Bess Bistro will close its doors on September 20. Actress Sandra Bullock opened the restaurant located in the almost-century-old Stratford Arms building at 500 W. Sixth St. in 2006. The restaurant started as a French bistro but introduced a new executive chef in the past year and had moved away from its French roots.
"We have enjoyed serving the Austin community and have made many friends we hope to continue to see at Walton’s Fancy and Staple," the restaurant said in a release.
Bess’ across-the-street neighbor Walton’s Fancy & Staple, a hybrid bakery, deli, and flower shop that Bullock also owns, opened in 2009.
A new (and yet-to-be-announced) restaurant concept from new owners will open in the Bess location soon, according to the statement.
For more background on Bullock and Bess, read the 2009 profile of the actress from former Statesman restaurant critic and reporter Mike Sutter:
Sandra Bullock would like to clear something up: Austin isn’t just a hobby for her and her family. It’s home, the place where she reports for jury duty and the place she’s chosen for her newest business venture, a florist, takeout deli, coffee shop, catering operation and bakery called Walton’s Fancy and Staple.
Walton’s opened at 609 W. Sixth St. on Friday with a one-stop philosophy described this way by general manager Jerald Rhodes: "A bride can come in here and get everything she needs, except the dress."
The pre-1900s building has been renovated from the plumbing up, keeping the architecture, wood and brickwork intact, when possible, down to the faded ads for gum and coffee painted on an inside wall. The renovation follows a template established at other high-profile, Bullock-owned Austin properties, including the 1918 Stratford Arms building across West Sixth Street from Walton’s that houses Bullock’s restaurant, Bess Bistro, and the century-old building at 400 Nueces St. that plays host to Mellow Johnny’s, the bicycle shop in which Lance Armstrong is a partner.
Bullock’s fame is fueled by her stardom rather than her investments, but the two are related.
"The acting is to fund what I do here in Austin, " said Bullock, whose romantic comedy "The Proposal" is scheduled to open June 19 and co-stars Ryan Reynolds. Her movie career, during which her salary for some films has reportedly climbed beyond $10 million, took off in 1994 with the bus-bomb thriller "Speed" and includes "A Time to Kill" with Matthew McConaughey in 1996, the first of four years she won People’s Choice Awards for favorite actress, and the 2006 Academy Award-winning "Crash."
During an interview in February, when the downtown Walton’s was a dusty shell with a few counters, ovens and fixtures, Bullock was asked if there might be simpler ways to invest in her adopted hometown.
"I have a hard time referring to these projects as my business, " she said. "In the end, I might not make a dime. … But look at what we’ve done to this building. That’s an investment and payoff all on its own."
As she talked, superintendent Dan Broadhead of Grounds Construction walked in with another discovery from the site: a rusted screw jack, possibly from the building’s former life as a stagecoach depot. The artifact joined a trail of discoveries, including horseshoes, old ceramics, a corroded round of live ammunition and evidence that the building’s entrance once faced Fifth Street.
She called her passion for restoring old properties a "hereditary illness, in a good way, " something she got from her father, John Bullock, a voice teacher who restored old buildings and used them as studios during her childhood in Virginia. "It’s the love of history. It’s an expensive love."
Asked how much has been invested in the Walton’s project, Bullock attorney John Chamblee wouldn’t name a figure but said, "It would have been cheaper to knock it down and start with something new."
As an officer in Morsels LP, the company that operates Walton’s and Bess, Chamblee worked with contractors and the city to remedy the ills of a building more than 100 years old, including replacing a water-supply pipe choked almost shut with decades of mineral deposits. He keeps a section of the pipe on a shelf as a reminder.
The company hired Austin architect James Holland and building designer Michael Hsu to give Walton’s the feel of an old general store and apothecary, and it brought Rhodes from another business Bullock owns, Walton’s Florist & Nursery on Bee Cave Road, to be the general manager.
For the food at Walton’s Fancy and Staple, Bullock turned to her sister, writer and professional baker Gesine Bullock-Prado, who came from Vermont to consult. Bullock-Prado brought along chef Tim Stephenson, who will stay in Austin to oversee Walton’s food services, which include catering, deli meats and cheeses, fresh-baked breads, pastries such as macaroons and croissants from $1.25 to $3, sandwiches starting at $5.50, soups and a grab-and-go menu developed with Bess chef Mizael Saucedo. A full coffee menu includes espressos and lattes from $2.25 to $3.85.
Curiosity about the business was clear on a Thursday night in April, when the shop’s picture windows were filled with lights and restaurant personnel for a photo shoot. Passers-by pressed their foreheads to the glass, checking out the half-filled cases of baked goods, the home-decor pieces for sale and the bustle of photo activity.
Some passers-by clearly were looking for Bullock herself, seeing as how Walton’s had been one of those otherwise hush-hush celebrity ventures about which chatter had begun the day the shoulder-high Hobart mixer showed up in the darkened building last fall.
On Friday, the morning trickle of first-day customers included Skip Avis, a resident of the nearby 360 condominiums who said he’d been calling almost daily to find out the opening date. After a breakfast of coffee and a croissant, Avis said he liked the shop’s French cafe-style look.
Rollingwood resident Josh Bernstein, who works downtown and used to live near Walton’s, said that after months of seeing the building under construction, curiosity lured him in.
Bullock did not attend the opening Friday because she was in New Orleans for an awards ceremony recognizing her charitable contributions after Hurricane Katrina.
Another West Sixth Street business owner, Marc Katz of Katz’s Deli, said he welcomes his new neighbor. "Restaurants and bars do better in a cluster. Ten or 15 years ago, it was just (Katz’s) and the Hoffbrau, " Katz said, referring to the 75-year-old steakhouse.
With the boom in condominium developments and nightspots in the area, he said the timing was perfect for Walton’s. "We’ve had enough Starbucks, " he said.
For Bullock, the ability to cultivate an island of privacy has been one of Austin’s drawing points. "I don’t come to Austin to be seen; I come here to hang out, " she said.
If anybody recognized her as she crossed West Sixth Street from the Stratford Arms building to Walton’s for a meeting in February, they didn’t let on. In Clark Kent glasses and a scarf coiled around her neck, she was just another pedestrian.
Her husband, the vibrantly tattooed "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant Jesse James, might be easier to spot during his trips to Austin from Long Beach, Calif., the home of his West Coast Choppers custom motorcycle-building business. James, who is a partner in the Austin Speed Shop on South Lamar Boulevard, "fell in love with the city, " Bullock said.
"We spend a lot of time traveling and working, " she said. "And we’re never home until we get to our place here in Austin."
Bullock also talks about Austin in the June cover story of Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
"I love New York, and I consider myself an East Coast person, " the magazine quotes her as saying. "But I really appreciate Austin. " I don’t want to talk about how much I love it because I don’t want anyone else to move there!"
The words of a true Austinite.