Austin, Texas, has always been a city with a local-first gene. Alison Schulze, a senior interior design manager at Studio 11 Design, took that into account when devising a restaurant blueprint to coincide with the Sheraton Austin hotel’s full-scale remodel. Fittingly, the surrounding grounds themselves happened to be undergoing a transformation of sorts.
Waller Creek, which runs directly behind the hotel, is being revamped to reflect the city’s growing community-first vibe. Parks, walkways, bike trails, amphitheaters, and various stopping points dot the waterside path. “We wanted to capitalize on what was going on outside of our fence lines,” Schulze says. “The idea started as something where we wanted to bring pedestrian traffic from Waller Creek into what kind of felt like a backyard. We wanted to make it really inviting, really comfortable, and really make it a place where locals would want to stop, as opposed to it just being for tourists. We wanted to capitalize on the locality of Austin.”
This isn’t the easiest plan for a hotel restaurant, where the vast majority of diners are also guests without permanent addresses in the city. As a solution, Schulze and the Studio 11 team created The Yard and Back Yard, which as the name suggests, was intended to blend indoor/outdoor settings into a different sort of venue, one where sitting down for a meal might just mean ordering a cocktail from a retro, refurbished Airstream trailer.
First off, Schulze had to make sure that potential pool of pedestrian diners could see what The Yard was offering. The restaurant sits a little bit higher in elevation from the nearby trail and a large, moss-covered neon sign is wrapped around one of the existing columns. Walking up the path, people can see the outdoor patio, which has custom-branded umbrellas, pops of color, and stream lights. “You can see from the bottom all of the way up into the restaurant,” she explains.
Schulze says the team had fun with materials, playing off the outdoors-y vibe. There’s turf, moss, marble, inlay brass, and two different kinds of stained wood, among other details. The Airstream, which Schulze acquired through some Internet browsing, is one of her favorite features. They reset it with kitchen equipment, which allows guests to order from a limited menu outside.
“We just wanted to make it feel like local Austin,” she explains. “That was something that we wanted to accomplish. Austin is known for food trucks, so now the restaurant has that food truck vibe. … We’re trying to use that to further brand the restaurant. When you go into the guest rooms we have post cards with collateral on it that also has an image of an old Airstream trailer. Just kind of use that throughout the space to further solidify what we’re doing for the logo and for the branding.”
The restaurant evolved from a one-story mockup into a two-story space, which allowed the back bar to be pulled up through the atrium. This way, when patrons come into the restaurant, they can see the top part of the bar. Also, when they walk in and look over the railing, it’s an open space that oversees the bar area and there’s a large stairway spiraling around so guests can see all the way from the fourth floor. This makes the restaurant and the back bar a focal point of the entire property.
Studio 11 also developed what looks like a study library outside of the bar, complete with cocktail seating and tables for overspill.
The Back Yard remains purposely informal. The food is very handheld, with items ranging from tacos to barbecue. New York City-based mixologist Jason Kosmas of The 86 Co. helped curate the program, which includes the “Backyard Lemonade” and signature cocktails that arrive in labeled glass bottles. The lemonade can have different flavors infused and alcohol added or left out.
“I looked at it as, if this was my backyard and I had a picnic, what would I want to serve? We did a take on s’mores. So you can order s’mores from the Airstream outside or you can order s’mores from the restaurants. You’re encouraged to take your s’mores package and go outside and cook that on your own at one of our fire pits,” Schulze says.
The restaurant took over two years and opened in April. For this project, Schulze says they were in charge of the branding as well, which added a nice cohesive touch. “We worked on the menu design and collaborated with the place settings. We got to pick out the plates. We got to do recycled bottle glassware, work on the uniforms and the logo and we branded the logo into the host stand,” she says. The packaging is also custom without “being overly expensive or difficult for the property to maintain.” Butcher paper was ordered in bulk and a stamp and inkpad were designed for the concept. “Just being able to be a part of the design as well branding made this really successful and really standout for us,” she says. “It feels very Austin to me.”
By Danny Klein