Exclusive: Award-winning chef returns to Austin to open restaurant at new boutique hotel
All that’s old is new again. And then some. That seems to be the mindset of the hospitality group that has revamped a classic South Austin union hall into a hip boutique hotel.
The Carpenter Hotel, slated to open in November, will be a stylized addition to the old Zilker neighborhood. The Austin-based hospitality firm the Mighty Union has transformed the former Local 1266’s Carpenters Union Hall at 400 Josephine St. into a boutique hotel with a design and retro aesthetic that updates the mid-century brick building, built in 1948 andnestled in a grove of pecan trees near P. Terry’s on South Lamar Boulevard.
Executive chef Grae Nonas, the opening co-executive chef at perennial Austin standout Olamaie, has returned from a brief stint in Minneapolis to helm the culinary program. And much like the revamped Central Texas-meets-West Texas aesthetic of the mid-century modern space, Nonas says he plans to bring “fresh eyes on Texas’ past” to Carpenters Hall, the hotel’s centerpiece restaurant.
Nonas, a native of the New Jersey and New York area who formerly worked at the acclaimed Son of a Gun and Animal in Los Angeles, has long loved the idea of old hotels and the roles they once played in people’s social and dining lives. With the all-day restaurant Carpenters Hall, he hopes to create a new neighborhood institution that embraces the area and its history, a place where people feel equally comfortable on a date night, a family outing or a solo stop at the bar for lunch. “A place where you know what you’re getting,” as Nonas says.
The evocative space, with its original brick walls and wooden floors and design elements that speak to the building’s history, exudes a sense of polished history. Pairing that narrative with an approachable culinary program that inspires ideas of old Texas while evincing its modern flair has posed a welcome challenge to Nonas. One to which the chef says he has applied a “less-is-more mentality.”
The first inspirational dish that helped form the menu’s foundation was a massive chicken schnitzel, which nods to both Central Texas’ German heritage and our love for comforting dishes like fried chicken. Nonas intends a half chicken that seems simple but reveals its glory in the details as you work from light to dark meat colored and heightened with black chimichurri here and aioli there, the dish changing as you eat it.
“It’s kind of silly in a way, but it makes you so happy inside,” Nonas said of the oversized comfort tempered with thoughtfulness.
The menu will be Texan at heart but also reflect Mediterranean and Spanish influences. That massive chicken might appear on a dinner menu that could include appetizers like lamb sausage with pistachio and kohlrabi and corona bean toast with straciatella alongside bold and direct entrees such as grilled steak and potato with herb salad or fish with shaved fennel salad.
Nonas, who won Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef honors with Olamaie founder Michael Fojtasek in 2015, envisions “a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously but has attention to detail and is aggressive when it needs to be.”
Carpenters Hall will open daily for breakfast, when you might find offerings like Spanish fried eggs with beef hash and pickled Spanish peppers or Carolina gold rice porridge with persimmon and granola or a blue crab omelette. A variety of salads and reasonable cuts of steak or a piece of grilled fish will have their places on a lunch menu that will undoubtedly speak to Nonas’ love of sandwiches, including the hotel classic, a turkey club.
The restaurant will seat about 120 total, including indoor and outdoor seating, and be complemented by a cafe on the other side of the lobby that serves coffee, pastries, salads and made-to-order sandwiches. Both operations will be open to the public.
Nonas joined the team after meeting the Mighty Union principals through fellow Austin chef Fiore Tedesco of L’Oca d’Oro. The Mighty Union’s braintrust includes Austin architect and designer Jen Turner, Ace Hotel Portland co-founding partner and native Texan Jack Barron and that stylish, industry-leading hotel’s general manager, Donald Kenney. The group also operatesthe Suttle Lodge in Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest, as well as bars Pepe Le Moko andSpirit of 77 in Portland, with a hotel also slated for San Antonio. Both the Suttle Lodge and Ace Portland have made names for themselves by evoking a genuine sense of place in design, narrative and function, and it appears the Carpenter and the Carpenters Hall intend to follow suit.
“This isn’t a transplanted design or concept,” Nonas said. “It is original to this area and this space. That’s what makes it so unique and special.”