When I was in college in the mid-’80s in Austin, Jeffrey’s was the restaurant you wanted to afford someday. It was one of just a handful of fine dining restaurants at the time and the one whose name seemed to have the most clout. Some of its reputation was the stratospheric prices, but stories about it being the place where powerful politicians brokered deals and or rich celebrities could be seen in then-sleepy Austin also gave the restaurant a bit of extra notoriety.
Jeffrey’s opened in 1975 in the West Austin neighborhood of Clarksville, whose history stretches back to 1871 when it was established as a settlement for freed slaves by Charles Clark. To this day though so many things have changed in the now affluent neighborhood, the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church (founded in the same year) just two blocks from the restaurant is still a thriving gospel church and is a reminder of the original origins of the old neighborhood.
In the early 1900s, Italian immigrants started to move to the neighborhood and began to open businesses. The structure on the corner of West 12th and West Lynn was built in the early 1930s by New Yorker Andrew Viscardi. He had married Austinite Josephine Perrone whose Italian parents operated a grocery store in East Austin at the time. The young Viscardi family lived on the upper floor of the building for many years. Through the decades the site has hosted; grocery stores, liquor stores, beauty shops, florists and even an ice cream shop in its three sections, though interestingly, the structure is little changed from its look in old vintage photographs.
It’s surprising to note that in 1975, Clarksville still had the odd dirt road, and was not considered an ideal location for a new restaurant. But, drawn by good rental rates, Ron and Peggy Weiss (together with operating partners Jeffrey Weinberger and Nancy Seewald) opened Jeffrey’s as one of the city’s first “chef-driven” restaurants in the small, storied building, taking just one of the three spaces at the time.
The Weisses’ travels had led them to the idea that a small food-centric café / restaurant would be perfect for Austin.
Three and a half decades saw accolades for both food and wine and a steady following of both neighborhood and visiting patrons alike. Outside of its fame for celebrities, Jeffrey’s has been loved by most as a place for special occasions. Countless proposals, anniversaries, birthdays and graduations have been celebrated at Jeffrey’s over so many years.
Eventually, even the finest of restaurants come to transition, and luckily some have happy endings.
In 2011, after 36 years, the Weisses and original operating partner Jeffrey Weinberger decided to sell Jeffrey’s to chef Larry McGuire and his Austin hospitality group. The sale was a good fit as McGuire expressed a desire to continue the spirit of the neighborhood restaurant and to maintain its fine food legacy.
Like several of the McGuire Moorman restaurants, Jeffrey’s considers itself a neighborhood restaurant. Its drive for a comfortable, intimate space continues beautifully after the nearly two-year refurbishment started after the purchase.
Although Jeffrey’s is undeniably the prestige property, the McGuire Moorman Group spans eleven restaurants with several Austin favorites like Clark’s Austin (also in Aspen), Elizabeth St. Café, Perla’s Oyster Bar, and Lamberts Downtown Barbecue.
Today, Jeffrey’s has managed to maintain its clout in a dining scene that has changed much over the years. It still has the most expensive steak in town (a dinner special recently was a massive tomahawk steak at $182), and its wine cellar is arguably the best in the city. Political or celebrity sightings notwithstanding, the thread throughout the last several decades of success, has been the solid combination of comfortable atmosphere, careful curation of the wine cellar, keen professional service and a string of notable chefs that guaranteed the food and experience are worth the price.
In January of 2017, Austin native chef Mark McCain joined the team at Jeffrey’s as executive chef taking over from chef Rebecca Meeker who had worked with McGuire Moorman to revitalize the menu in 2013.
Chef McCain got his early training in Germany followed by a stint in a prestigious restaurant in Dayton Ohio, ultimately spending nine years at the highly regarded, Michelin starred restaurant NAHA in Chicago.
Since taking over at Jeffrey’s, Chef McCain has been featured in Wine Spectator articles for his transition and most recently for his amazing Shellfish Risotto.
In addition to its wonderful food, Jeffrey’s has long been known for its prestigious wine selections. Today, a team of prestigious MMH directors, along with the many sommeliers at the restaurant, manage the impressive wine list which spans 700 labels and has been recognized with a Wine Spectator – ‘Best of Award of Excellence.’
Service Director Mark Sayer (Awarded, Advanced Sommelier), Ryan Arnold (Wine Director / named “40 Under 40 Tastemaker” by Wine Enthusiast), Alex Holder (MMH Beverage Director), and Patrick Olds (Jeffrey’s – Wine Director / Advanced Sommelier) now carry the legacy that Ron Weiss started so long ago.
The attractive cellar housing nearly 2,000 bottles is strongest in California and France with broad selections for each punctuated by some stunning options.
Surprising finds include Napa cult favorites like ‘Colgin Cellars,’ which recently sold a majority share to French luxury giant LVMH, and Abreu Vineyards which has had six 100-point scores from Robert Parker since 1997.
The Bordeaux section features various excellent vintages of Chateau Latour, Mouton Rothschild, and many of Cos d’Estournel and Chateau Palmer.
The Burgundy selection includes various Montrachets, Chambertins, Morey-St-Denis and a breathtaking variety of rare Domaine de la Romanée Conti (Flagey-Echézeaux commune and appellation Vosne Romanée).
In Champagne, Jeffrey’s wine list features fine selections from Krug, Philipponnat and Salon but also has a special section of “Grower” Champagne labels. These are producers where the family that grows the grapes also produces the Champagne. Reportedly, only 5% of the Champagne imported into the U.S. is grower Champagne.
To round out the cellar, numerous fine offerings from Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, and even Lebanon are available among others.
Always eye-catching, the cellar hosts more than two dozen large-format bottles; while these are primarily magnums, there is a four bottle, ‘double magnum’ of Jean Foillard “Côte du Py” on the list.
Though the featured selections come with some very heady prices, the cellar has a large number of labels at or below the $250 range and a few options in some categories at or below $100.
There are about 30 selections ‘by the glass’ with options from various world regions and styles. These are especially convenient for pairing with multiple courses.
In addition to the many Wine Spectator distinctions, Jeffrey’s won the ‘World of Fine Wine’ (magazine) – Best Medium-Size Wine List in North America in 2018. They had been awarded a three-star designation for the first time in 2017.
In the last few weeks, I visited Jeffrey’s twice, once with friends and once alone for dinner in the bar. Both experiences were excellent.
Our first evening opened with a welcome from our sharply dressed table captain Tony S. Like many of the staff at Jeffrey’s, Tony is a (distinguished) certified sommelier with a long history in fine dining and the wine business. He competed in the Texsom competition in 2017 and even worked for a vineyard in Australia briefly in 2018. As would be expected, he knows the menu well and has a great ability to guide you to the right wines.
For dinner with friends, we went classic and started with truffled deviled eggs topped with large slices of white summer truffle. We followed with the Petrossian Imperial white caviar presented under a classic silver dome with horn spoons for serving. Warm blinis and a small ramekin of sour cream, plus a plate of finely diced egg whites, diced egg yolks, diced shallot, and chopped chive completed the elegant appetizer.
We paired the first courses with Louis Roederer “Premier” Brut Champagne.
We followed the caviar with Jeffrey’s take on beef tartare. Each tartare ‘tart’ was about the size of a wine cork and was filled with minced raw beef, horseradish cream and garnished with smoked trout roe. They were very light and quite literally a perfect bite.
A Jeffrey’s appetizer that changes periodically is the seared Hudson Valley foie gras. The most recent incarnation pairs pineapple on a small pastry shell glazed with a rich duck jus. The pineapple is topped with delicately seared foie gras, then finished with pink peppercorns, various herbs and served with a side of dressed watercress. At Tony’s suggestion, we paired the tart with a 2005 Château Suduiraut, Sauternes. The sweet notes of pear and orange blossom complemented the pineapple and foie gras perfectly.
(In all honesty, the second trip to the restaurant was mainly to have the stellar foie gras again.)
Just before our main courses, we were served another Jeffrey’s favorite; fresh and light popovers served with a side of house-made ricotta cheese drizzled with local honey. These had a very delicate crisp outside and a warm, soft interior.
Though various wonderful seafood and game options are available, Jeffrey’s main focus is the steaks provided by the famous Niman Ranch network and closer to home, the Beeman Ranch in Yoakum Texas. The steaks are aged to various degrees (32 days for the larger Beeman cuts) and come in a wide array of sizes from a 6-ounce Petit filet to staggering a 42-ounce porterhouse.
For variety’s sake, each of us ordered a different main – I chose an 8 oz center cut tenderloin from Beeman’s with a side of roasted baby carrots, and seared mushrooms with garlic, white wine, and a demiglace.
My companions ordered the Rohan Duck “Au Poivre” and the smoked & braised short ribs.
My steak was expertly seared and very properly medium-rare. The texture and flavor were both on point. Though the duck and the short ribs were very good, textures again being quite memorable, the consensus was on the steak.
As a middle ground between our main courses, Tony suggested a 2009 Lopez de Heredia “Cubillo” Rioja that was “drinking very well.” A Robert Parker 92 rating for this moderately priced wine was a nice surprise.
As we wound down our mains, we got a little gem Caesar salad to cleanse the palate.
Our final course was a trio of desserts. Though the Chocolate soufflé with espresso crème anglaise and the Raspberry Mille Feuille were both very well executed, hands down, the winner was the Praline soufflé served with praline ice cream. The consistency was amazingly uniform, and the caramelized brown sugar flavor was subtle but extraordinary.
On my last trip to the restaurant, I opted to sit in the popular bar area. Though a fairly small space, the bar carries hundreds of fine labels in bourbons, scotches, whiskeys and virtually any spirit you could want. Add to that, ten signature cocktails and a sampling of classic Manhattans and Martinis.
Unlike many restaurants, Jeffrey’s makes its entire dinner menu available in the bar area. I wanted to sample some of the seafood having read about both the Hamachi Carpaccio and even finding the recipe for Chef McCain’s Shellfish Risotto in Wine Spectator.
Both dishes were quite innovative; the Hamachi carpaccio’s combination of sushi-grade yellowtail with pear, hearts of palm and horseradish, and the Risotto’s inclusion of uni butter, citrus, and baby greens made them both delicious and unique.
Both were accompanied very well by a Schramsberg “J. Schram” 2009 Brut.
As per my original plan, I did satisfy the need for another sampling of the foie gras tart and most certainly finished with a Praline Soufflé.
I had recently lamented the fact that although we now have several acclaimed Sushi restaurants in Austin and some great new hotel restaurant options, we had lost so many of the small intimate and romantic places along the way.
Jeffrey’s reminded me that thankfully they’re not all gone.
By Richard Arebalo