The first, and lengthy, chapter of one of Austin’s most popular restaurants has come to a close, but the dining stalwart’s legacy will live on. The original owners of Vespaio and its kid sister, Enoteca Vespaio, have sold the businesses to two longtime veterans of the restaurants.
Almost no other Austin restaurant has buzzed as long or as consistently as Vespaio, the Italian restaurant opened by chef Alan Lazarus, Scott Bolin and Claude Benayoun in 1998 on South Congress Avenue.
But after a two-decade run, the trio who helped change the face of South Congress 20 years ago and have cultivated a loyal following decided it was time to move on. They sold the restaurants to longtime Vespaio chef Ryan Samson and Daniel Brooks, the owner of Licha’s Cantina; Samson and Brooks took over operations at both restaurants on Jan. 1.
The new owners, who worked together for eight years at Vespaio while Brooks was the general manager and Samson the chef, acknowledge it is a privilege and honor to carry the storied establishments into the future.
“It is an exciting time for us and we look forward to taking the torch and running with it,” Brooks said Thursday.
Reflecting on his 20-year ownership of the Vespaio, Lazarus pointed to the staff, many of whom have been there 15 or more years, as being the biggest reason for the restaurant’s success. He’s happy he and his partners could end their run with the South Congress staple by handing their baby off to people whom he knew he could trust.
“I’m elated we did it with deserving guys who have put their blood, sweat and tears into this,” Lazarus said. “It’s totally in great hands. They’re such trusting, hard-working professionals. And Ryan has been such an integral part of that place for so long; it is such a good feeling he is achieving his dream.”
Longtime regulars, of which there are many, should expect only minor changes to Vespaio, where Samson has worked in the kitchen since 2002.
He says intends to keep the name, concept, vibe and soul of the restaurants, while making minor aesthetic changes and broadening the restaurants' reach.
“We’re gonna build upon what it already has,” Brooks said.
Brooks calls Licha’s Cantina, which he will continue to operate, a personal project that honors his family and his heritage, but he considers Vespaio his culinary home.
“When it comes to making it a career, Vespaio has been the place I’ve been most proud of,” Brooks said. “This was the place that I had the most fun in the industry.”
Samson, whom Brooks hails as a humble “magician in the kitchen,” was an early mover on the Austin scene in working with whole animal butchery and making hand-pulled mozzarella in house, and he intends to continue with the menus that have helped make the two Austin Italian restaurants both neighborhood favorites and destination dining.
Diners can expect a few adjustments, but Samson says he realizes, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
“Like the original owners tell us, ‘Just don’t mess it up,’” Brooks added.
The new owners also plan to replicate another aspect of the original three founders’ stewardship: longevity. The duo’s lease runs through 2035.