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Austin cocktail lounge Kinfolk built on historic past, generations of rich spirits

Earl Hopkins
Austin 360
Joe Nguyen, director of operations at Kinfolk, shows off the cocktail lounge's embossed whiskey glasses earlier this year. The modern, 20-seat cocktail lounge is inside the Moonshine Grill’s historic cellar.

Larry Perdido and Chuck Smith, the owners of Moonshine Grill, say a new bar or restaurant always begins with a story.

The narrative can be rooted in the life experiences of the owners or be drawn from their cultural heritage, but whatever it is, Perdido said these stories create the feel in their spaces.

In the nearly 25 years they have been in business together, Perdido and Smith have penned the tales of popular concepts throughout central Texas, including the Hopdoddy Burger Bar franchise. 

Kinfolk Lounge & Library, a 20-seat chateau tucked inside Moonshine's historic cellar in downtown Austin, is the latest from the two and opened in January.

"We will be celebrating our 20th anniversary of Moonshine, but you know, another story needed to be told," Perdido, 54, said earlier this year. "And we just happen to have that space."

Kinfolk, 303 Red River St., is home to an assemblage of whiskey, scotch, mezcal, tequila and other spirits inside an intimate space. 

The bar's library of libations, more than 700 bottles, is complemented by a list of charcuterie, cheese, chocolate and other artisanal bites crafted by local businesses including Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, the Salumeria and La Patisserie. Pours range from $8 to $400 and cocktails from $16 to $19.

Before Perdido and Smith renovated the 170-year-old cellar, the space served as a general store, wine cellar and worn storage space following its days as a speakeasy during Prohibition. With its extensive history and link to Moonshine, Smith said it was an ideal place for expansion.

"We knew that this had to be like a sibling or a kindred soul of sorts to Moonshine because Kinfolk is Moonshine," Smith, 54, said. "But it's also a new experience."

The concept of Kinfolk also plays on the name, with a menu filled with the genesis of each cocktail. And the second room of the bar features a large communal table for guests to parley with one another. 

When developing Kinfolk, Perdido, who thought of the name, said the title was inspired by the history and feel of the historic space. But for Joe Nguyen, director of operations, it resonated much deeper. 

Like Perdido, Nguyen, 37, grew up in Houston and worked his way up the ranks of the hospitality industry from humble beginnings. 

As first-generation Vietnamese-Americans, his family often lived check to check in the Aldine area of Houston. And at one time, he and his family lived with two families of five inside a 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom home, with each clan housed in their individual rooms.

Despite their struggles, Nguyen said his family found solace and community through homecooked meals and moments of togetherness. Once strangers, they would come together to enjoy a Vietnamese-style meal and would say their goodbyes as family.

"Anybody that was that close to me, and sat at my family's table to eat dinner with us, they were my kinfolk," Nguyen said. "They're not blood, but they're family to me. And we share our bounty with our family and share our bounty with our kinfolk. That's why that community table is back there; it brings people together."

Moonshine Grill co-founders Larry Perdido, left, and Chuck Smith created a 20-seat cocktail lounge called Kinfolk in the Moonshine Grill's cellar.

In line with Perdido and Smtih's vision, Nguyen helped turn the worn cellar into a space where strangers could connect over enriched cocktails and delicious artisanal bites. And by the end of the evening, leave with closer ties.

Along with helping design the interior of the bar, Nguyen and Perdido visited distilleries in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and other states to craft a portfolio of rare spirits that complimented the Kinfolk name. Tom Koerner, curator of spirits and education, also fine-tuned the mezcals, tequila, scotch and brandy selections.

Smith said bringing Nguyen and others into the fold has been a great move, and one that has paid dividends with the development of Moonshine and Kinfolk.

"I think good ideas don't come from one person, they come from the team that comes together," Smith said.  "And if you listen and really hear (the staff), you can get a well-rounded experience and well-rounded story of Kinfolk."

Erin Fohn, who helps with the marketing and branding side of Moonshine and Kinfolk, said Perdido and Smith's latest endeavor is a look inside their creative minds and aspirations to create a space that feels like home. 

"As someone whose been to their houses, it feels like being in their living rooms," said Fohn, who first worked with the two restaurateurs as a waitress at Moonshine nearly 17 years ago.

Perdido said the ancestral theme of Kinfolk, in a way, reflects his and Smith's journey through the restaurant industry. 

Before their partnership, Perdido and Smith worked under Guy Villavaso and Larry Foles at Brio Vista, now known as Brio Italian Grille.

Moonshine Grill co-founder Larry Perdido pours Weller Antique 107 Moonshine Single Barrel whiskey in the business’s newest venture, a cocktail lounge called Kinfolk.

Perdido describes the two men as the godfathers of today's restaurant industry. And along with being mentors, they are business partners in the Hopdoddy franchise.

Foles and Villavaso, who launched  Z'Tejas Southwestern Grille, Eddie V's Prime Seafood, Roaring Fork and other concepts, partly inspired Perdido and Smith to pursue their own culinary endeavors. 

Perdido said the decision to go into business together was made easier given their natural friendship and shared vision.

"It took us probably less than maybe two months to understand the kind of crazy chemistry that we had between us, and we knew how to operate restaurants and that we'd be good at," Perdido said. "So, we thought instead of making money for other people, let's just break off and do our own thing."

Perdido and Smith established their first concept in Austin in 1998 called Saba Blue Water Cafe, and after selling the brand in 2002, Moonshine was born a year later. Like their mentors Villavaso and Foles did for them, Perdido and Smith have shared their knowledge and experience with others.

"In order to move forward, you've got to honor the past," he said. "And that's part of that Kinfolk spirit."

IF YOU GO: Kinfolk

Kinfolk, 303 Red River St., opens at 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Information and reservations, which are required, at kinfolkaustin.com.