sparked a design moment themselves), and created an upbeat but soothing playlist that chirped from custom speakers made to melt into the woodwork. If Wes Anderson were to make a French Colonial film, it would look like this.
“I have always seen eating out as a fantasy, an escape,” McGuire says. “When I was cooking, how the plate looked was super important to me. It’s about that follow-through of concept, from beginning to end.” Rather than create novel dining concepts, McGuire’s restaurants put a modern spin on existing genres. They’re not so much authentic as painstaking, hyperreal interpretations of authenticity.
That idea has persisted over the years as MMH opened Clark’s, the ladies-who-lunch spot Josephine House, a Parisian-esque cafe called June’s All Day, and—the company’s crown jewel—a reboot of Jeffrey’s, Austin’s most iconic fine-dining establishment (whose valets, until recently, wore uniforms inspired by none other than Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums).
While the company will continue to open more of its own restaurants—McGuire says he’s eyeing an expansion to Dallas and perhaps a second spot in Aspen—it’s also focusing on hiring out its version of Austin cool to other businesses. This month brings the debut of a collaboration with another old friend of McGuire’s, Will Bridges, the owner of the Deep Eddy Cabaret: Pool Burger, a burger stand meets tiki hut behind the beloved dive bar. MMH is developing two restaurants, a bar, and a coffee shop for a high-rise hotel that’s under construction downtown, as well as a diner called Joann’s Fine Foods at the Austin Motel. MMH designed the tasting room at Deep Eddy Vodka Distillery, in Dripping Springs, and now offers creative consulting to other firms for everything from uniforms to playlists. In 2015, McGuire bought the longtime Austin fashion boutique ByGeorge, and MMH now manages its two locations. That experience has informed the work the company has done designing stores around the country for the athletic-wear brand Outdoor Voices, launched by McGuire’s girlfriend, Tyler Haney.
If none of this sounds like scruffy old Austin, well, it’s not. But unlike a lot of hot spots, which often flame out, McGuire’s are intentionally aiming to become the new old school. “Our restaurants are not meant to be temporary,” he says. “We’re not trying to be trendy. We are trying to create places that anchor a neighborhood.” McGuire, as much as anyone, has shined up his city, and now, just as the old Austin sold itself to the world, he’s ready to take the new style for a spin.