Ask Lou Lambert what’s unique about his downtown restaurant and he’ll tell you – well, not much.
And that’s really the point. In a city known for great barbecue, Lambert and business partner Larry McGuire opted not to try to convince Austinites that they should love something else. The duo did barbecue, they just did it right – creating a constantly shifting menu of inventive departures on the basics, from Black Angus short ribs with shitake and cipollini onion jus to pesto-rubbed lamb chops with habanero mint jelly. And they did it in a historic downtown building with rustic finishes and fine acoustics, a space that’s quickly become a hip hotspot for young urbanites and a must-play for Austin’s musicati. Lamberts Downtown is at once refined yet unpretentious. And that’s exactly the way Lambert himself likes it.
“There have been a lot of people who have come to Austin and said, ‘This city needs XYZ and I’m gong to teach Austin what they should be eating,’” says the chef and restaurateur. “And a lot of them have failed because what people here want is great barbecue, steak and seafood.”
Growing up in Odessa, Lambert fell in love with the wackiness of the restaurant business in high school. He loved to be in the kitchen, but in a series of gigs during and after college, his outgoing personality and ability to handle high pressure consistently landed him in the front of the house. He would earn a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and even work for a time in San Francisco with acclaimed chef Wolfgang Puck. Later, after stints in high-end bistros in Dallas and then back in San Francisco, Lambert decided to return to his Texas roots.
He’d never lived in Austin, but Lambert had had fun times in the Capital City when his brother was at UT. His sister Liz had also moved down to Austin from New York, and the city meant family ties. But more than anything, Lambert recognized a vibe here that he didn’t feel in the other Lone Star cities.
His first local gig was with Word of Mouth Catering, where he quickly grew fond of the proprietors and ended up staying three years as executive chef. Meanwhile his sister Liz had purchased the Hotel San Jose on South Congress Avenue with plans to reinvent the rundown motor lodge. The two siblings eventually determined that one thing South Austin desperately needed was a coffee shop. Everyone else thought they were crazy when they opened Jo’s next door to the San Jose.
“Remember that at this time South Congress was still pretty seedy,” Lambert says. “Before Liz took it over, the San Jose was renting rooms by the hour. People said, ‘Who is going to come sit on Congress Avenue and drink coffee?’ … In my opinion, Jo’s was one of the first of the new breed of restaurants that came down there.”
The Jo’s experience informed Lambert’s future ventures. He developed his own successful catering company, but in time realized he wanted to create a concept all his own, a restaurant with his sense of style and an Americana menu that Austinites would embrace. Lambert’s on South Congress opened in 2002 where The Woodland is today.
While he was running the original restaurant, Lambert was also involved in consulting work for a major hotel management company. In time, Larry McGuire, a young chef Lambert had helped mentor, returned to Austin after honing his craft in restaurants around Texas. About the same time, Lambert determined he was ready to get out of consulting and expand his restaurant reach. He and McGuire developed concept for something bigger and better.
Location was an important issue. The partners knew they did not want to be up in North Austin, and South Congress seemed to make the most sense. But prices were rising fast and there just wasn’t a viable location for what they wanted to do. Then they stumbled across the old Schneider Store, a two-story, circa- 1873 building on the south end of downtown that had recently been revitalized. The city of Austin was looking for a local group to do something unique with the property.
“After the fact, we found out that we were just one of many trying to get that location,” Lambert recalls. “But [city officials] liked the concept and what we were trying to do.”
What they were trying to do was fashion a “fancy” 21st century version of the Texas honky-tonk and restaurant. Two expansive bars with creative cocktails, exposed brick walls and beams, and an intimate upstairs stage and dance floor. Lambert credits McGuire with driving the interior design of the restaurant, with its big sweeping booths and pine tables that emit a warm, lived-in yet loungy feel.
It’s the kind of dining atmosphere where the governor of Texas would feel as comfortable as a group of construction workers just off the job sitting five tables away – a scene that played out one evening not long ago.
Some of the dishes at the new Lamberts originated at the South Congress restaurant. Others are entirely new. But what sets this barbecue, steak and seafood joint apart is the attention to quality and detail – from the best organic and all-natural ingredients to the house-made barbecue sauces and the wood-burning-grill flavor that permeates it all.
“We’re giving barbecue and steaks the respect you would in a fine dining restaurant,” Lambert says, confidently. “We took a lot of time on the details because everything has got to work together – the food, the music, the atmosphere – everything has to be cohesive to create the concept.”
In the year since its opening, Lamberts has become part of a rapidly evolving local dining scene being infused with new flavors and culinary perspectives. An ever-growing population has lead to a kind of experimentation Central Texas has never seen before.
“I think for a long time, Austin was more of a Mexican and steak town,” Lambert alleges. “People had tried to do some higher-end things. Some succeeded but most didn’t, even though the demographics supported it. Now, over the last 10 years, people are wanting to go out and experience different things. We have more ethnic restaurants, more younger chefs coming in and experimenting. I see the dining scene in Austin getting better and better every year.”
This spring, Lambert opened his latest concept, Lambert’s Steaks, Seafood & Whiskey, just outside of downtown Fort Worth. He says he “and the guys are kicking around a couple of other concepts” that they might introduce in Austin. “We’ve been operating a little over a year now, but we wanted to make sure that this was up and running on all cylinders before we looked at different locations and other things we might do.”
Stay tuned, more flavor to come!
BROWN SUGAR & COFFEE RUBBED BRISKET
For the coffee rub:
2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup chili powder
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup medium ground black pepper
1/4 cup finely ground dark roast coffee
For roasting the brisket:
1 beef brisket, 4 to 6 pounds
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into pieces
2 yellow onions, peeled and cut into wedges
1 1/2 bottles (18 ounces) dark beer
For the rub, combine brown sugar, chili powder, paprika, salt, pepper and coffee in a medium bowl. Stir to combine well.
Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Rub the brisket all over with coffee rub and set aside for 30 minutes. Store leftover coffee rub in an airtight container at room temperature. Arrange carrots and onions in the bottom of a roasting pan. Set brisket on top of vegetables. Pour beer over brisket and roast, three to five hours, until brisket is tender and falling apart. Allow about 45 minutes per pound of brisket. When the brisket is done, you should be able to separate the meat into shreds easily with a fork. Remove meat from roasting pan and let rest 10 to 15 minutes.
Pour the pan juices and vegetables into a saucepan. Skim the fat off the top of the juices and discard. Slice meat across the grain and arrange on a platter. Serve juices and vegetables with meat.