- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
The aging Quonset hut-style Central Machine Works on Cesar Chavez Street in deep East Austin reminds me of an old Hollywood soundstage. The highly stylized Sawyer & Co., its new neighbor across the street, looks like it might have been designed on one of those soundstages.
Swoop Events and 2Dine4 Catering owners Stephen Shallcross and his wife, Lauren, purchased the former Arkie’s Grill in 2012, partnering with restaurant veteran Mickie Spencer (East Side Show Room, Hillside Farmacy), who has transformed the building into one of the most enchanting spaces in the city.
Arkie’s Grill, founded in 1948 by the late Arkie Sawyer, was an unpretentious greasy spoon, serving comfort food to area blue-collar workers and in-the-know white-collar professionals who made the drive to East Austin part of their morning and afternoon rituals.
Spencer riffed on the classic look of Arkie’s, updating the tattered stools and booths with jazzy vintage appointments. The attention to detail is amazing, from various gorgeous mid-century modern light fixtures and ochre leather toadstool seats at the bar inside to an outdoor area featuring artificial turf, vintage chaise lounges and swooped, aqua-colored fiberglass booths that harken to the original Arkie’s. The groovy mid-century setting feels like a Very Special Episode of “The Brady Bunch” directed by Quentin Tarantino and lubricated with quality craft cocktails.
Wood paneling, geometric tiles and a painted wall that looks like the cover of a Juan Garcia Esquivel reissue give a hip and retro feel to the restaurant that nods to classic Los Angeles diners like Pann’s and Rae’s Restaurant (memorialized in the movie “True Romance”).
I half expected to hear Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Esquivel’s “Mucha Muchacha” playing when I entered the transportive space for the first time. Instead we were treated to a brunch soundtrack of New Orleans music from the likes of Allen Toussaint and the Meters. The music matches Louisiana-bred Stephen Shallcross’ intention to bring a little flavor of the Big Easy to the east side. The mid-century California vibe and New Orleans inspiration never quite felt congruous, like a vacationing Don Draper wandering into a French Quarter second line parade.
The New Orleans influence is most noticeable on the brunch menu, with dishes like the Boudreaux’s Breakfast ($10.99), three cheesy scrambled eggs mixed with a swampy crawfish étouffée, peppers and onions. The small bits of previously frozen crawfish were slightly bigger than the not-quite-crunchy, dime-sized fried shrimp served on a fully dressed lunchtime po’boy ($9.99) that had little going for it except a fresh, flossy French roll.
A fluffy stack of buttermilk pancakes ($4.50 for a two-cake short stack) and a New Orleans classic of pork grillades ($8.99) — a pool of smooth, cheesy grits circumscribing a sufficiently greasy pile of slow-cooked pork in a rich, tawny roux — served as the brunch highlights.
A kitschy Trailer Park Benedict ($7.99) lived up (down?) to its name with a plate of Fritos topped with waxy cheese shreds and overly salted chili in a dish that approached redemption thanks to two nicely poached, hollandaise-draped eggs.
You can order breakfast all day, such as three-egg omelets that start with one ingredient at $6.99 and add additional ingredients for $1 each. My forays into the omelet arena led me to massive but under-seasoned and spongy omelets. The omelets come with toast or biscuits. On one visit the biscuits were flaky on the outside and soft inside; another time, the insides were a pasty, undercooked mess.
Sawyer & Co. serves daily blue plate specials, a couple of which (fried chicken, chicken and dumplings) pay homage to Arkie’s. Flavors of Thanksgiving lingered at a recent visit with moist deep-fried turkey flavored with mildly piquant Cajun spices ($7.99). It and the crumbly, loosely packed stuffing were the highlights of my Sawyer & Co. visits, though I won’t be revisiting the accompanying sugar cane-glazed carrots that were cooked to a mushy limpness.
The restaurant that opened in September can point to some of its clientele as a mark of distinction and tacit endorsement. I’ve spotted cooks and servers from several of the city’s best restaurants dining and drinking at the Smithsonian-quality installation. Many service industry folks like to eat basic, stick-to-your-ribs classics when off the clock, and on paper Sawyer & Co. fits that bill. But I found little comfort in a catfish entrée that was at once overly fried yet still mealy ($10.99); a raft of cheese fries held together by a plastic coat of processed cheese and served with the industrial taste of canned chili ($5.99); and a small, dry bacon cheeseburger ($4.99).
I like simple food. I love a good diner as much as anyone. And I don’t think every restaurant has to follow a hyper-seasonal farm-to-table ethos and charge top dollar for dishes (the modest prices at Sawyer are one of the restaurant’s strongest selling points). But you still need to execute.
Sawyer & Co. is not a chef-driven restaurant but a nostalgia-fueled one. That’s fine. But with such exceptional and evocative design, expectations get raised for the rest of the restaurant. Those expectations are not met.