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Austin dining legend Jeffrey's to change hands

Hang-out for presidents, governors, movie actors and rock stars aquired by chef Larry McGuire

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

Jeffrey's Restaurant & Bar for more than three decades the hangout of presidents, governors, movie actors and rock stars, as well as ordinary Austinites celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and, yes, divorces is changing hands.

After 36 years, co-founders Ron and Peggy Weiss are turning over the reins to 29-year-old chef Larry McGuire and his Austin hospitality group, which manages Lamberts Downtown Barbecue and Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar, as well as the soon-to-open Elizabeth Street Café. The Weisses and original operating partner Jeffrey Weinberger will retain small equity stakes . The Weisses will also advise McGuire's group.

"We are humbled and honored to get the chance," said McGuire, who first dined at Jeffrey's at age 10. "We aspire to be the best restaurant in Austin and one of the most comfortable."

The quiet, low-key eatery will stay open, as is, through March and reopen in the summer with a fresh menu — likely French American, McGuire said — after redesigns by Emily Little and Mark Ashby. The name will not change.

Since 1975, the Clarksville cafe has often set the tone for elegant if unstuffy dining in Austin, rivaled only by Fonda San Miguel for longevity and style. Among its chefs have been headliners like Deegan McClung, David Garrido, Alma Alcocer-Thomas, Raymond Tatum, Emil Vogely and James Taylor.

Regulars — who cut deals over Ron Weiss' selection of wines at the restaurant's small bar — included former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush, Govs. Ann Richards and Mark White, power brokers Ben Barnes and Lowell Lebermann, coaches Augie Garrido and Mack Brown, sports stars Lance Armstrong and Andy Roddick, and creative types like Lyle Lovett and Bill Wittliff.

If somebody at a nearby table sounded like Walter Cronkite, it probably was. If they looked like John F. Kennedy Jr., the same.

"JFK Jr. told me it was the only place outside New York City where people left him alone," Ron Weiss said.

Johnny Guffey, who has waited tables at Jeffrey's since it opened, has entertained three generations of Austinites with his sly wit — and will continue to do so.

"You never knew who was going to walk through the door," Guffey said. "At one table, there would by Lady Bird Johnson and Liz Carpenter. At another, six young gay men from L.A. in the movie business. At another, a couple from Northwest Austin nervous about coming to Jeffrey's for the first time."

When the Weisses opened the one-room cafe with operating partners Weinberger and Nancy Seewald, historically African American Clarksville was not a prime destination. Some of the neighborhood streets were still not paved. They turned the old Viscardi family grocery store and upstairs apartments into a destination for meals that incorporated fresh ingredients, not unlike the chronologically parallel Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and Harvest in Cambridge, Mass.

The Weisses, who attended the University of Texas, were inspired by living in London.

"Our entertainment was going to the little French bistros," Peggy Weiss said. "It was a new concept to us that a restaurant could be your entertainment for the whole evening. When we moved back to Austin, we realized there was a vacuum."

The selection of mostly residential Clarksville for the location was something of a lark.

"We were looking for cheap rent," Peggy Weiss said. "We really didn't intend it to last forever."

The partners aimed for a warm, intimate service that was heavy on discretion, which also attracted the boldfaced names.

"Everyone has to eat," Ron Weiss said. "We made it more civilized with a place that's more conducive to conversation."

Jeffrey's would go on to win recognition from food and wine experts around the country, and a coveted two-star review from Texas Monthly, well before Austin's foodie revolution of the 1990s. As the city's culinary choices multiplied, however, Jeffrey's star faded, and the Weisses quietly put the complex's three buildings on West Lynn Street up for sale.

McGuire's hospitality group — which includes chef Tom Moorman, accountant Carla Work, business adviser and Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer, and project manager Margaret Vera — plans to turn the upstairs apartments into its headquarters.

The Weisses will maintain their partnerships in Cippolina bistro, the higher-end Shoreline Grill and the O's Campus Café outlets on the UT campus.

McGuire wants to build respectfully on the Jeffrey's legend.

"There's a real history here," he said. "A lot of celebrations and important things happened here. It's impossible to reproduce that history."

The Weisses expressed no regrets or nostalgia about the changing of the guard.

"It's not over," Peggy Weiss said. "We've had a good run. It's wonderful that Jeffrey's can outlive us."

mbarnes@statesman.com

Correction: In an earlier version of this story the location for Chez Panisse was incorrectly reported. It is in Berkeley, Calif.