Uttering the name Cesar Chavez in Austin can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some, it evokes memories of the Mexican-American civil rights activist, Cesar Estrada Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. Many others are reminded of East 1st St. in downtown Austin, renamed Cesar Chavez Boulevard in 1993. And now, with the opening of Shawn Cirkiel’s newest restaurant, the Chavez name lives on as one of downtown Austin’s hottest new eateries. If the name Shawn Cirkiel sounds familiar, you might have been to one of his other downtown venues, Parkside or Backspace.
Chavez, housed inside the Radisson Hotel off Congress and Cesar Chavez, focuses on the various flavors that make up the history and culture of Austin, Texas. The menu combines the flavors that define Texas, the Southwest U.S., and traditional Mexican dishes and wraps them up with unique Austin flair. “It is all the flavors and food that we like to eat and cook with that we grew up with,” said Cirkiel. “For us, being from Texas, it’s a mixture of chiles, beans, rice, grilled meats, grilled fish, homemade tortillas, and tamales,” he went on. “It goes back to the blending of cultures—and for us, that’s who we are.”
The Chavez Design
Residing in the space formerly occupied by TGI Fridays, Chavez has undergone a dramatic transformation from the dimly lit restaurant chain to a wide open floor plan with ceiling-to-floor windows that showcase the Lady Bird Lake backdrop and busy Congress street.
For more than a year, Shawn Cirkiel worked with the founder and Creative Director of FODA Studio, Jett Butler, to create the warm and inviting space. All the attention and care that went into designing the space is immediately apparent when you first walk in and notice the generous use of wood from our state tree, the Texas Pecan, and the design of the unique light fixtures that form the letter “C.”
The upscale bar provides ample seating on the side facing Congress, with a great view of the Radisson pool. In fact, guests staying at the hotel will get to order “poolside noshes” while lounging around taking in the sun. During the preview party, Chavez even managed to squeeze in a small stage towards the back of the venue, so expect live music on occasion. I was fortunate enough to attend the preview alongside fellow Austinot writer Cris Mueller, and just as we were wondering who the stage was for, we saw Pat Green walk out. Aside from the delectable empanadas, watching Green play was the biggest surprise of the night.
Despite the great-looking spot and perfect location, the real reason you are going to come to Chavez is for la comida, the food. Texas has a rich history and culture with several unique influences, and our foods are a perfect reflection of that. To date, Chavez has the best menu I’ve seen in Austin when it comes to combining these unique influences into one restaurant. Brad Sorenson’s NOVA on Rainey St. is a close second (seriously, go try their brunch).
Focusing on shareable plates and sides, Chavez has a wonderful “Sunday Dinner” feel to it, something that is further emphasized with traditional Mexican options like pork carnitas tortas and mole. The “fusion” aspect of the menu features hamachi with horchata, tamales with peanut mole, and oysters in taquitos smothered in avocado crema. On a recent breakfast outing I had the chance to try out their “warm monkey bread candied pecans” and was completely floored that something this tasty has never been attempted before.
The bar menu falls in line with the food options, including unique takes on traditional “Texican” options we’ve been accustomed to here in Austin. The craft beer options were highly limited, with only a few options from the bigger breweries in town. But you don’t go to a swanky joint to drink craft beer. Chavez makes up for it with their extensive bourbon and whiskey selection, as well as a few hand-crafted cocktails. My favorite was the del sur, a rum drink with whipped horchata caramel salt.
All in all, Chavez is a stunning new addition to the Austin restaurant family that looks to be another home run for local restaurateur Shawn Cirkiel. Showcasing Austin cuisine and featuring Chavez inside a hotel, in one of the busiest intersections in town, was a brilliant move.
What’s your favorite Shawn Cirkiel restaurant: Parkside, Backspace, or Olive & June?