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Ranch 616 owner also has a hand in Star Bar, Ray Benson's Rattle Inn

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Fourteen years ago, Kevin Williamson opened Ranch 616 at Nueces and West Seventh streets. He recently opened the Rattle Inn.

Austin nightlife impresario Kevin Williamson entered the business world during a period of "irrational exuberance." Flipping commercial real estate in the early 1980s, it seemed the oil-and-credit-fueled Texas land rush would never end.

"It wasn't the mentality to work hard and prosper," says Williamson, 49. "It was take a risk and hit it big. We had a lot of high hopes and unrealistic goals."

Yet the man who put together a good-times trio of eateries and drinkeries — Ranch 616, Star Bar and Rattle Inn — in the booming West Sixth Street district thinks Austin is on the cusp of what might be called "rational exuberance."

"I have that feeling of risk a little bit again now," he says. "Not to the extent of the '80s. Every opportunity missed now will be missed forever. We are poised for so much here in Austin. Maybe it's because, for the most part, we skipped the recession. Austin is where people want to be. And we're not overbuilt in any category."

Born in Little Rock, Ark., Williamson is the son of retired radiologist Gary Williamson and housewife and artist Jackie Jones Williamson. Youthful parents of three children, the West Austin couple, who also own a family retreat in Whitefish, Mont., made an impression on their outgoing son.

"They were so young and fun," he says. "Mom was so fashionable. Dad was such an athlete. There they'd be, by the pool with their friends, playing Sergio Mendes."

Attending Austin schools, Williamson played tennis and golf, walking to Westwood Country Club or heading out to the old Austin Country Club.

"We'd be stuck out there with Harvey Penick for eight hours," he says of the golf legend. "Later came to find out that he was a big deal. But then it seemed like torture."

Attending Southern Methodist University during the days of the "Dallas" TV show also made an impression.

"Everybody was filthy rich, driving their Mercedes 450 SLs," he remembers. "There were polo tournaments, debutante parties. Southwest Airlines sold tickets by the six-pack and 12-pack. It was a very unrealistic, materialistic time."

Still, Williamson gleaned something durable from his SMU days.

"I made some tremendous friends," he says. "And I learned about business from those friends."

Williamson married at age 21 and fathered a daughter at 22. He and his ex-wife have three grandchildren.

As an eager young businessman, he rode three big waves: Texas real estate, then California real estate, then New York finances. Each time, he tried to learn from the previous boom and bust.

"It was like a movie," he says. "And I'd seen this movie before."

Like so many people in a fast-paced business, he dreamed of a complete break.

"I had some wiggle room, moneywise," he says. "So I got a job at the Ajax Tavern in Aspen, Colo. I worked my (expletive) off and had a blast. I'd work eight hours for pay and eight hours for free. It was totally awesome."

Returning to Austin, he ran kitchens for Central Market, then opened the relatively short-lived Ella's in Jefferson Square.

"It was a super-casual place with good food and where everyone felt they could let their hair down," he says. "It was pretty much what I thought was Austin."

Always on the lookout for troubled businesses, he read about the closing of a taco spot at Nueces and West Seventh streets.

"I drove right over there that minute," Williamson says. "I think we had a contract drawn up in 48 hours."

He transformed the small corner building into Ranch 616, decorating the place in ironic Western art and serving inviting bites such as fried oysters, soft-shell crabs and frog's legs.

That was 14 years ago. Back then, that stretch of West Sixth was pretty much Katz's Deli and Hoffbrau Steakhouse. Now, some two dozen nightlife outlets form a tantalizing alternative to the older East Sixth Street and Warehouse District.

One of the West Sixth trailblazers was the sleek Star Bar, which Williamson and nightlife veteran Matt Luckie acquired in 2010. They kept the signature sign, then opened up the space with more windows and a large patio.

His pièce de résistance — teamed with Luckie and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson — rises in between Ranch 616 and Star Bar.

"I wanted a music venue," he says of Rattle Inn. "I had helped out with Ray's birthday parties. He wanted a place to practice with an audience and call home. He never wanted to be in the bar business. I believed 200 percent that it would work in this neighborhood."

The space is divided into a music-and-dance hall ("Ray's Room"), a hunt-themed bar ("Critter Lounge") and a huge rooftop bar with spectacular views of the downtown skyline.

Created with celebrity designer Joel Mozersky, the Critter Lounge includes odd game (possum, pig, raccoon) and mural inspired by Williamson's paint-by-numbers collection.

"We're not finished," he says. "It's deliberately kind of stark. We're slowly, slowly adding game trophies."

Away from Nueces Street, Williamson's busy social life revolves around film, food, wine and the rodeo. He volunteers his skills at events promotion and serves on boards. Meanwhile, he's a proud grandfather who has crossed many social lines since leaving West Austin.

"I'm an out gay man," he says. "In my social world, some people find that confusing. I'm confused why it's confusing. In Austin, it helps that we are all a little bit different."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com