Kevin Williamson, Ranch 616 owner and creator of 'Ranch Water,' dies at 59
Kevin Williamson, the open-hearted, charismatic and stylish chef who founded restaurant Ranch 616 and created the modern classic tequila-and-Topo Chico cocktail known as “Ranch Water,” died of cancer on Nov. 26 in Smithville, surrounded by loved ones. He was 59.
Williamson was as colorful and Texified as the restaurant he opened in 1999, the chef’s personality, advocacy and love for a good time as outsized as his Ranch 616’s trademark snake signage created by famed Texas artist Bob “Daddy-O.” Wade.
The chef paired South Texas ranch cuisine with a pop art icehouse aesthetic, creating a restaurant that was both thematic and narrative-driven. The restaurant’s menu, inspired by the chef’s youthful hunting trips, featured fried oysters, frog legs, quail and game from the Lone Star State, but Ranch 616’s most enduring legacy has come from the drinks portion of the menu.
Williamson, whom longtime friend Caleb Campaigne says used to sneak ice-cold tequila in his water jug on hunting trips with his father, created Ranch 616’s signature drink by mixing reposado tequila and orange liqueur over ice in a Collins glass and serving it with lime and a bottle of Topo Chico. The Mexican mineral water provides salinity, fierce carbonation and a user’s choice level of dilution for the simple cocktail that echoes a margarita.
The restaurant’s eponymous cocktail helped popularize the sparkling mineral water that was once such a little known commodity in the United States that in the early days of the restaurant, Williamson used to drive around town to Fiesta grocery stores and load up his Suburban with cases of the now iconic glass bottles.
Topo Chico, which was bought by Coca-Cola North America in 2017, honored Williamson with a social media post following the restaurateur's death, a first for the brand.
“Kevin and his restaurant were trend-setting and very influential. He was the first person who asked permission to paint Topo Chico murals on his walls,” Topo Chico general manager Gerardo Galvan told the American-Statesman via email. “Kevin had such an incredible impact on us and was a genuine friend.”
A native of Heber Springs, Ark., Williamson grew up in Austin, where he graduated from Austin High in 1981 before attending Southern Methodist University. The natural born salesman worked in Texas and California real estate and the world of New York City finance before finding the career that would define his life.
He went to work at the celebrated Ajax Tavern in Aspen in the mid-1990s, rising to the rank of sous chef. It was in the ski resort town that Williamson met public relations executive Pam Blanton, who would later work with Williamson and become his best friend after the chef persuaded her to move to Austin.
“I thought he was probably one of the most charismatic, and marketing, geniuses I’d ever met in my life,” Blanton said. “But more than that, he was the most fun, wickedly smart person I’d ever met.”
Williamson returned to Austin in 1996, and after a stint as head chef at the new Central Market, opened his first restaurant, Ella’s at Jefferson Square, in 1998. The short-lived Ella’s served as a sneak peek of the brand of Texas fare Williamson would cook up at the restaurant that made him one of Austin’s early big name chefs.
“I was so tired of going into the same type of restaurants, where you’ve got your five courses and everything is so typical, this truly felt like I was going back home to San Diego, Texas, and going into an iconic icehouse,” Blanton said about Ranch 616’s appeal. “And the staff felt like family, it was almost like the old ‘Cheers’ atmosphere.”
The restaurant at 616 Nueces St., with its eccentric art and bold Texas cuisine, echoed Williamson’s vibrant personality and the place quickly became an "All Are Welcome" destination for everyone from art freaks to big time lawyers, with the chef who was equally enamored of Hello Kitty as custom-made Western shirts serving as cook, bartender, host and master of ceremony.
“He was magic. He was truly interested in everyone. And you could tell that. He asked all the questions, and he would look people right in the eye and listen to them,” Williamson’s longtime friend Campaigne said.
Legendary Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin met Williamson through artist Wade and first visited the restaurant located just a few blocks from the county courthouse soon after it opened. Not only did he become a regular during his trips to Austin, the lawyer famous for representing everyone from David Koresh to Billy Joe Shaver, and his wife, Janie, formed a close friendship with Williamson that endured through Williamson's life.
The DeGuerins were two of about 100 who would travel to Williamson’s beloved outpost of Marfa each year to celebrate the chef’s birthday. The festivities usually included music, art tours and a parade down the town’s main street.
“I think it was just his spirit and his personality,” DeGuerin said of Williamson’s ability to serve as the center for an orbit of a wide and disparate crew of friends. “He was just a person that everybody loved to be around. I don’t know that he had any enemies. People loved him and he loved people. He was just a force of life. He was constantly fun.”
Williamson’s impact extended far beyond his compound of businesses off West Sixth Street (he also co-owned Star Bar and the late Rattle Inn). The chef served as president of the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival in the early aughts and became an unofficial ambassador for all things Texas.
Whether beef, wine or Gulf shrimp, Williamson beat the drum for the products coming out of his adopted home state, and lent his voice to the Go Texan campaign that former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs helped create in 1999.
“Kevin had such an outsized personality, charm and magnetic energy that when he got behind something, it achieved escape velocity. It really was incredible,” Combs told the American-Statesman, adding that Williamson, who was drawn to the big skies, mountains and expansiveness of the Big Bend area, “sort of mirrored all of that West Texas feeling.”
Tito Beveridge met Williamson in the mid-'90s, and sold his first case of vodka around the time Ranch 616 opened its doors. The Tito’s Handmade Vodka founder, who says Wiliamson helped promote his vodka at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival long before Tito had any juice in the industry, echoed Combs’ in her appraisal of Williamson as a unique Texas character.
“He had all that cactus and mesquite in his genes, and I think that kinda came through with him,” Beveridge said. “He kinda captured the Texas spirit with his style, vision, grit and determination. He was a true ambassador of the hospitality industry. He had his own style and flare. And he loved food. He was always cooking quail.”
Williamson served his community by sitting on numerous boards and hosting parties for nonprofit organizations like Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS and the Austin Film Festival. Barbara Morgan, who co-founded AFF in 1993 and for more than a decade hosted the fest’s popular Hair of the Dog brunch at Ranch 616, said Williamson was a constant source of support and energy.
“He was really a giver. He was such a mensch. And he never asked for anything,” Morgan said. “He kind of embodied Austin and was one of those people who made the place fun. He was so inclusive. He was just awesome, and he really did care about our community.”
Williamson was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2019 but DeGuerin said his friend, who finally bought a house in Marfa in the last year of his life, refused to give into the disease, choosing instead to continue to travel, celebrate and surround himself with friends. Wlliamson’s indefatigable commitment to life, DeGuerin said, served as an inspiration to everyone around him.
“I think Kevin wanted to continue living despite being on hospice,” Campaigne said of his friend, who was planning vacations and singing karaoke even in his final weeks. “He said, ‘We all have a little Wily Wonka in us,’ and he was able to tap into magic just like Willy Wonka. It’s a lesson for all of us to live life to the fullest despite what our circumstances are. Continue to fill your life with generosity, love, creativity and kindness just like Willy Wonka.”
Williamson is survived by his daughter, Channing Wakeman, and five granddaughters. A celebration of Williamson’s life is in the early planning stages for the spring at Ranch 616; management says it plans to reopen the restaurant, which has been closed through the majority of the pandemic, before Christmas.