It’s springtime and Perla’s South Congress patio is buzzing with warm chatter. Servers in vivid gingham shirts pass by with glistening trays of oysters on the half shell as royal blue striped umbrellas offer shade from the sun.
Vacation vibes are in full effect. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the ocean tide lapping in the distance.
This month, the staff will trade in their bright Vineyard Vines button-downs and chinos for striped Saint James shirts, distressed Levi’s and red Vans, adding to the restaurant’s breezy, nautical feel.
“As a guest coming in, it’s so visually appealing,” says server Kira Pozehl. “You feel like you’re somewhere else. Am I in Austin or am I in Cape Cod?”
Just a couple blocks west, French Vietnamese brunch service at Elizabeth Street Cafe means delicate pastries, breakfast banh mi and passionfruit mimosas. Look closely and you’ll notice the chopsticks and coffee cups are printed with hand-drawn illustrations of small cranes and tuk tuks. A stylish front-of-house staff completes the playful theme: ladies are bedecked in fitted floral dresses and denim chambray aprons, while the guys don Tibetan-inspired red chambray shirts.
No one ever accused restaurateurs Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman of skimping on the details. And the staff uniforms at each of their restaurants are so well designed, they could hardly be considered mere details, but rather, one part of a carefully curated whole.
“McGuire Moorman Hospitality (MMH) has always been really focused on the details, and we have a lot of fun choosing the aesthetic ones,” says creative director Ryan Smith. “Uniforms are just another opportunity to enhance a guest’s experience and hopefully get folks smiling. I think we shoot for thoughtful charm and a bit of humor rather than taking things too seriously.”
Their tasteful whimsy comes across in ensembles like the one worn by valets at Jeffrey’s: pink seersucker shorts suits, black terry headbands and classic Adidas tennis shoes. “We’re kind of the MVPs of Clarksville,” says valet Charles Graham. When picking up a guest in the restaurant’s BMW, he becomes an insta-chauffeur with the addition of a black British driving cap and leather gloves.
MMH partners with FÖDA, a local brand consultancy who meets them at the proverbial drawing board to help develop and cultivate each new restaurant’s concept. “It could start with anything—a wallpaper design or the feel of the menu,” says Smith. “And as we’re thinking about food and furniture and uniforms and music, it’s all rolling into one.”
When laying the foundation for the Jeffrey’s renovation, FÖDA and MMH brainstormed how to visually portray the iconic restaurant as being inseparable from the Clarksville it’s called home for 35 years. FÖDA’s art director Dale Wallain collected botanicals from the surrounding neighborhood, then hand-stippled and scaled each one. Images of maple and post oak leaves were then embroidered on valet headbands and screenprinted on raincoats, while bartenders sport subtle acorn tie pins.
McGuire and Smith collaborated with Matthew Herman (head designer for Zac Posen at the time) to design specific uniforms for each position at both Jeffrey’s and Josephine House. Details include silk pajama jackets for servers, chiffon cocktail server dresses, black waiter vests and white suiting fabric blazers for room captains.
Smith helps realize each restaurant’s unique style by sourcing custom materials and accessories from across the globe, and hand-picking designers and manufacturers with whom to collaborate.
San Francisco-based Taylor Stitch recently designed button-down shirts for the servers at Lamberts, and Los Angeles-based Vacation Days dyed custom silk fabric which local manufacturer Mr. and Mrs. Sew It All in turn made into bow ties and pocket squares for the staff at Clark’s Oyster Bar.
Chris and Amanda Savittiere, the team behind Mr. and Mrs. Sew It All, create most of the aprons for MMH’s restaurants and customize each Elizabeth Street Cafe server’s dress out of a fabric of her choosing. They work with a number of other restaurants around town as well, including qui, Fixe, and La Condesa.
“A well-crafted, stylish uniform will make anyone feel better about their job,” says Chris. “It boosts self-esteem and confidence while dealing with guests, and ultimately adds dollars to your pocket.”
Ryan Foster now starts his day earlier with a trip to the dry cleaners before arriving to bartend at Clark’s. “I feel good if my uniform looks pressed and proper,” he says. “It definitely makes me feel like I’m doing a good job. It’s a classic-looking uniform, so I feel like it’s appropriate for a bartender, especially at a high-end restaurant.”
Foster’s apron is made from a green and white ticking fabric Smith found in South Carolina and rises to a point under his bow tie, where a vintage brass button secures it to his crisp white shirt. “There’s an attention to detail here I haven’t seen at any other places I’ve worked,” says Foster.
MMH is constantly making little changes to each restaurant’s interior design and uniforms – and that includes tweaking the back-of-house uniforms not visible to customers.
“It’s something we’ve really noticed makes a huge difference with folks,” says Smith. “Once you start a place with a great concept and a great idea, you have to continue to update it to keep it current and fun.”
Now that more and more kitchens open up to the dining room, chefs have become a part of the visual dialogue in restaurants as well. At the recently opened JW Marriott downtown, Executive Chef Juan Martinez and his management team designed the kitchen uniforms to match each restaurant’s own unique concept and vibe.
“I think it’s always nice to be able to showcase our cooks, the way they present themselves and the amount of professionalism they show on a daily basis,” says Martinez.
The kitchen staff at the formal Osteria Pronto wears chef jackets, black pinstripe aprons, and black military caps, while the team in Corner’s open air kitchen sport tattoo-revealing butcher shirts, denim pinstriped aprons and navy bandanas tied around their heads.
On the flipside, plenty of other restaurants have made the conscious decision to stray from a dress code of any sort at all. “We considered different uniform options, but ultimately wanted the staff to feel relatable and to have a chance to let their personality and style come through,” says John Berry, general manager of Launderette.
Deep in the east side of Austin, French bistro Justine’s approach to outfitting the staff is as eclectic as the space itself. “It never even crossed my mind, if I owned a place, to have a uniform,” declares Pierre Pelegrin, who owns Justine’s with his wife Justine Gilcrease. “I associate a uniform with the army, the police – things like that. I mean, I totally understand why people do it. It kind of puts everyone on the same level. But I feel like it takes a little bit of your soul, you know?”
“And anyone who knows anything about fashion knows that not one thing looks good on everyone,” adds Gilcrease. “You need to dress for your own personality and your own body type… and it’s a form of self-expression. It’s fun to see how everyone dresses each day.”
Self-expression is key for the close-knit Justine’s staff. “What’s really cool about working here is that everyone is an artist in their own right, by one means or another,” says hostess Alexandra Ligawa. “Either they design clothing or make music or they’re writers, and it’s fantastic.”
Barback Daniel Patrick had worked in the fashion industry – never the restaurant industry – before working at Justine’s. “I wouldn’t work here if it wasn’t because of Justine being cool and this being a really fashionable place,” he says. “It has a lot of character, and Justine really encourages us to be what we want to be.”
Hostess Laura Burnette echoes his sentiments: “I think it shows a great amount of trust between us and our employers, to be able to express ourselves however much or little we want to.”
Justine’s candlelit patio is a magnet for bohemian clientele who come not only for their well-crafted late night menu, but also for the choice vinyl soundtrack, prime people-watching and a magical yard featuring a room of mirrors, a petanque court and a tintype photo booth. They’re also known for throwing raucous and visually spectacular events for holidays like New Years Eve, Bastille Day, and Halloween, when the entire staff can be found in full costume, hair and makeup.
“It’s fun to be expressive and a little showy with what you’re wearing,” says barback Cory Ratajczak, his pink pinstriped shirt unbuttoned to reveal a gold and black bolo tie against his collarbone.
Yet others, like manager Renate Winter, have adopted a self-imposed uniform of sorts. She can usually be found wearing a pair of Imogene & Willie black jeans, a black top and a piece from her collection of black vintage vests.
“I would love to have a wardrobe of just tailored suits a la Mickey Rourke in 9 1/2 Weeks,” she admits. “I like wearing what I’m comfortable in. All-black happens to be my uniform since I was 16.”
Whether designed by a team of professionals or hand picked from their own closet, a comfortable, stylish and utilitarian ensemble seems to be the ultimate trifecta for those working in hospitality – and, in turn, the ones they serve.
“As a guest about to throw down money for a great meal, you should expect the restaurant to present their staff in a way that shows they care,” sums up Mr. Sew It All, Chris Savittiere. “It’s the whole package from the time you walk in the door until you leave.”
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