According to Chef Phillip Brown, co-owner and founder of Vince Young Steakhouse in Austin, Texas, the city didn’t need another steakhouse. What it needed was a different kind of steakhouse. When the idea for the new concept was conceived, even he didn’t realize just how different it would turn out to be.
Brown set out to open a small-scale fine dining restaurant with his wife Laura, when they were newly married at 24 years old, but their plans quickly got a little grander when Laura’s family friend, famed NFL quarterback Vince Young, overheard the plans while attending their wedding.
“We were going to open up an intimate space for fine dining, but with [Young] getting involved, we knew we had to get on a bigger scale,” Brown says, laughing.
The setting for their soon-to-be restaurant, they then decided, would be the heart of downtown Austin within the former MTV Real World Austin house. As a wedding gift, award-winning interior designer, author, and TV host Bill Stubbs took over the restaurant’s design, blending both the intimate spaces the Browns had in mind with a bar for game-watching and tables for elegant group dining within the grandiose space.
“We wanted a place that would please everybody, to the extent that that’s possible,” Brown says. “We didn’t want to be the old, stuffy, run-of-the-mill steakhouse, but we also didn’t want it to be so new and different that the older crowd would be turned off by it, so we tried to find that balance and add some warmth.”
The resulting space includes an elegant bar replete with dark wood and warm lighting, accented by memorabilia from Young’s days as quarterback at the University of Texas and two sleek flat screens for game watching. There is also a serpentine booth at the center of the restaurant that is partially segmented by copper-colored chains, creating a curtain-like effect that gives the space a private, intimate feel for guests who are in search of a romantic evening.
After the fact, Brown’s only design complaint is that the two private dining rooms aren’t as large as he would like to fit the sizeable groups that often book the rooms—certainly a regret that belies the steakhouse’s popularity among locals and visitors brought to the area by the nearby convention center, which is becoming a hub for large conferences and festivals such as SXSW.
Yes, having Young’s name in the title does get the restaurant immediate recognition, but Brown says what sets the space apart goes much deeper.
“We always tell people, if it was called Brown’s Steakhouse or Vince Young’s Steakhouse, our commitment to the food, wine, and experience would be the same,” he says, adding that the only difference would be, perhaps, a few less pictures of the restaurant’s namesake on the walls.
Vince Young Steakhouse is also able to claim the title as the only locally owned and operated prime steakhouse in the city, which Brown says is a big draw for convention-goers who are looking to experience something unique to the city. Brown pays homage to Austin by emphasizing local sourcing within his menu, which is switched up about four or five times a year to keep the experience fresh for repeat guests. He also prides himself on taking just as much care in the design and execution of non-steak entrée dishes, something he says many other steakhouses often tack on as a mere afterthought.
Of course, having one of the state’s most-loved former college quarterbacks as a partner and regular guest is helpful for generating buzz as well.
“Every time he stops in, the first thing he does, no matter if there’s 50 people or 300 people in the restaurant, is walk around and talk to everybody and listens to their stories of where they were at during the big game,” Brown says.
Still, having his name in the restaurant title hasn’t been all positive.
“We had to fight, especially in the beginning, some of the preconceived notions about what an athlete’s restaurant is,” he remembers.
But Brown says by continuously keeping the focus on the quality of food, beverages, and service, Vince Young Steakhouse easily overcame stereotypes by surpassing expectations and using Young’s association as an added value and hometown homage, not a gimmick.
As a spot that draws on local color and honors a statewide hero, Vince Young Steakhouse still manages to be, first and foremost, a top-tier steakhouse that stands out from the crowd of national chains in a city whose food scene is beginning to hit its stride.
By Emily Byrd