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'ACL' executive producer enters restaurant business

Gary Dinges
gdinges@statesman.com

Terry Lickona has helped make "Austin City Limits" one of the best-known shows on TV today.

Now, he's hoping to be just as successful in the restaurant business.

Lickona, executive producer of the long-running PBS program, is part of a group poised to remake the Austin Java coffeehouse at Austin City Hall.

The restaurant, which is expected to open this fall, will be called Lickona's, serving primarily New Orleans-style cuisine.

The company that manages Austin Java, locally based Restaurant Freedom, will manage Lickona's. Restaurant Freedom's Rick Engel and Mark Turner are partners in the new project.

"I've always had a love affair with New Orleans and its food," Lickona said. "This has been a dream of mine for a long time. It'll be a very special, very unique place."

As most people might expect, live music — and lots of it — will be on the menu at Lickona's.

"The music will be eclectic," said Jeff Peterson, producer of "Austin City Limits" and one of Lickona's partners. "New Orleans music will play an important role, but we don't want to be known only for particular genres."

Lickona and Peterson said they won't be responsible for doing all the booking, but they do intend to play an active role in determining which musicians take the stage.

"By putting my name on it, that brings along my reputation," Lickona said. "It's got to live up to my standards."

"We're not giving up ‘Austin City Limits,' " Peterson said. "That's going to remain our primary focus."

Speaking of "Austin City Limits," patrons should expect to see plenty of memorabilia from the show covering the restaurant's walls, Lickona said.

By adding performances during happy hour and after dinner, Lickona and Peterson said they're hopeful business will perk up on nights and weekends — times when crowds typically wane at Austin Java.

"Austin Java has always had this perception as a breakfast and lunch coffee- house," Lickona said. "That perception is hard to break."

Coffee will still be available throughout the day, and breakfast will continue to be on the menu. In fact, Peterson said there may be additional early-bird offerings.

"We're going to take the best of what Austin Java does and continue that," he said.

Depending on the time of day, music performances will take place inside or on the restaurant's patio, which will be partially enclosed with glass windscreens, Peterson said. Fans, misters and heaters will be added, as well.

Once city permits are obtained, Lickona said, renovations should take two to three months. An indoor/outdoor bar and the remade patio will be the most obvious changes, he said, with most of the other work being purely cosmetic.

Dick Clark Architecture is handling the project.

Austin Java's employees will temporarily be offered jobs at other Austin-area eateries also managed by Restaurant Freedom — including Little Woodrow's, Uncle Billy's, Texadelphia and Ski Shores — while work is being completed.

One key position that hasn't been filled yet is a head chef for Lickona's. That person will have considerable freedom to help shape the menu, Lickona and Peterson said.

"We're still looking for a hot-shot chef who is looking to make their mark," Lickona said.

"The right chef is crucial," Peterson said. "We want the chef to have a chance to be really creative with daily specials and things like that."

He expects to see a significant amount of Gulf Coast seafood featured, along with Southern dishes, such as fried chicken and some Mexican food. But Lickona and Peterson are most excited about oysters.

"Oysters are going to be a big driver," Peterson said. "We're hanging our hat on char-grilled oysters. They're really tasty, but for some reason, they don't seem real popular here."

"There aren't too many music clubs that have great food," Lickona said. "We intend to execute the food and music in a way that keeps people coming back."

And if the restaurant turns out to be as successful as the duo thinks it will be, they hope to expand across Austin — perhaps beyond.

"We're optimistic to think this won't be the only Lickona's," Lickona said.

Contact Gary Dinges at 912-5987 or on Twitter: @gdinges