As sprawling as the Austin restaurant industry has become in the past 20 years, it's still astonishing how many games of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon - or just Bacon - you can win using Stewart Scruggs and Mark Paul.
Barley Swine and Jeffrey's? Easy. Their chefs both worked at Wink, owned by Scruggs and Paul. The late Brio Vista and Zoot? Scruggs and Paul worked at one and own the other.
And you can't talk about 10 years of Wink restaurant without bumping into the 20-year story of Zoot, which will end when it closes June 8.
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That's because Wink arose from the ashes of Scruggs' five-year burn as the chef at Zoot in 1991. By his own account, he left in 1996 and started sketching a plan for a cook's restaurant. That restaurant became Wink, which he opened in 2001 with Paul, a culinary kindred spirit with whom he would return to Zoot to buy it in 2003.
Together they've run both restaurants, and together they'll preside over Zoot's last day. Then they'll start something new in the same building on Bee Cave Road, a neighborhood place called BC Tavern set to open in late June.
The connections are hardly coincidental. Within those 20 years, the networks linked by those two men gave rise to a new restaurant culture.
Scruggs and Paul sound like the worst kind of career name-droppers. Scruggs worked with some of Southwestern cuisine's early adopters, including chefs Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles and Bobby Flay and went to school with Michael Symon of "Iron Chef America" fame. Paul's trail included New York high-cuisine bastions Le Cirque and the Beard House and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.
Their Austin roots run deep. Scruggs went to high school at St. Stephen's Episcopal School and took his first kitchen job in 1979 at Los Tres Bobos on West 38th Street. Paul went to Johnston High School in the days of crosstown busing. His kitchen career started at the Cupboard off Far West Boulevard near where he grew up. Both ended up in New York for culinary school, Scruggs at the Culinary Institute of America, Paul at Peter Kump's.
Their professional lives converged around another set of names, Austin names. Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso built on their success with Z'Tejas restaurant on West Sixth Street in 1995 by adding Brio next door, where they hired Paul to make desserts . An expansion called Brio Vista opened at the Arboretum in 1996, overseen by Larry Perdido and Chuck Smith, restaurateurs who themselves would leave to form Saba in the Warehouse District and later Moonshine. Scruggs landed a job as chef and general manager in 1998.
Getting settled into his role, Scruggs sat down with every employee for 15 minutes to get to know them. With Paul, 15 minutes turned into three hours. "Two culinary brothers separated at birth" is how Scruggs puts it. A business partnership was born.
Through 2000, Brio Vista saw strong business from an Arboretum clientele flush with cash before the economy cracked in 2001. Paul left in January of that year, Scruggs a month later. The original Brio closed, and Brio Vista became the second location of the Foles-Villavaso steak-and-seafood restaurant Eddie V's.
The restaurants in which Foles and Villavaso have had a hand - Z'Tejas, Brio, Eddie V's, Roaring Fork, Good Eats and more - have been bullpens for players in a host of other places: Fleming's, P.F. Chang's, Dave & Buster's, East Side Cafe, Hoover's, Jack Allen's Kitchen. Like Wink, the original Eddie V's on Fifth Street recently hit its own 10-year milestone.
Foles talks with an almost paternal pride about watching Paul grow into his profession. "You were hoping that he developed into what his dream was," he said. "He kept talking this big stuff, and he backed it up with training and knowledge."
The Wink decade
After Brio Vista, Paul went back to New York. But not for long. Scruggs called a few weeks later to say a space was coming available at 11th Street and North Lamar Boulevard, the site of a restaurant called Ay Chihuahua and the original home of Castle Hill Cafe.
Paul and Scruggs raised capital and headed to ABC Bank, which said it would consider a loan if they raised more money. They were back the next day with pledges in hand. They signed papers in March, and Wink opened in June, with the notion of doing multiple small courses with the best local ingredients they could find.
"Half of our staff at Brio Vista quit and followed us here," Paul said. Mark St. Clair was one of those, the maitre'd-host-spokesmodel they call "Saint Mark." Eric Polzer was another, the cook who became their farm-sourcer and the most equal in a kitchen of equals. Pastry cook Rogelio Pelagio was another, as was waiter Dicky Griffin. They're still at Wink 10 years later.
Business built quickly, and soon people were waiting two hours for a table, sitting in their air-conditioned cars with wine from the restaurant until somebody knocked on the window to signal their table was ready. Three months into it, the attacks of 9/11 happened. People still came, drawn by a need for comfort and community, Paul said, and the men knew that Wink had made a connection.
Wink didn't develop in a vacuum. Before it came Austin restaurant success stories such as Jeffrey's and failures such as Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe, which lasted a year. Then came Central Market, the Whole Foods Market expansion, the Food Network and the trailer movement. All of them have contributed to a food culture that's produced four Food & Wine Best New Chefs: Will Packwood of the late Emilia's, David Bull, Tyson Cole and Bryce Gilmore, a Wink alumnus with his own place called Barley Swine, where he's practicing what Paul, Scruggs and dad Jack Gilmore of Jack Allen's preached.
Jeffrey's chef Deegan McClung worked at Wink. So did John Bates, who went on to lead the kitchen at Asti before opening his own craft sandwich shop called the Noble Pig with Brandon Martinez last year.
"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now if I hadn't worked with Mark and Eric (Polzer)," Bates said of his time at Wink from 2005 to 2007. "I feel like that kitchen should be the last stop for somebody before they're executive chef somewhere or running their own place."
Bates said the egalitarian kitchen was a departure. "In most kitchens, you're told, `This is how I do it, whether you like it or not,' " he said. At Wink, he equated the kitchen to musicians working together. "You're bouncing ideas back and forth. We were trying each other's food and offering honest critiques. There was no bravado."
"We're cooks, and we opened a cook's restaurant," Paul said, although the fact is that neither he nor Scruggs cooks at Wink. Would it be better if they did? Scruggs draws on a military analogy: "The general probably knows more about soldiering than the private. But on the battlefield in the foxhole, who's going to be the more effective soldier? Not the 50-year-old general. The 22-year-old private." Scruggs is 50. Paul is 41.
A day at Wink means four cooks will rewrite the menu to match the day's produce from suppliers such as Boggy Creek, Countryside, Pure Luck or one of a dozen other Central Texas farms and ranches. It's not unusual to see mussels, day boat scallops, foie gras, lamb and duck night after night. But then they "dance the seasons around it," Scruggs said. That might mean pairing those proteins with caramelized fennel one night, roasted corn another, the season's first blackberries yet another.
Dining at Wink takes some getting used to and no small amount of cash. Most of the plates are appetizer-sized by restaurant standards. Open with beef tartare and a salad of goat cheese and pear, follow it with lamb and grilled hanger steak and a dessert, and dinner costs more than $100 for two people, without wine. Five courses for two people with wine pairings will run $250 after tax and tip. The dining room is small and tightly packed. A mirror covering the back wall offers a sense of depth but also bounces back enough sound to amplify the noise to bar levels on a busy night.
As hard as it might be to swallow, that's by design. "We followed the lead of other people in New York and Chicago and other places, Charlie Trotter and other guys" who stressed quality over quantity, Scruggs said. "We had a lot of people stand up when we first opened and go, "I'm paying that much for this little tiny serving? And it's so loud in here.' "
"And yet they'd be back in the next week," Paul said. "You have to be willing to say we're not going to do chicken-fried steak because we're going to abandon that particular demographic that only wants chicken-fried steak."
In 2004, they opened the Wink Wine Bar as a waiting area just two doors down from Wink in a former nail salon, never intending for it to become an extension of the restaurant. But it did. It's where people can customize how much of the Wink experience they want, the men said, whether it's a bar appetizer and a glass of wine or a more casual setting for a dish from the formal restaurant's menu. "It's a way of giving everybody their `Norm' moment," Scruggs said, referencing the big guy at the bar from the TV show "Cheers."
The wine bar has kept Wink from fossilizing into a splurge reserved only for special occasions, he said.
The end of Zoot
Zoot was opened as a neighborhood bistro in West Austin in 1991 by Bick and Erika Brown, who already had Hyde Park Bar & Grill. Scruggs catapulted Zoot to notoriety thanks in part to a stellar roasted chicken dish and a review to match from American-Statesman critic Linda Anthony.
"Our goal at the time was to do something like Castle Hill," Bick Brown said. "Gourmet food at a moderate price." In 2003, with kids and restaurants to juggle, they sold Zoot to Scruggs and Paul. "And the market changed. When we first opened in '91, there were three or four fine-dining restaurants in town. Now there's 20," Brown said. "I saw it coming in 2003."
Zoot resonates on more than a professional level for both men. Scruggs proposed to his co-chef, Abigail Scruggs, in the Zoot kitchen during dinner service. And it was there that Paul and his wife, Amy Leftwich, had their first date.
After Scruggs left in 1996, Zoot was reshaped by a succession of chefs, including John Maxwell, who turned it into a reservation-only temple of fine dining with small but elaborate entrees soaring as high as $40. Flush with enthusiasm from Wink's success and ready to branch out, Paul and Scruggs bought Zoot in 2003. "We felt like we could revitalize the brand if we had one of the original founders in there," Scruggs said.
Feeling that Zoot's identity had become murky, the men steered it back toward its less extravagant bistro roots. In retrospect, Paul called the abrupt turn a mistake. Both say it created confusion, a situation made worse by the move from the 1920s bungalow in 2009 to the storefront setting on Bee Cave Road.
"We did it for the right reasons at the time," Paul said. The house on Hearn Street didn't have as many seats as they wanted, they had to rent parking across the street and they couldn't have a full bar because of neighborhood restrictions. The European restaurant Fabi and Rosi is in that space now.
"We move, and everybody's thrilled because there's a nice place to eat on Bee Cave Road," Paul said. But they opened at the lowest point of the market crash in March 2009. "Suddenly a $50-per-person tab at a white tablecloth restaurant is not on your list of stuff to do," he said.
Paul and Scruggs said that most of the time, people's best memories of Zoot seemed to come from a time two or three years in the past. But Zoot soldiered on, trying and discarding lunch and brunch, adding a happy hour and take-home menus, drawing praise for its food from Bee Cave neighbors.
So why close it now? "Zoot's had its day," Scruggs said. "The nostalgic residue that has attached itself to Zoot as a really good restaurant has really overwhelmed it. I think it sunk it." He said a 30-year-old mom told him Zoot's fine-dining aura made it intimidating for her and her friends. "How do you fight that?" he asked.
There's a sense that if they'd kept Zoot in its bungalow, they might have kept it going in a steady but unevolving state. Or that maybe they should have laid it to rest there and started over on Bee Cave Road with the BC Tavern concept in the first place.
But with things as they stand, "We have the advantage of being able to remodel our house while we're living in it," Paul said.
'The blink of an eye'
After a decade of Wink, what to make of that enigmatic name? Scruggs said he'd always favored one-word restaurant names, and as he explored degustation menus with many small courses, he ran across a story about an afternoon meal in Provence, France. The locals called the small-plate repast "clin d'oeil," roughly translated as "blink of an eye," because the food was gone that fast.
"I thought, well, `Blink'? I'm not crazy about that name," he said. "But `Wink' is close enough to the English translation that it speaks to what we do. It was a playful name. It was strong and it was one word and it was easily remembered. Wink."