Shawn Cirkiel swears he’s not crazy.
But plenty of people thought he was, the Central Texas chef acknowledges, when he proposed a fine-dining restaurant nearly a decade ago in the heart of downtown Austin’s East Sixth Street – an area known mainly for its bars and all-day, all-night party atmosphere.
That’s still the case today, albeit to a lesser degree, but downtown observers say it was Cirkiel’s willingness to take a risk in 2008 and open Parkside, at 301 E. Sixth St., that paved the way for other Austin restaurateurs – as well as some national chains – to finally venture onto the infamous street.
The restaurant, with its huge windows overlooking all the East Sixth Street action, helped pioneer the “farm-to-table” concept in Austin, featuring classic American fare that changes seasonally – far different from the greasy street food that had long permeated the neighborhood.
“In some ways, I was a little ahead of the times,” Cirkiel said. “It seemed nuts, but there was no place open late that had interesting food. There was nothing. Think about it. Austin was a much different place nine or 10 years ago. I wanted to lead the change.”
Parkside has become a staple in the Sixth Street entertainment district, an area where concepts come and go for a variety of reasons – everything from high rents to changing consumer tastes – even as new hotels that have been built downtown in recent years have put thousands of prospective customers within walking distance on any given day.
When it came time for Cirkiel to open his next concept, Backspace, he didn’t have to look far. He found the perfect location right behind Parkside – a spot that was once home to a loan company. The building’s safe, still unopened, remains on site to this day. One day, maybe, Cirkiel says he’ll have a locksmith pry it open just for kicks.
“It’s a really beautiful space,” Cirkiel said. “We just could never figure out what to do with it. I cook what I love to eat and I love to make Neapolitan pizzas at the house so one day the idea just hit me.”
Cirkiel and his Parkside Projects crew took out a doorway to fit a huge pizza oven into the cozy space. Backspace, with just about 30 seats, opened its doors in 2010.
Since then, Parkside Projects has opened several other restaurants, including Olive & June (Italian fare) and Bullfight (Spanish cuisine). There’s also 800 Congress, a relatively new event space. Cirkiel said he takes pride that many of his employees have been with the company since the beginning. He attributes that to several things, including opportunities for advancement as new concepts open.
Parkside Projects currently has about 150 employees.
“I think of Shawn as a mentor just as much as an employer,” said Paul Ozbirn, an advanced sommelier and beverage director for Parkside Projects, who has worked with Cirkiel for six years. “We share a passion for traveling, adventuring and certainly eating and drinking well, which all color our decisions daily within the restaurants. We’ve built a level of trust over the last few years that I’ve never experienced with any other boss, and that makes my day to day incredibly fulfilling. His generosity and thoughtfulness regarding his employees is truly unparalleled, at least in my adult work experience.”
Even competitors agree that Cirkiel, husband to Bria and father to Noah and Dylan, has a stellar reputation in the industry.
“I’ve known Shawn for many years,” Whisler’s owner Scranton Twohey said. “He’s not only one of my closest friends, he’s also my next-door neighbor. Outside of him being one of the most loyal people I know, I’d have to say he’s also an amazing family man. Without a doubt, an absolute fantastic dad. I think the thing that makes Shawn truly happy is family. Restaurants and success aside, family time and close friends makes him tick.”
And that family is about to grow. Cirkiel’s newest concept, Jugo, is set to open next year, serving cold-pressed juices, smoothies, salads and sandwiches, among other offerings.
“Between kids and life, it’s all about being transitory these days,” Cirkiel said. “We’re always in transition. It’s even how we eat and snack. That’s how the idea for the juice bar came to be.”
Like Backspace, Jugo is shoehorned into a snug spot just off East Sixth Street – somewhere that had long been vacant despite its prime location.
“I have this friend who came to me one day and basically said, ‘Do something with it,’” Cirkiel said.
So Cirkiel did. He’s essentially gutted the storefront at 603 Brazos St., where crews are busy right now putting the finishing touches on what he describes as a “super cute, clean and bright” space, with plans for an opening in the early part of 2017.
“It’s been really fun,” he said. “We built the entire menu basically from things we’d eat in the mornings, when we need a quick snack – healthy or not healthy – and at lunchtime.”
With countless offices in the area, Cirkiel said he expects Jugo to be a big hit with people who need something to sip on or a bite to eat before dashing back to their desks. And, if the concept takes off like he expects, the chef said it’s quite possible more Jugo locations could pop up around town.
As Jugo works to find its footing, those who know Cirkiel say you can expect to find him there day and night, doing whatever it takes to make sure things run smoothly. It’s what he’s been doing throughout Bullfight’s first year, which he says has been “unbelieveable.”
That dedication is one reason Cirkiel is so beloved and respected by his staff, said Justin Rupp, culinary director for Parkside Projects. Rupp’s been with the company since 2008, before Parkside even opened its doors, and said he has no plans to leave anytime soon.
“Shawn is an owner who remains very involved in every level of the restaurants,” Rupp said. “He is as involved with what the dishwashers are doing as he is with the general managers. It’s rare to see this type of caring and respect from the top down in the restaurant industry.”
Parkside Projects concepts
- Parkside, 301 E. Sixth St.
- Backspace, 507 San Jacinto Blvd.
- Olive and June, 3411 Glenview Ave.
- Bullfight, 4807 Airport Blvd.
- 800 Congress event space, 800 Congress Ave.
- Jugo, 603 Brazos St. (opening in 2017)