Opened: August 2016
Location: Austin, Texas
Owners: BDG Hospitality
Average check: $60
Description: The supper club makes a comeback at Sophia’s in Austin, where diners are encouraged to linger—or just pop in for a drink.
"Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.”
So said Italian actress Sophia Loren many years ago. Despite today’s carb-wary world, the sentiment—that indulgent dishes like pasta are tied to full-bodied and glamorous living—is very much alive and well at Sophia’s in Austin, Texas.
“Even the name, Sophia’s, we felt that it really evoked the idea of a strong, powerful, sexy Italian woman,” says co-owner James Brown of Chicago-based BDG Hospitality.
For an industry that oftentimes casts a wide net, Sophia’s is comfortable exuding a very specific tenor. It’s not that the restaurant strives to appeal only to a certain customer base, but rather the unusual operation will intrigue some and potentially deter others. Sophia’s has fashioned itself as a retro supper club, one that welcomes patrons for a hearty meal, a glamorous night out, a swanky lounge, and everything in between.
“We were very conscious from the beginning that people don’t necessarily want to eat in a nightclub nor do they necessarily want to party in a restaurant. We always knew we’d be walking this line,” Brown says.
He estimates that about half of patrons stick to the traditional dining experience, a quarter come for the evening scene, and the rest are those coveted all-nighters, moving from the dining table to the bar and terrace. Sophia’s is one of the few restaurants in Austin to keep its kitchen and full bar open until 2 a.m. Ordering Fettuccine Bolognese at midnight may not be the norm, but it’s certainly an option. When all is said and done, the “supper club” vibe proffers the option to linger.
Sophia’s exudes elegance, but not pretension; the design recalls the swanky yet low-key Italian trattorias that are common in big cities like New York and Boston. Golden orb chandeliers warm the exposed brick walls, and plush, jewel-toned chairs dot the dining room. The terrace is breezy with lounge seating and fans—a necessity for Austin’s sizzling temps.
The decision to serve Italian fare might seem counterintuitive in the Tex-Mex–saturated Lone Star State. Nevertheless, Brown’s experience growing up in New York City and living in Chicago, as well as some basic market research, confirmed that a more upscale Italian restaurant would perform well in Austin.
“We felt there was so much to the cuisine and so much that was familiar to a lot of people that there was room to update it and bring it into more of a modern palate,” Brown says. “Some of our dishes are just our best version of a very classic dish.”
While the portions skew on the larger size, Brown says they played around with richer items, like cream sauces, to try and lighten things up. But ironically, two of the most popular dishes on the menu are among the heaviest. The eponymous Pasta alla Sophia’s features fresh, house-made mozzarella, pancetta, and a signature sauce that blends elements of three standards—Bolognese, cream, and tomato. The second, the Orecchiette Tartufate combines cremini mushrooms, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, black truffle cream, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and white truffle oil.
“When our executive chef [Mark Sparacino] proposed them, I was like, no way. In Chicago or in a Northern city, I can maybe see these, but there’s no way these are going to fly down here,” Brown says. “Regardless of the weather, those are always the top-sellers—so I was definitely proven wrong, and gratefully so because they’re great dishes.”
Brown says Sophia’s tries to pull seasonal ingredients found in Texas when possible. A new chef de cuisine could signal a double down on those efforts. In May, the restaurant plucked Caleb Higginson from Chicago, where he had served as sous chef at the now-defunct Central Standard. A strong proponent of using local, seasonal fare, Higginson has already made corresponding tweaks to the menu. For example, Sophia’s Whole Roasted Fish originally featured Mediterranean branzino, but now sources various fish from the Gulf, including snapper and dogfish.
As with the menu, Sophia’s is still evolving its unconventional business model. Last December, a review by said Sophia’s needed “far less flash,” critiquing the restaurant for being too hip. It also pointed to the contrast between Sophia’s ambiance and the actual food, which it said, “avoids showiness altogether, sticking to honest, familiar ingredients with wide appeal.”
Critics notwithstanding, Brown and his partners at BDG Hospitality are comfortable with rocking the boat a bit. They’re recalibrating based on guest input, albeit with a keen awareness that being one of a kind means you can’t be everything to everyone.
“There’s oftentimes an equal amount of value in good experiences and bad: being able to see how the concept entered into the market, what the response has been. … You incorporate a lot of that into your daily operation,” Brown says. “The feedback that we get—good and bad—we try to take it all with a grain of salt and incorporate it into how to better meet the goal going forward.”