Larry McGuire was born and raised in an Austin that existed before the condo explosion. Before Interstate 35 became an unmitigated disaster and the term "Los Angeles" was whispered through gritted teeth. An Austin of locally owned businesses that were keeping it weird well before there was an actual name for it.
The co-founder of the prolific McGuire Moorman Hospitality wants to preserve that Austin and the neighborhoods he loves, which is part of the motivation for opening restaurants like June’s All Day in the old Texas French Bread location where he worked as a 15-year-old, and polishing and rebooting the former Sweetish Hill, now Swedish Hill, where his family ordered birthday cakes throughout his childhood.
A sense of nostalgia and preservation also accompanies two forthcoming concepts from McGuire Moorman Hospitality. With 13 restaurants in its portfolio, it may seem the hospitality group has reached a plateau. But they are about to experience another shot of growth. The company has signed a lease at the former Hut’s Hamburgers building and plans to open Sammie’s, a classic red-sauce Italian restaurant, in the 1930s building next fall. The group, which already operates Perla’s and June’s on South Congress Avenue, will also expand its presence on that showcase street next spring when it opens Neighborhood Sushi (the working and likely final name) in the space once occupied by Little Barrel and Brown (among others).
The genesis of both restaurants reflects the 37-year-old McGuire’s lifelong history with the city. When Hut’s owner Mike Hutchinson told his landlord of almost 40 years that he was going to retire in 2019, the opportunity, like many in the hospitality group’s 13-year history, fell into McGuire’s lap. He attended high school with the grandsons of the landlord, and they reached out to see if McGuire would have an interest in taking over the space. McGuire Moorman Hospitality signed a 10-year lease.
"It’s one of these places that’s not going to be vertical for a long time," McGuire says while sitting in his company’s South Congress Avenue headquarters in September.
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McGuire Moorman Hospitality always has a concept or two sitting on the bench, according to McGuire, and he knew immediately that the art deco-style building would make a perfect home for a "red-sauce Italian joint." The name, Sammie’s, is a nod to the restaurant’s first iteration as a burger drive-in that Sammie Joseph opened in 1939. The property remains in the family to this day.
Sammie’s will take a few cues from McGuire’s favorite classic Italian-American restaurant, Dan Tanna’s in Los Angeles. Diners can expect chicken and veal Parmesan, bistecca alla Fiorentina from a wood grill, housemade pastas and even housemade wine served in jugs. It’ll be the kind of place where spaghetti and meat sauce might come as a side dish to your main entree. McGuire said his friends have complained for years about Austin’s need for more red-sauce spots. The adjacent building, Favorite Liquor & Wine, also owned by the Joseph family, will close at the end of the year, and McGuire Moorman Hospitality will convert it into Favorite’s Pizza, a takeout, delivery and slice shop.
Neighborhood Sushi will take McGuire, who was raised in Travis Heights back when the neighborhood had more hippies and artists than multimillion-dollar mansions, back to his culinary roots. A 16-year-old McGuire worked for Lou Lambert, who would become his mentor and a partner in his first restaurant, Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, at the chef’s Liberty Pie and Liberty Catering and later at Lambert’s. It’s where the restaurateur first learned to cook, so the opening of Neighborhood Sushi in that space at 1716 S. Congress Ave. will bring him full circle.
"That space holds a really special place in my heart," McGuire says of the building built in 1934. "It’s where I learned to cook and became part of this creative thing that’s happening on South Congress."
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As with Sammie’s, McGuire saw the concept, a no-frills sushi restaurant for lunch and dinner, as filling an underserved niche in the Austin dining scene. It also follows a simple motivating factor that drives most of the McGuire Moorman Hospitality openings.
"When we open the places, we open them for ourselves," McGuire says. "We’re the customer; we live in the neighborhood; we want this kind of food; we want this kind of atmosphere. And we figure if we make ourselves happy, other people will be happy, too."
That kind of pragmatism, mixed with a certain amount of luck and coincidences, has defined much of the McGuire Moorman Hospitality empire build-out. They thought the city lacked a great seafood restaurant, so they opened Perla’s on South Congress. Having spent years dining at Tam Deli and lacking a Vietnamese option in his part of town, McGuire decided to package Vietnamese cuisine in the stylish Elizabeth Street Cafe on South First Street. He ran into a friend at a party whose parents were looking to sell the iconic Jeffrey’s, and a couple of years later he renovated and rebooted the Clarksville classic that was born in Austin a few years before he was. The owner of Sweetish Hill decided to retire and sell his business, and McGuire and his team were there to take advantage of the opportunity just across the street from their wildly popular Clark’s.
While some critics point to the prices at some McGuire Moorman Hospitality restaurants as being an indication of the audacity of "New Austin," McGuire takes it as a point of pride that his group has worked to preserve old buildings, prevent overdevelopment and make sure that Austin maintains its reputation as a thriving home for independent business.
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In purchasing the Clark’s building and the surrounding four buildings in Pecan Square and Swedish Hill neighbor Fortney Home, McGuire says his company had to "put its money where its mouth is" and signed a 20-year deed restriction ensuring that the look and feel of the stretch of real estate would remain largely unchanged.
"Growing up here, it just kind of gets in your blood: Austin’s different; Austin’s cool because of locally owned businesses. For me, it’s that simple," McGuire says.
McGuire has seen Austin evolve over the past 37 years, mutating from a sleepy college town to a bustling tech hub that welcomes hundreds of new residents each week. He understands some people’s fear that the new arrivals could dilute part of what makes Austin culture unique, but he tries to maintain a positive outlook.
"I am always optimistic. I think people do move here for a reason and will continue to move here, and that’s because they like Austin. So if Austin becomes this other thing, I think people will stop moving here and real estate prices will go down and it will start back over again," McGuire says. "The problem with Austin is it’s always the best when you move here."
With its smartly designed restaurants and growing team of industry professionals, McGuire Moorman Hospitality has helped create the aesthetic and vibe that many outsiders recognize as being symbolic of modern Austin. And soon visitors at one Austin hotel won’t have to wander to South Austin or Clarksville to get a taste of the McGuire Moorman Hospitality experience.
The company’s success attracted the attention of the California-based Proper Hospitality, which will open the luxury hotel and residence the Proper this winter in downtown Austin. The hotel company, which has hired successful chef-partners in each market, such as Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in Los Angeles, has partnered with McGuire Moorman Hospitality to run the food and beverage operations at the high-rise building.
The offerings will include Peacock, an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant with a pita program and proteins like lamb cooked on a wood-burning grill; sister takeout restaurant Mockingbird; cocktail bar Goldie’s; and La Piscina, a poolside continental Mexican restaurant centered around mesquite-grilled fajitas and ceviche.
Once all of the new concepts are open by next spring, McGuire, who is also working on hotel projects outside of Austin, says he thinks he’ll take his foot off the gas. But he still has ideas about the kind of restaurants that would be welcome in Austin — more Thai, more Korean, maybe a couple more restaurants like Bartlett’s. What else?
"I can’t tell everybody what to do," a cagey McGuire says with a laugh.